If you’re looking to travel overland from China to SE Asia (or vice versa) you have three main route options: Guangxi province to Vietnam, Yunnan province to Vietnam, and Yunnan to Laos (and Thailand); a fourth potential route is Yunnan to Myanmar, but that’s not open at present due to conflict on the Myanmar side of the border.
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 hasn’t run since, and with the Fourth Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge having since opened it seems unlikely that it ever 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. Update: the Myanmar border is closed due to escalating violence in Kachin & Shan states (see this April 2018 report)
So that aside, essentially you have the two routes available from Kunming – either head to Vietnam 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.
Unfortunately, last time I did it my camera was on its last legs; bus window photography is bad at the best of times, but my photos are barely usable from that journey (and from the first time I did it, I only have the pic at the top). Anyway they don’t do it justice but here’s a couple of passable snaps:
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. For up-to-date local information (and good coffee, beer, books, wifi, and food), the neighbouring Mei Mei Cafe and Mekong Cafe are the places to go; also just next to them is the Mekong River International Youth Hostel which is where I always stay in Jinghong, a solid and centrally-located backpacker option with helpful staff and surrounded by good restaurants. If you happen to catch him, the Belgian owner of Mei Mei Cafe is a real character and a great source of information and stories (he showed me how to remove an old visa from my passport with steam to make a blank page)
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 passport 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 for lunch (which was where this conversation happened), 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 Huay Xai international station at 10am; this is too early for direct connections from Chiang Rai, so being in Huay 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 Huay 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 and I’ll get back to you.
Make sure to sign up for a VPN service before arriving in China so you can use the internet as normal – see here
For Yunnan pics see here, and for a useful Chengdu-Yunnan shortcut see here; for more China posts, click here
See my China overland travel guide here, and also my Laos and Vietnam pages. Use 12go Asia* to search & book Chinese train tickets, and Baolau* for Vietnamese tickets.
(*these are affiliate links i.e. if you use them to book train tickets, 4corners7seas will receive a commission; this comes out of their profit margin at no extra cost to you. Thank you in advance should you choose to use my links!)
Hi there,some good info for folks doing the region. I’m just planning my first Visit to China and have yet to decide my route, but whichever It will be overland. I’m based in Siem Reap so I’m thinking the train through Ho’ville then swing over to Kunming, do my bit round the region and make my way back through Laos or Thailand. Will keep you informed if i come across anything worthy of mention.
Hey Stu, thanks, glad to hear the post’s useful!
Yeah it’s been a while since my last run through the region, so any on-the-ground updates you’re able to share would be greatly appreciated.
Cheers and have an awesome trip!
Hey there — awesome post! It is definitely proving very helpful in my understanding of how to travel between Kunming and Thailand through Laos. I’ll be headed to Chiang Mai in early February from Kunming, but am trying to plot my travel by bus through Xishuangbanna and Laos. In determining which cities to travel through, I’m trying to find out more about bus ticket prices and how to purchase them. Do you remember how much you paid for your ticket from Jinghong to Luang Nam Tha, or for your ticket from Luang Nam Tha to wherever you ended up in Thailand? For that matter, did you find the process of buying the tickets pretty easy (including finding where you buy the tickets)? I will be traveling during the Chinese New Year, so part of me is afraid I’ll get to a bus station and they’ll be all sold out of tickets! I’ve been scouring dozens of travel websites and have a good grasp of potential routes to take, but I’m just not finding much about costs or how/where to buy tickets. (At my salary, the cost of each potential route is something I must consider in order to figure out the most cost-effective and simultaneously fun way to get to Chiang Mai.) So I wasn’t sure if there was a way to get tickets ahead of time, online or anything like that. Sorry for all the questions; just trying to do my best preparation by asking someone who clearly has experience!
Thanks for your help and again for a terrific post! I’m looking even more forward to my upcoming travel now. ^_^
Hey Megan, glad to hear it’s useful!
Ok, so I can actually tell you exactly what I paid last time from Jinghong to Huay Xai as I still have the ticket. I’ve just dug it out, and the price (in December 2015) was 140 RMB. Bear in mind that was all the way through to Huay Xai – if you go to Luang Namtha it’s obviously a bit less, but then you’ll have to buy another ticket from LNT to Huay Xai. Should give you an idea, anyway. Then (off the top of my head) Huay Xai to Chiang Rai was about 300 THB (60 RMB); obviously if you skip Chiang Rai and head straight to a Chiang Mai that’s another couple of hours and accordingly more expensive.
