If you’re looking to travel overland from China to SE Asia (or vice versa) you have four main route options: Guangxi province to Vietnam, Yunnan province to Vietnam, Yunnan to Laos (and Thailand), and Yunnan to Myanmar.
There also used to be a boat down the Mekong direct from Jinghong in Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna region to Thailand, 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 2017, 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.
This page mostly deals with the Yunnan routes; the outline for Guangxi is that you can take a train or bus between the Guangxi provincial capital Nanning and the Vietnamese capital Hanoi, crossing the border at Dong Dang, or you can cross by bus further south at Mong Cai for Halong Bay. The Nanning – Hanoi trains are direct sleepers (no change required at the border) running daily, with two services per week actually running direct all the way Hanoi – Beijing (see Seat61 for details).
China to Myanmar Overland
Looking at the three routes from Kunming, be aware that it’s only possible to enter Myanmar overland if you also leave again the same way and pay for expensive permits (which also require you to pay for private guides & vehicles). Of course this also means you’ll need to have at least a double-entry Chinese visa too. So, it can be done but it’s expensive, and it’s no good for onward travel to the rest of SE Asia; it’s therefore probably only worth it if, say, you live in Kunming and fancy a trip to Myanmar and back. See my Myanmar page for more details.
That aside, essentially you have the two routes available from Kunming – head to Hanoi by road or rail, or head to Laos by road via Xishuangbanna.
Kunming to Vietnam Overland
The first option, Kunming – Hanoi, involves a 6-hour train ride (or bus) to the border town Hekou, with a taxi from the station to the border crossing; once across to the Vietnamese border town Lao Cai, you can take a 1-hour minivan up to the former French hill station of Sapa, or continue on to Hanoi (another 7 to 11 hours by road or rail).
An interesting alternative route you could take here is to head to Laos through Vietnam i.e. cross at Hekou/Lao Cai and head up to Sapa, then after your visit there head to Dien Bien Phu and cross into northern Laos at Pang Hoc, from where you can eventually continue on to Luang Nam Tha. I actually considered this route when I was last in Kunming, but I’m not the biggest fan of Vietnam after all the crazy shit I experienced there and in the end I simply couldn’t be bothered with it – so I just took the most direct route possible, from Xishuangbanna to Chiang Rai in one day via northern Laos (see below).
Kunming to Laos Overland
Xishuangbanna is an interesting area in its own right, which is an attractive point about this option; an 8 to 10 hour bus ride (it really can vary that much) from Kunming gets you to Jinghong (Xishuangbanna’s main town), and after a couple days chilling there you can head on to Laos by bus.
The bus ride from Kunming to Jinghong takes you through some cracking terrain; most of Yunnan is at significant altitude, but Xishuangbanna is a low(er)-lying jungle area and the overall elevation drop is some 1,400m, most of which is in the middle section of the journey. It’s a really good, relatively new highway which soars along viaducts above the lush carpets of the rice terraces below, plunging through tunnels in the mountainsides and re-emerging onto dramatic bridges over the valleys, everything green and verdant with stands of bamboo exploding out of the hillsides like frozen bursts of forest shrapnel. It’s definitely a cool bus ride, and I even enjoyed it the second time round (which is often not the case); one thing though – if, like me, you hate the sleeper buses in China, get to the bus station nice and early to make sure you have the option of a seater (there are multiple departures through the day, some sleepers, some seaters, but it seems to be only sleepers from lunchtime onwards).
Despite being in China, Jinghong in many ways feels like the biggest Laotian city; it’s certainly a fascinating mish-mash of SE Asian and Chinese cultures, with a whole multitude of ethnic groups present and all the signs in both Lao and Chinese; it’s a far more bustling place than the sleepy Lao capital Vientianne, and worth chilling in for a day or two.
From Jinghong you can take the bus to Luang Nam Tha in northern Laos (a lovely area to explore, also well worth a few days of your trip), a journey of around 8 hours via Mengla. You might be able to change money when you make a rest stop in Mengla – first time I did this route, a fruit vendor just outside the Mengla bus station offered good rates (and delicious fruit), but the second time we stopped somewhere different and there wasn’t anywhere to change money so I changed some at the border.
