What you need to know
What Southeast Asia lacks in road infrastructure it must make up in flights and patience.
On May 28, newly-elected Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad announced that he would cancel a high-speed rail project between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, a multi-billion-dollar infrastructure project that would have cut the train journey between the two cities to 90 minutes, down from the current five-hour drive or six-hour train ride.
International transportation within ASEAN is still a hassle, and airlines have come to dominate travel for those who can afford it. The skies in Southeast Asia are crowded beyond their capacity -- pilot's requests to delay landing due to unsafe weather are often denied because of air congestion.
The network in most need of revitalization might well be the highways. Projects like the Asian Highway Network, a project launched in 1959 by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific to improve the region's roads, have failed to deliver on their promise -- the 20,000 km-long Asian Highway One narrows to a dusty two-lane road through parts of Myanmar.
This makes locations throughout the region feel more distant than they really are. It takes less time to drive from Amsterdam to Madrid than it would take to drive from Myanmar's largest city of Yangon to Rakhine State's capital of Sittwe.
Thailand and Peninsular Malaysia have well-developed road systems holding the country together, but road trips in much of the region require meditative patience.
Using Google's [often hopelessly optimistic] directions feature, the following map shows Southeast Asia re-scaled for driving time. Each unit on the grid represents about one hour of driving time. The UK has been added for scale.
- Myanmar's core is relatively compact, but the outer regions are painfully slow.
- Peninsular Malaysia is well-developed, but traveling across the Bornean provinces Sarawak and Sabah could take over a day.
- Google's directions do not work in Laos.
- Several Indonesian islands do not have significant inter-city roads.
- The Philippines' largest islands of Luzon and Mindanao are well-covered, but the central islands are not.