I definitely recommend stopping in Luang Namtha for a night or two, it’s a lovely area. Chiang Rai’s also worth a couple of nights if you have time. If you’re choosing between them, I’d go for LNT.
As for tickets, both times in Jinghong I just bought my ticket at the station the day before travel. Not sure how you are with Chinese, but it’ll help to know that Huay Xai is 会晒 (hui xai) and Luang Namtha is 南塔 (nan ta). I reckon you’re right to be concerned about the Chinese New Year though – I’d probably make buying your onward bus ticket the first thing you do in Jinghong!
In LNT the bus station’s miles from the guesthouse street and they have some ripoff bullshit going on with the tuk-tuks that you can’t do much about, so I’ve always just gone to the station on the day and paid then & there. I think you can get your guesthouse to book in advance for you for a fee though, if you get the sense that it might be necessary.
At the international bus station in Huay Xai everything’s super smooth, you buy the onward bus tickets into Thailand at the border post and they’ll take THB, Lao kip, or US dollars.
It’s a great little bit of overland travel you’re about to do, and I’d love to hear how you get on and especially any updates you can share as it’s been 2 years since my last run!
man, your page is the best !
What about smoking on the bus ?
Is non-smoking strictly enforced ?
Cheers Juergen! Yeah it’s all no smoking, but you can hop off for a smoke at the rest stops
One more thing, Implan to do Thailand Myanmar to China.
According to your info it’s not possible due to same border crossing requirement.
Does that also apply to Chinese nationals ?
I asked a friend of mine who works at Tachileik border immigration and he said
it’s ok, that was last month, Jan ’18
I really don’t think you’ll be able to do it I’m afraid – the Muse/Ruili border area has seen some pretty heavy fighting recently, I think the border’s closed at the moment. Might have to go Thailand – Myanmar – Thailand – Laos – China. If you do manage to pull it off though, I’d love to hear about it!
(I’m not sure if the same entry/exit point requirement applies to Chinese nationals)
Interesting to read all the discussions.
I did once by train from Kuala Lumpur to HCMC, Vietnam
I did also from Vietnam HCMC by train to Nanning and Guilin, China.
I did again from Hanoi to Kunming, Beijing, Mongolia, Irkutsk and Moscow
Lastest trip was from Vietnam, Vientiane – Laos, Nongkai, Bangkok, Hadyai and Kuala Lumpur
Wish to do overland again from Kuala Lumpur to Northen Bangkok and to China and further. I like travel overland.
Cheers Owen! Sounds like you’ve covered a lot of ground. Overland is the way to do it!
KL, Malaysia – Bangkok rail line yes.
Bangkok – Aranyaprathet,Thailand yes
Aranyaprathet- Phnom Penh, Cambodia. There are no rail in 2018. Only in 2019 they open line.
Phnom Penh – HCMC. Absolutely no rail line.
So how do you travel from KL to HCMC by rail. I hope you don’t give wrong info to other travellers.
Hey, very useful and interesting article. Can I ask you about visa stuff. I am Lithuanian citizen and going to travel in China first, then thinking about going to Vietnam and Laos with one of your described routes with train/bus, but I don’t really get if you get the visa on arrival at the border while travelling by train/bus? as I read some country visas can be taken only at the airports, such as Vietnam and Laos, and it makes me so confused!
Thank you for help in advance,
The Laos border is fully set up for visa on arrival when you come by road from China, and you can pay with Chinese yuan, Laotian kip, or US dollars – you get the best price with dollars and the worst price with kip. According to this map, Lithuanian citizens can get VOA when entering Laos.
Unfortunately, the same map indicates that you don’t qualify for VOA for Vietnam, so you’d need to get an advance visa however you enter. There’s a Vietnamese consulate in Kunming where you can apply (but I’d guess it might be better to do it at the main embassy in Beijing if Beijing’s on your itinerary).
In any case, I’d recommend the route through Xishuangbanna to Laos, the Luang Nam Tha region’s lovely.
Hope this helps, and let me know if you have any more questions.
Edit: actually, if you look at the table below the map it clearly lists which Laos land borders do & don’t allow VOA for Lithuanian citizens, and the Laos/China border is shown as okay for VOA.
Thank you so much! This is very very helpful!
Keep writting such interesting articles And travel stories!
Take care And have a nice day!
Cheers Milda, hope you have a great trip!
Thanks for the information! I’m planning on an overland trip to Malaysia later this year and these are some nice routes we could take.
Cheers Jack! The China-Myanmar route is still no good, so it’s either Laos or Vietnam. I’d recommend the Luang Nam Tha route