Crossing Land Borders - Southeast Asia

Crossing Land Borders: Southeast Asia

When we were beginning our journey, one of the things we were a bit curious about was crossing borders between countries in Asia. From what we’d read, it seemed pretty straightforward, with the biggest gripe being the occasional vague fee that some countries try to squeeze out of foreigners’ pockets. Of course, we still were a little hesitant, having no working knowledge of any of the languages. After crisscrossing half a dozen borders, our experience mirrored what we had read – transit to border patrol was readily available, immigration was habitually hassle-free, and any unspecified fees were at least minimal. The only time we really felt extorted was at the Thai-Lao border, by the ravenous tuk-tuk drivers attempting to charge exorbitant (for the area) and non-negotiable fees to/from the border patrol station. But really, not a big deal… also avoidable if you are willing to hoof it a few kilometers and/or hitch a ride.

Here, we thought we’d provide a short summary of our border crossings (obviously only some of the options available) – hopefully useful for our fellow backpackers looking to spend some time in Asia:

Thailand → Laos:

  • A public bus runs from Chiang Rai to the border town of Chiang Khong (travel time = 1.5 hours; cost = 65 ฿ ($1.82 USD) per person).
  • The bus drops passengers off about 3 kilometers from the border. From here, you have essentially two options: (1) walk/hitch for free (our choice), or (2) take one of the aforementioned tuk-tuks for 60 ฿ ($1.70 USD) per person.
  • After passing through Thai immigration, cross the Friendship Bridge to Laos. Here, there is a compulsory bus to take you the 1 km distance to Lao immigration (cost is 25 ฿ ($0.70 USD) per person).
  • The distance from the Lao border patrol to the town of Houay Xai is ~14 kilometers. Again, you have two choices – walk/hitch or take an overpriced tuk-tuk (cost is 100 ฿ ($2.82 USD) per person, and this was super non-negotiable… we fought hard). Admittedly, the significant distance here makes the first option a bit more daunting, but our new backpacking buddy from Argentina convinced us that you can always find a ride. We were less than hopeful after discovering the desolate thoroughfare running from the border to town, but after a couple kilometers of walking, we were picked up by some gracious construction workers who hauled us halfway to town, followed by a kind woman in a pickup truck who carried us the rest of the way.

From Houay Xai, we grabbed a slow boat to Luang Prabang, which involved two days of floating down the Mekong (with an overnight in Pak Beng). While it’s kind of a cool experience, the boat is really primitive (i.e. wooden benches and automobile seats bolted haphazardly to the wood floor). Additionally, it’s kind of a haven for young, party-minded travelers (i.e. loud and drunk). If you do choose to take the slow boat, make sure you arrive at the dock early on both mornings; they cram on more people than there are seats available, and some unlucky individuals were relegated to a cramped spot on the floor near the toilet, or forced to perch on the back “deck” of the boat. Here are a few details:

  • Tickets from Houay Xai to Pak Beng cost 110,000 ₭ ($13.57 USD) per person.
  • Tickets from Pak Beng to Luang Prabang cost the same (110,000 ₭ ($13.57 USD) per person), but can be purchased in Houay Xai if you’re traveling straight through, making the total cost of the trip 220,000 ₭ ($27.14 USD per person).
  • An overnight at a well-rated guesthouse (private room w/ bath) in Pak Beng ran us about $18 USD. We should also mention that, before departing Houay Xai, our slow boat driver attempted to scare us with stories of sketchy guesthouses, or no availability once we arrived – while he conveniently had a “nice” guesthouse with open rooms, and was willing to accept cash on the spot. Not biting at what seemed like a bit of a shady ploy, we waited and saw plenty of lodging around in town once we arrived.
  • Again, in an attempt to create a market for tuk-tuk drivers, the slow boat ultimately drops you off at a dock ~7 km from Luang Prabang (apparently, the boat used to drop you conveniently in the center of town). Be prepared to drop about 15,000 ₭ ($1.85 USD) per person on a tuk-tuk or, again, walk/hitch to town.