Be very careful if changing money with one of the many black market money changers hanging out at the border post – make sure you know in advance the correct rate for the day, which you won’t get but make sure it’s not too far off, and watch very closely for some sleight of hand. She tried every trick in the book on me, pretending not to have any 50,000s and trying to give me a huge stack of 10,000s with a bunch of similar-coloured 1,000s hidden in it, then trying to pass some 20,000s off as 50,000s, miscounting the number of bills, and pretending not to have small bills for the last little bit. I insisted on 50,000s, counted it all back out and checked the notes before accepting it, rejected the smaller bills she’d slipped in with the larger bills, and eventually had the correct amount we’d agreed upon. That was already at a rate which was a bit more beneficial to her than the official rate, so although it made her a bit stroppy I didn’t feel remotely bad about blocking her scam attempts. Actually it was kinda fun and I was having a laugh with her by the end of the transaction but anyway change money in Mengla if possible, or just wait until you reach Luang Nam Tha… I only changed at the border that second time as I was going all the way through to Thailand that same day and thought I might need some Laotian kip for food and for the evening bus to Thailand (turned out I didn’t – read on).
Also, if you need a visa-on-arrival remember you need cash to pay for it; the price varies according to both your country and the currency you pay in, and you get a better price paying in Chinese yuan or US dollars than you do in Laotian kip (another reason to avoid changing money at the border).
From Luang Nam Tha you can then either travel further south through Laos to Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, and beyond, or cross over to Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.
China to Thailand Overland in One Day (via Xishuangbanna – Huay Xai bus and 4th Thai – Lao Friendship Bridge)
I don’t recommend skipping Laos – it’s a great place – but if you’ve been before and are in a rush to get to Thailand, since the opening of the 4th Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge in 2013 it’s become possible to make it the whole way from Jinghong to Chiang Rai (or even Chiang Mai) in a single day’s travel. Prior to the bridge opening, the necessity of crossing the Mekong by boat meant spending at least one night in Chiang Khong, Huay Xai, or Luang Nam Tha (I once spent the night at the border town of Chiang Khong, having arrived too late for the boat – even ending up in a face off with a couple of sketchy street dogs)
To do this, you need to catch the 5am bus from Jinghong to Huay Xai, the town on the Laos side of the Mekong (if you don’t get this first bus of the day, Luang Nam Tha is as far as you’ll get). The bus drives from Jinghong to Mengla where you’ll have a rest stop, then crosses the border at Boten. Don’t worry about changing money in Mengla, and definitely not with the scammers at the border – you can use Chinese yuan or US dollars to pay for your Laos visa and lunch near the border, and when you reach Huay Xai in the evening the bus station has official moneychangers where you can change your remaining Chinese yuan for Thai baht, and you can buy your onward bus ticket using baht.
On the Laos side of the border you stop at a restaurant for lunch, then drive the whole way across this beautiful northern corner of Laos to reach Huay Xai around 5pm, the bus dropping you directly at the new international bus station (an impressive setup, part of the bridge development) in time for the last bus to Thailand.
The staff there are very much on the ball – as soon as we got off the bus they were checking whether we wanted to go to Chiang Khong, Chiang Rai, or Chiang Mai, whether we needed to change money, and getting us through immigration as efficiently as possible to the waiting bus. Remember to have some small denomination bills (US 1$ bills are best) ready for your Laos departure tax; if you want to go all the way to Chiang Mai, they’ll switch you to a minivan on the Thai side – this would make for an insanely long day though!
I haven’t done the journey in the opposite direction, but as of March 2017 (see Houei Sai – JingHong in final image here, and check locally for the latest information) a bus for Jinghong leaves the Houay Xai international station at 10am; this is too early for direct connections from Chiang Rai, so being in Houay Xai (at the right station) in time to catch this after waking up in Chiang Rai would require taking the first bus at 5am to Chiang Khong (having them drop you at the turnoff for the bridge), then local transportation through immigration and over the bridge. You might 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 instead. Or in Luang Nam Tha! (I’d love to hear from anyone who’s done this route from Chiang Rai to Jinghong in one day)
Any updates you can share for future overlanders? Got any questions? Leave me a comment below!