This was definitely one of my most exciting trips. Just the idea of reaching China for the first time not by plane but after a weeks journey overland sounded thrilling to me. So obviously that was exactly what I headed out to do.
Starting in Bangkok always seems like a good idea. You can cheaply stock up on all kinds of fake or genuine backpacking essentials. Also it might be your last time for a while to slurp that fancy cocktail in a hangover style rooftop bar. Since we don’t just want to fly to China, we need to find a bus. Head to the Mo-Chit bus station near Chatuchak Market and board a bus to the city of Udon Thani. The journey will take about 10-12 hours and cost around 15 Euros.
Alternatively you could take a train from Bangkok Central Station. The most expensive ticket online runs at 40 Euros for a 1st class air conditioned sleeper train. If you buy the cheapest ticket at the station it will be just 10 Euros in 3rd class. The last option takes 11 hours compared to 9 hours for the fast train.
Through the Isaan to Laos
The bus, or train, will take you right through the magnificent Isaan region. It is the poorest part of Thailand, even though it supplies the whole country with rice. There is even enough left over to export making Thailand the Number 2 rice exporter. I call the Isaan one of my many homes and the heart of Thailand after I was blessed enough to spend a whole year there. But that is for another article.
Once in Udon Thani you will find yourself in a relatively big city, but still small compared to Bangkok. There is not that much to do so I headed straight across the mighty Mekong River to Laos. What you have to do is take a train from Udon Thani to Nong Khai, it takes 30 minutes and costs 50 cents. Then stamp yourself out at the Thai border control and walk across the bridge to Laos. Apply for your visa on arrival and pay between 25 USD and 42 USD, depending on your nationality. Get a stamp and you are in Laos. All that is left to do is find a minivan or the green bus to take you to central Vientiane, the capital of Laos.
The capital of one of the poorest countries in the world has surprisingly alot to offer. You will quickly see the French heritage and the communist present. Surrounded by the big brothers China and Vietnam the country had little choice but to accept communism. But in contrast to those two big influencers Laos still hasn’t caught up to modern day capitalism. The whole country and even Vientiane still feel like a spa world after coming from Bangkok. There are however a good number of interesting things to do while there. I had a strong inner force pushing me further and further to China but I did manage to check out some cool things.
You can meditate with monks for example at Wat Sok Pa Luang. You can easily take a big bus there from the city center or a cheap tuktuk. Once there it is a give and take. At 3pm the monks invite foreigners to converse in English with them to improve their language skills. Afterwards they happily teach you about meditation and show you how it’s done. The temple is not the most beautiful one but the experience definitely makes up for it.
Another must visit place is the COPE visitor center. During the Vietnam war the Americans dropped millions of bombs on Laos, trying to fight the guerilla support that came to help the Viet Cong. To this day vast areas of the country are still full of undetonated bombs that lie close under the surface. The COPE charity helps the victims that still nowadays get injured and loose limbs to late detonating bombs.
Vientiane has also a nice selection of French style houses hosting cafes, bars and charming hotels. I spent a few days here until I couldn’t resist travelling on anymore.
This is the non plus ultra backpacker place in Laos. It was right on my way to China so naturally I decided to drop by. At the Northern Bus Station in Vientiane find yourself a minivan that will do the drive in 4 hours. Be aware that the road is not up to European standards and at times very curvy, but that is exactly what you came for I assume. Costs for that trip run at around 5 Euros and for a few extra coins the driver will drop you at your hotel. I hadn’t booked anything so I got off in the center, shouldered my backpack and started walking. The city is not that big and is divided by a nice river., the Nam Song. Most of the city lies on the eastern side of it. For some reason I found a bridge, walked across and found myself a very decent, peaceful and cheap guesthouse. I had my own room with views over the rice fields with mountains in the back. Pretty perfect I thought.
Vang Vieng’s main attraction is the Nam Song. You can’t come to this city and not go tubing. Head to the eastern side of the river and walk right to the river front. Many places will offer you an old big truck tire in which you then sit down. Wear swim clothes as your butt will hang in the cooling water, while the air warms you enough to enjoy it. Many fellow backpackers will float down the river with you and friendly locals in their own little tubes or boats will paddle up along you to sell you beer. The whole experience is simply floating down the river, enjoying the nature and having some drinks. It can get crowded during peak season but even then will you be amazed by the nature. Green rice fields, friendly looking hills and birds in the air, that’s Vang Vieng from a tire.