Note: The total price for all of the tuk-tuks for this leg of the trip, from Chiang Khong all the way to Luang Prabang, would have cost us about $13 USD for two people, which seems a bit ridiculous when you consider you can live for about twice this for an entire day. If you decide to forgo the predatory tuk-tuks as we did, you can certainly save a bundle here.

Laos → Cambodia (via Thailand):

  • The public bus (#14) runs regularly from Vientiane to the Thanaleng Border Crossing (travel time = 30 minutes; cost = 6,000 ₭ ($0.74 USD) per person).
  • After exiting Lao immigration, the mandatory bus over the Friendship Bridge to Thailand cost 4,000 ₭ ($0.49 USD per person).
  • From the Thai border patrol to the Nang Khong train station, it is about 3 kilometers. At this point we’d abandoned the mere thought of a tuk-tuk, so we have no idea what the cost was. We gave up and walked for free.
  • From Nang Khong, we grabbed an overnight train (11 hours) to Bangkok (one second-class sleeper ticket cost 1,023 ฿ ($28.74 USD) per person).
  • In Bangkok, we hired an Uber from the Bang Sue train station to the Mochit bus station (45 ฿ ($1.26 USD) total).
  • From Mochit, The Transport Company (999) bus will take you to Siem Reap via the border patrol in Poi Pet, Cambodia (travel time = ~8 hours; cost = 785 ฿ ($22.06 USD) per person, which includes a tuk-tuk in Siem Reap to your accommodations).

Cambodia → Vietnam:

  • We used Giant Ibis for bus travel throughout Cambodia, which turned out to be a really nice little company. To get to Vietnam, we first took a bus from Kampot to Phnom Penh (travel time = 2.5 hours; cost = $10 USD (Cambodia’s de facto currency) per person). We then took a second Giant Ibis bus from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City (travel time = ~7 hours with border crossing; cost = $19 USD per person).

Note: The Vietnam border was the first time our bags were x-rayed/inspected at all, and the process here was a bit longer than the previous borders we crossed.

Vietnam → China:

  • Overnight train from Hanoi to Nanning (travel time = ~13 hours; cost = $45 USD per person).
  • Bullet train from Nanning to Beijing (travel time = 14.5 hours; cost = $120 USD per person).

Note: This was easily the worst leg of our entire trip. The flights we found from Hanoi to Beijing were fairly expensive, so we thought we’d check out some of China’s vast landscape by traveling by train (though the train fares were also pricey). I know, it’s a long haul but I guess the overland travel sounded like a fun adventure. The Chinese trains, however, are terrible in that they allow smoking between the carriages, yet the doors between the cars don’t close automatically. Thus, they may as well just allow smoking everywhere, because the toxic fumes diffuse rapidly throughout the carriages and cabins. By the time we reached Beijing, I was one big ball of sinusitis. Additionally, on the overnight train from Hanoi to Nanning, you are pulled off the train twice in the middle of the night to pass through Vietnamese and Chinese border patrols. Both stops take a good bit of time, and are separated by about an hour, so it’s pretty hard to get any sleep.

Visa Information:

Country Cost
(per person, USD)
Thailand $0 30-day visa exemption for U.S. citizens
Laos $35 Can obtain visa on arrival. A 10,000 ₭ ($1.23 USD) overtime fee is charged for service after 4 p.m. If you show up at the border with no photograph, they appear to charge $1 USD, but don’t actually take your picture.
Cambodia $30 Can obtain visa on arrival. Must pay an additional 100 ฿ ($3 USD) mystery fee that is, oddly, charged in Thai currency.
Vietnam $40 Must obtain visa in advance if entering Vietnam by land (visa on arrival for air travel only). There is a $2 processing fee for expedited service (3 business days).
China $140 Visa in advance required

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