Thailand is one of the most visited countries in the world, and is an absolute staple of the SE Asia backpacker ‘Banana Pancake Trail’. Its beautiful islands, buzzing capital, stunning cuisine, low prices, and geographic location between Cambodia, Laos and Malaysia combine to make it the focal point of many an overland itinerary. I’ve travelled around SE Asia four times, and Thailand is the only country (and Bangkok the only city) I’ve visited on all four trips.
Travelling to and from Thailand overland
Thailand shares borders with Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Malaysia:
Cambodia – Thailand overland
Most will cross at the Aranyaprathet / Poipet border, which lies on the main route between Bangkok and Siem Reap. This border is notorious for being a wretched hive of scum and villainy, and you must be cautious; if you don’t get scammed by a Khao San travel agent, you’ll get scammed in Aranyaprathet (anyone who latches on to you to ‘help’ you is talking shit; don’t go with them, and don’t listen to their bullshit about visa offices); and even if they don’t get you, the Cambodian visa officials will still overcharge you. After that, if you don’t have onward transportation pre-booked, you’re going to be dealing with the Poipet – Siem Reap transport mafia i.e. ripoff cartel; and if you do have onward transport arranged, they will likely try to pull an accommodation scam on you (taking some stupid back routes or ‘breaking down’ for a while, so you arrive late in Siem Reap in the dark with no idea where you are – conveniently right outside their friend’s hotel). If you make it overland from Bangkok to Siem Reap without any of the above, you’ve done very, very well!
The border itself is a sorry place, a proper shithole, with the heartbreaking sight of filthy kids sent out to beg by the utter scum they ‘belong’ to. Unfortunately if you’re doing a visa run from Bangkok, Poipet is the only option close enough for a same-day round trip – I’ll probably write a post about this visa run in due course.
There are other crossing points, mostly quite remote, but another fairly common crossing for backpackers is from Trat (near Koh Chang) along the coastal road; I haven’t done this one but it sounds much better than Poipet!
Laos – Thailand overland
Thailand and Laos share a long border, much of it formed by the Mekong river across which they face each other; there are seven border crossings open, three of which are likely to be useful for your SE Asia overland route:
Chiang Khong – Houay Xai in the far north, on the road between Chiang Rai and Luang Nam Tha. The first time I did this was back in the days of having to take a canoe across the Mekong; we stayed overnight in Chiang Kong the night before crossing, and I had a face off with some sketchy dogs while looking for an internet cafe to check the football scores. With the opening in 2013 of the new 4th Friendship Bridge, however, this journey has completely changed and buses now run directly between Chiang Mai / Chiang Rai and Houay Xai’s international bus station (from where there are connections to the rest of Laos). This is a massive time-saver, even enabling same-day travel all the way between China and Thailand overland through northern Laos (see ‘China – Thailand overland’ section below).
Nong Khai – Vientiane over the 1st Friendship Bridge, for the Lao capital. The bridge has both road and rail, though the rail is only used for short shuttle trains from Nong Khai to Vientiane i.e. if you take the train from / to Bangkok, you change trains in Nong Khai. It’s probably just as easy to cross between Vientiane and Nong Khai station by road, as the Vientiane station is a long way out of town anyway. Nong Khai is actually also quite a nice place to hang out for a day or two in its own right; it’s home to an amazing sculpture park, and cold sunset beers on the Mekong river bank while looking over at Laos on the far side make for pleasant memories.
The southernmost crossing, between Ubon Ratchathani (Thailand) and Pakse (Laos), is useful for those visiting Laos’ Si Phan Don (4,000 Islands).
In addition to these three, the 2nd Friendship Bridge (for Savannakhet) is the best crossing if you’re just planning to pass through Laos to reach central Vietnam.
Malaysia – Thailand overland
The main border between Malaysia and Thailand is at Padang Besar (on the highway between Penang and Hat Yai), towards the western end of their shared border. Any bus you take from KL, Penang, Butterworth etc to Thailand will cross here, and the crossing itself is pretty smooth in my experience having done it twice (although the minivan ride was lousy overall on one of those occasions). If travelling by train, this is also the crossing point – due to changes made in 2016 (upgrades to the railway in Malaysia), there are now no through trains from Malaysia to Thailand i.e. you change trains at the border. Rather than explaining this in detail here using the information on the awesome Seat61, it’s better just to give you the link! Seat61 has it all worked out and clearly explained, as usual, timetables and all.