After some days of tubing, chilling, and Beer Lao I continued. Another bus brought me in 4 hours to Luang Prabang. A city of much history, Luang Prabang was the capital of Laos until 1975 and for centuries the countries religious center.
Wat Xieng Thong is a temple dating back to the 16th century and worth a visit. You should especially check out the tree of Life on the wall. I could look at the for ages. The Royal Palace is another highlight. The temple Wat Ho Pha Bang hosts the country’s most worthy relict. The Pha Bang that gave the city its name. It is a golden Buddha image that was supposedly made in Sri Lanka in the 1st century AD. It manifested the official arrival of Buddhism in Laos when it arrived in 1512.
For a more down to earth experience head to Le Banneton, a French style cafe with delicious freshly baked breads and sweets. Like everywhere in the country the colonial past is still visible today. But before you take it easy and retire for the day, you should check out the Green Jungle Park around 30km south of the city. It’s the ideal destination for outdoor lovers. Crafty locals have set up walkways in the tree canopy high above the ground and you can literally explore the jungle like a monkey. And if you feel real adventurous try the zipline. The Park is easily reachable by tuktuk. Bring swim clothes as there is also a nice waterfall. The whole experience won’t cost you more than 20 Euros.
China was calling and instead of taking a direct bus I took a minivan first to the town of Luang Namtha. It’s a very cozy place with a little market in the center for tribes people from the surrounding hills come to sell. I had planned to cross into China on my birthday but that wasn’t possible as I arrived too late to take the next bus. So instead I rented a motorcycle and drove around the area. I even made it all the way up to the Chinese border just because I was so curious. On the way back, screaming the song ‘It’s my life’ and having an amazing birthday I visited some tribes villages and waterfalls.
Back in Luang Namtha at the market a local woman gave me a special black stone as a gift. She had no idea it was my birthday but I must have admired that stone quite alot when she simply handed it to me. She wouldn’t accept any money for it anymore. I definitely recommend you to take that extra day in the last town before China and explore abit. I am glad I did and in the end it doesn’t matter which day you arrive in China.
But the next day it had to be done. I found a bus that would bring me to straight to Jinghong in China. Including the border formalities at Boten it took me around 6 hours and cost less than 10 Euros. Make sure to arrange your Chinese visa beforehand as they don’t offer visas on arrival.
The bus stops along the way after entering China in Mengla for a 30 minutes lunch and I had my first Chinese noodles there. Being the only foreigner around, I hadn’t seen others for days already since leaving Luang Prabang, it was a very memorable feeling. I did stay one night in Jinghong and visited the amazing Tropical Botanical Garden. It was really worth it. I also went for a blind massage which cost only 10 Euros. A real difference to a massage from a seeing person I couldn’t notice however. In China I never booked Hotels in advance. There is an abundance of them and simply walking around town asking prices at the receptions was working out well enough for me.
My journey from Bangkok to Kungming was coming to an end. From Jinghong bus station several buses a day leave for Kunming. I didn’t take trains in China until later in my journey so that time it was still the bus. The trip is around 10 hours and cost approx. 17 Euros. I arrived pretty late in the evening. It was no problem though. At the bus station several guys approached me offering anything from cheap bunk beds to fancy hotel rooms. I took something in the middle to rest for a few days and didn’t regret paying 20 Euros per night for a very decent room right in the center. That night the bed was too inviting to do anything anymore.
Kunming is the capital of Yunnan province and got quite a lot to offer. What I usually like to do first is walk around until I almost can’t find my hotel anymore. I sampled all kinds of food along the way, I watched grown man playing with a kind of twister that they shoot at the other guy’s twister and I found serene little parks. In there the older citizens mostly were playing Mahjong or practicing some kind of Tai Chi. There were groups of musicians playing and vendors selling interesting things. Many flee markets around the city will let you find the perfect souvenir.
The Kunming Dragon Gate was my favorite attraction in the city. For 90 Yuan all together ( around 9 Euros) you can take first a bus, then a cable car to the top of a mountain and follow the ancient pilgrims path to reach the Gate. You will have a great view along the way. The Yuantong temple and the Golden temple are other sights worth your visit. Each is easily reachable from the city center either with a cheap taxi ride or some busing and walking. The background of the city are the Yunnan mountains making it a very beautiful scenery all around.
The whole trip was as exciting and beautiful as I had imagined but actually undertaking this adventure still topped all hopes I had had.