Half the fun of travelling is experience local transport, right!? Maybe not always, but sometimes it can add to the trip what flying takes away in time!
Travelling can be tiring and annoying, however exciting your destination may be! We travelled from Beijing to Bangkok over a period of around a month, and only used one plane. That only happened because the train we wanted was too overbooked!
Flying’s usually the quickest way to get from A to B but not necessarily the cheapest, especially in Asia. It’s also not always the most exciting! Here’s how we used trains and buses to make our way across 4000 miles!
Beijing to Xi’an
This was our first ever sleeper train and we loved it! It is a typical Chinese sleeper, with four bunks in each cabin. There’s a plug socket and a light next to each bed. You can choose the hard sleepers or hard/soft seats too. As we were travelling for a 12 hour journey overnight we settled on the soft sleepers.
We were up at 7.30am ready to leave the train, after a decent’s night sleep. However, for reasons still unbeknown, the train was travelling for three hours longer than planned. There wasn’t an explanation for it and our Chinese was not up to scratch so we couldn’t ask. We just had to sit and wait until the train stopped! Luckily we didn’t have another one to catch or this could have ruined our plans.
Xi’an to Guilin
Here’s where we went a little bit wrong! We were meant to get the train and were bracing ourselves for a 26 hour journey. It turned out that travelling during the Chinese New Year is not the best idea as trains get booked up very quickly. The tour operator contacted us and offered to find us a flight instead. We originally booked the train in early December and our trip wasn’t until February! If you’re planning on travelling this route, be prepared to find a different mode of transport!
Guilin to Hanoi
There isn’t actually a direct train travelling across the border from Guilin to Hanoi, so we had to split it up into two journeys. The first was a two and a half hour trip on a VERY high speed bullet train from Guilin to Nanning. It was one of the best trains we’ve ever been on! We were served a hot meal, and it even had plug sockets so we passed the time by watching a film. It actually felt like we were on a plane, with the staff looking like air stewards!
From Nanning to Hanoi was another sleeper – this time a bit more rickety we must admit! Unlike when we arrived in Xi’an, we needed to catch another train shortly after so luckily this one was on time. We had plenty of time to get between stations at Nanning (Nanning and Nanning East!). Again, we enjoyed our noodles using the hot water taps provided!
We arrived at around 5am and we were able to get a taxi. However, we had to haggle HARD for the price. They know that you need them at that time of the morning (coming out of the station, it’s very dark and dingy!). Our driver tried to rip us off and even threatened to call the police when we refused to pay! It was an extortionate amount for travelling for 10 minutes so we didn’t budge.
Eventually he backed down as he realized we knew the correct price of about 50,000VND/£2 to our hotel. For reference, we stayed in the Golden Spring Hotel which is basically in the Old Quarter.
You do have to get off the train at the Chinese/Vietnamese crossing. This happened at about 11pm for us, about 4 hours into the journey. You have to get your visa, unless you’re from certain countries like the UK where you don’t need one!
You’ll have to give them your passport for about half an hour whilst they check everything. They’ll call your name to give it back and you can settle down on the train.
- Guliin to Nanning: 276RMB/£33
- Nanning to Hanoi: 840RMB/£101
Hanoi to Nha Trang
This was our first super long sleeper train and we weren’t really looking forward to it! Unfortunately, we spent another extra hour and a half travelling on it – 29 and a half in total! We only had to share our carriage for around half of that though. We chatted to a Vietnamese guy travelling for New Year who told us interesting stories about his country.
The views to Nha Trang were also the nicest we had in our whole trip. It’s a coastal town so we spent many hours looking out to the rice paddies eventually turn into open sea.
Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh (Saigon)
The last long train of our journey took around 8 and a half hours. It was perfectly timed overnight so we saved on a hotel and didn’t lose any time. We were even given a snack and a bottle of water when we arrived which was nice as we had been waiting in the station for a while and the little shop there was overpriced so we held out! This was the most rickety of the trains we used – when turning slightly it often felt like we would just overturn! However, I haven’t heard of that happening and we got through the night without a hitch. There are plenty of taxis waiting outside the train station so make sure you have the hotel address ready.
Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) to Phnom Penh
We took a bus to cross over the border from Vietnam to Cambodia. We used Giant Ibis which is not to be confused with the hotel chain – the Giant Ibis is the national bird of Cambodia so that’s where they get their name. The bus pick up point was smaller than we imagined – literally a little shop on the streets of Saigon so make sure you keep your eyes peeled if there aren’t any buses waiting outside.
The bus was a large coach, with WiFi but no plug sockets as promised, so that sucked. We had planned a lot of computer time into our journey but as my laptop only lasts for two hours on a full charge, this idea went out the window! It took 6 and a half hours, including a lunch stop at the border, as well as the time it took for everyone to get stamped in.
Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville
Another journey, another bus! This time the journey was only around 4 and a half hours, and it left on time too. We didn’t encounter any problems travelling on this bus and there were tuk-tuks waiting outside the drop-off point to take you to your hotel for a fair price.
Okay, this one isn’t technically travelling overland but we thought we’d include it anyway! We hadn’t booked a boat to the island because we basically forgot to, but it worked out perfectly because our hotel offered to do it for us. They organized a tuk-tuk to pick us up in the morning and then for us to get a return journey on the boat. What we didn’t realise was that the boat they put us on was actually a day trip boat – not the one specifically from the island resort we were staying at.
This meant it took longer to get there and back, but it was because we stopped off to snorkel and cliff-dive for a while! It was great fun and I’d recommend it! Another tip – we stayed at Coral Beach and a group just asked if they could jump onto the boat that went to the mainland every other day to collect supplies. As the boat was doing a trip, they let them on for free so if you’re feeling brave about potentially being stuck on a beautiful island, then don’t book your return journey and see what happens!
Sihanoukville to Siem Reap via Phnom Penh
As Sihanoukville is all the way down the bottom of Cambodia along the coast, you have to make your way back up to the capital to get anywhere else really. However, it was easy because we just booked a ticket from Sihanoukville to Siem Reap (it’s a popular route) and Giant Ibis has just split the journey up, organizing their buses to arrive and depart in time for you to make the connection.
There was about 15 minutes between the time we arrived and the time the next bus left, but it was enough to use the bathroom and buy a quick snack before setting off. Also, most people were doing the same journey so people were happy to wait.
This time, however, there wasn’t even any WiFi on either bus which made it pretty boring – don’t get us wrong, the Cambodian countryside is beautiful but a distraction would have been nice whilst being on a bus for 11 and a half hours! The second bus was also more of a minibus, which meant our luggage was tied up at the front – very precariously might I add – and there was even less space to fit our long legs.
We stopped around half way through on the second bus to buy some lunch and use the bathroom – we had snacks so we didn’t buy anything but you could buy a full rice meal, fruit, drinks and evens souvenirs here.
- Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh: $11/£9
- Phnom Penh to Siem Reap: $15/£12
Siem Reap to Bangkok
If you’re reading this part, then the chances are that you’ll have read the horror stories we did when planning this leg of the trip. However, we couldn’t believe how easy it was! Again, it’s a popular journey so your hotel/hostel is more than happy to help you with it. We stayed at Boutique Dormitory Kochi-Ke and the day we arrived, we asked them about the bus across to Thailand. There were two options to leave at either 8 or 9am. We decided to leave early, and our hostel booked us a tuk tuk to take us to the pick-up point.
On the bus we got, and drove all the way to the border with absolutely no scammers and no trouble. Once there, we had to take our luggage off the bus to be scanned and then we had to be stamped out of Cambodia. We then walked past the scanners but they weren’t working….so crossed into Thailand and waited to be stamped in. We did wait a fair while but the bus gave us plenty of time.
There was a group of us with a member of staff from the bus company waiting with us, and once we got back on the bus with everyone, we set off and drove into Bangkok! It couldn’t have been easier, and it was cheap too.
There you have it! Our journeys were all simple and straightforward, and we weren’t approached once by scammers offering quick-access to by-pass the queues, or trying to take our money. The trains and buses we took were all clean and there was enough space (just) for us so if you’re shorter than 6 feet 2, you’ll be fine! Taller than that…well, good luck!
Here’s a full list of the websites and travel companies we used for our journeys:
Did we answer all of your questions about overland travel in China and Southeast Asia? Have you travelled on these trains and buses before? Let us know in the comments below!
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