There is also a crossing on the other side of the peninsula near the east coast, just north of the Malaysian city of Kota Bharu; this is not recommended. It’s a (usually low-level, but with serious flare-ups possible at any time) conflict zone, and I once accidentally spent a night stuck at the border there after a very nerve-wracking bus ride of army checkpoints and jumpy-looking soldiers pointing their guns in at us, after getting screwed at the bus station in Hat Yai where I thought I’d bought a ticket right through to Malaysia. Thankfully a policeman at the border put me up for the night, served me a plate of boiled eggs and rice which went down better than any gourmet meal, and even took a break from his (evidently quite prolific) porn-surfing to let me send an email to the friends I was trying to catch up with that night (who it turned out had gone through Pedang Basar and were already in Penang – we managed to meet the following day at the pier for the Perhentians).
Anyway, the moral of that story is that if you want to go from Hat Yai to the Perhentian Islands, even though the Kota Bharu border looks sensible on the map it’s a better and safer journey to go to Penang first and head to the islands after that (perhaps via the Cameron Highlands). If you do really want to go for that eastern border crossing, leave Hat Yai by lunchtime to be sure you make it across before it closes for the night, and make sure you check the current situation is considered safe (ask the police, not the bus companies).
It’s also possibe to cross by ferry between the Thai island of Ko Lipe and the Malaysian island of Langkawi. Langkawi has ferries to Penang and mainland Malaysia, and Ko Lipe has ferries to other islands such as Ko Lanta and Phuket.
Myanmar – Thailand overland
Until just a few years ago overland travel to Myanmar was very restricted; you could cross over visa free from Thailand to Kawthoung at the far southern end of their shared border or to Tachileik at the far northern end of their shared border, but you could only stay for a day or two and then go back; with an advance visa you could visit the main draws like Yangon, Mandalay, and Bagan, but you had to arrive by international flight (or a domestic flight from Tachileik or Kawthoung after crossing in by land). In other words, until a few years ago cross-border overland routes through Myanmar didn’t really exist.
That’s all changing now though, and there are four full international border crossings between Thailand and Myanmar; as long as you have a Myanmar visa, you can travel there from Thailand overland. The main crossings from Thailand are at Mae Sot and Mae Hong Son; Kawthoung remains a crossing point, but now without the old restrictions on onwards overland travel, and Tachileik also remains a crossing point but with the onwards travel restriction still in place i.e. you can only fly from Tachileik to the rest of the country.
Unfortunately, due to present rules for the permits required for the Myanmar – India and Myanmar – China borders, you can only leave Myanmar by those borders if you arrived that way, and the Bangladesh border is a conflict zone and can’t be crossed (see my Myanmar page for more details). In other words, if entering Myanmar from Thailand overland, you can only either leave by air or go back to Thailand overland again (though you can use a different border crossing than you arrived through); until these permit rules change again, Myanmar is once more a roadblock on the overland route from India to SE Asia. Hopefully this won’t continue for too long, and I’ll update this page as and when things change.
China – Thailand overland
Although there’s no direct border, you can cross between China’s Xishuangbanna region and northern Thailand in one day. This used to be done by boat down the Mekong, passing between Myanmar and Laos but entering neither (with no visa required for either), arriving in Thailand near the Golden Triangle. However, this hasn’t been possible since an outbreak of drug-related violence on the Mekong in 2011; the boat was suspended in the aftermath and on both of my visits to Jinghong (in 2012 and 2015), I investigated whether the boat was operating again, in the hope of perhaps taking it, and it wasn’t. As of 2016, this boat still doesn’t appear to have resumed operations, and with the new Fourth Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge having opened it seems unlikely that it will.
