A few years ago, we were tasked with a trip that went from Bangkok to Yangshuo on a budget and overland, after which I had to travel immediately to Beijing. A German friend of mine laughed that it could not be done, at which moment I decreed that I would make it so! With the only rules being no doubling back, and only going forward.
We began by meeting in Bangkok as a group of 4 guys and one girl, staying imaginatively in the Khao San area of Bangkok. If you have not been here, it is either a backpacker heaven or a traveler hell depending on your take on things, with bars, laughing gas, and all major or amusing activities to keep one going. We sampled the night’s activities before heading off to part 2 the journey to Siem Reap.
There is a 9 am 6-hour bus from Bangkok to Siem Reap, home of Angkor Wat, and our first stop in Cambodia. This journey involves listening to backpackers talk about Buddhism, as well as the Cambodian border, and the “visa on arrival”, but you get to Siem Reap in time to visit Angkor Wat (not we did not visit). There is also a vibrant bar scene if that’s your thing.
The next day, we booked a private bus for the 6-8 hour pot-holed journey to Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. Note to travelers, the journey takes longer and you constantly need to stop the bus to urinate. PP as the cool kids call it has a lot of watering holes too.
Another day, another journey, and another border. 7 hours from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as the cool kids call it. We arrived very late, which meant we went out late, very late, and got up very very late. Saigon is fun.
There are few options moving on from Saigon (HCMC), but we usually go for the 12-hour sleeper to the beach town of Nha Trang. Vietnamese trains are small, but comfortable, with the 4 berth cabins resembling a Chinese soft sleeper.
Nha Trang is a decent beach town with a bubbling nightlife, including bars and revelers from around the globe ready to party.
From Nha Trang, there are a few options, but our standard is to take the 24-hour sleeper to Hanoi. Now I’m short (5’4), but holy cow Vietnamese trains are small, but with booze, food, and enough movies you can make the 4 berth cabins work!
Saigon might be a city that doesn’t sleep, but Hanoi sleeps, you really could not have two more different cities (of similar size and importance) in one country. The Hanoi nightlife is all about street beers and BBQ, and this is the way to go until the clubs open if that’s your thing.
There are two main ways to get to China from Hanoi, not including flying. The bus is the easier option, but if you want to be adventurous and cheap, there is a 12-hour train to Nanning that leaves every night at 9.25 pm (about $40), although it’s worth noting that you have to leave the train twice, at both Vietnamese and Chinese customs, so do not expect for a good night sleep to happen.
Nanning rather than Guilin is the capital city of Guangxi province, and whilst it is not unpleasant, going on to Guilin and Yangshuo makes a lot more sense. The fast train takes 3 hours to Guilin from where you can take the bus to Yangshuo for about $3.
Yangshuo has hostels that cost pennies (depending on the time of year), and private rooms for $10. We obviously suggest a night, or two here if only to see The DMZ Bar, YPT’s North Korean-themed bar.
Getting away from Yangshuo either involves going back to Guilin or carrying on from Yangshuo Train Station (actually in Xingping), with us opting for the $25 3-hour train to Guangzhou. Guangzhou is a big bustling city with little of historical jollies, but it’s a good night out, and worth a look if you want to see how things are in contemporary Communist China.
Guangzhou South Train Station is a metropolis serving most of China and is bigger than many airports of various countries. With this in mind, most of China is your oyster, although our personal pick on the way to Beijing would be to go via Shanghai, China’s showcase economic capital, as opposed to the political capital of Beijing. A fast bullet train here costs from $150 to $90 depending on the type of high-speed train, seat type, and its arrival city.
What to say about Shanghai?
From the bund to the dodgy traders, it’s well worth a night, and although it’s more expensive than other Chinese cities you can still get a good deal on hostels or hotels.
Depends on the time of year, but a fast train to Qingdao, home of the beer Tsingtao is well worth it at a few hundred RMB, great seafood, cheap hotels, and of course beer, lots of beer that can even be purchased in a bag with a straw (not as good as it sounds).
And then, that’s it! One more fast train to Beijing, from where you can join up with one of our 2018 budget tours to North Korea!