The flip side of that is that the new bridge makes it possible to travel between Jinghong and Chiang Rai (or Chiang Mai) in a single day, by passing through Laos’ Luang Nam Tha region. Of course, I’d highly recommend actually staying in and exploring Laos (Luang Nam Tha is a gorgeous area), but if you just want to get between China and Thailand overland ASAP (as I did last time) then it can be done. I tried this in late 2015, from China to Thailand; this involved taking the 5am bus from Jinghong to Houay Xai (the town on the Lao side of the Thai border). Any later bus won’t work, as they only go as far as Luang Nam Tha town; I wasn’t even sure if the early bus would work out, so was prepared to spend a night in Houay Xai, but it turned out the bus from Jinghong does reach Houay Xai’s shiny new international bus station in time for the last bus of the day from there to Chiang Rai. The guys at the station were also offering transport to Chiang Mai (crossing the bridge on the big Chiang Rai bus and then switching to a minivan on the other side), but it was a long enough day just getting to Chiang Rai! (it was around 14 hours all in from Jinghong to Chiang Rai, with a rest stop in China, lunch stop in Laos, and the two border crossings to deal with)
I haven’t done the journey in the opposite direction, but according to Wikitravel (obviously don’t take that as gospel, and check local sources) a bus leaves the Houay Xai international station for Jinghong at 9am; being in Houay Xai (at the right station) to catch this after waking up in Chiang Rai would require the earliest possible start and being totally on-point with your transportation, and I suspect even then may not be possible, so you’d probably want to spend the night in Chiang Khong (the town on the Thai side of the border – a pleasant enough place to spend a night except for the sketchy dogs) or in Houay Xai itself.
Overland travel within Thailand
Thailand’s roads are mostly pretty good (though the driving less so), and the railway connects most major cities to the capital. Road transportation ranges from big, comfortable government buses to shared minivans which can be anything from decent to awful; generally, the big buses running between major bus stations are the best bet (and safer). Be aware that when you buy tickets from private travel agents in tourist areas the only guarantee is that they will get you from A to B – you might think you’re getting a nice big coach but then spend the day sweating and irritated in packed out minivans, and there may be an awful lot of messing around, pulling up at random offices to switch vans, waiting around for additional passengers from elsewhere to be dropped off to board your bus, etc. To avoid the cattle treatment, head to the main bus station yourself if you can (obviously not so practical if you’re island hopping).
The trains are a much nicer way to go, and if the schedule suits you I strongly recommend the train if available for your intended route. Buying the tickets yourself at the station is easy, and doing so a couple of days in advance you’ll be fine for a seat (except during major holidays).
For the islands, Phuket can actually be reached directly by road (over a bridge), and ferries go to all the other islands. For the northeastern coast, the ports are Rayong for Ko Samet and Trat for Ko Chang; for the southeastern islands of Ko Tao, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Samui, ferries run back and forth from Chumphon to Surat Thani. You can buy combo bus and ferry tickets from Bangkok with Lomprayah (quite a long but fairly comfortable journey). On the southwestern coast, a whole network of ferries connect Phuket, Ko Phi Phi, Ko Lanta, Ko Lipe, and the Krabi coastline.
Some Thailand Highlights
Thai food is amazing, my stomach is never happier than when I’m in Thailand – and despite being so delicious, it’s easy on your wallet too. Cooking classes are popular, especially in Chiang Mai.
Explore bustling Bangkok – while it has a reputation for seediness, the ping pong shows and go-go bars are actually all clustered together in a few red list districts which are avoided easily enough; the rest of the city, i.e. the vast majority of it, is a fascinating combination of old and new, gleaming skyscrapers and rough-around-the-edges alleyways, clean & efficient public transportation and mental road traffic, pleasant boat journeys down the river and bonkers speedboat rides along the putrid canals, chilled out beers by the water and full-on all-night partying, sleepy suburban areas and the absolute circus that is Khao San Road… and as you wander, all that amazing food is just waiting for you on street corners everywhere. What a city!
Check out the seedy stuff – having said it’s easily avoided, by the same token it’s very easy to find, and a stroll around Patpong or Soi Cowboy can be pretty damn interesting.
Go island hopping and learn to dive on Ko Tao or kitesurf on Ko Pha Ngan.
Party. All night, if you wish.
Visit the Grand Palace and the awesome temples of Wat Pho (site of a huge reclining Buddha) and Wat Arun
Take a day trip up to the ruins of Ayutthaya, one of the ancient Siamese capitals.
Resources and Useful Links for Visiting Thailand
World Nomads offer flexible travel insurance that you can buy even if you’re already overseas (this is a key point, as I once learned the hard way when I got pickpocketed in Bangkok). Also check out their scuba cover if you’re planning on some diving.
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