It is not only possible but also highly enjoyable to travel from Hong Kong to Bangkok almost exclusively by train. This is a report of such a trip which I recently made. If Bangkok sounds like a long way, a shorter option is to travel by train between Hong Kong and Hanoi, which is a relatively simple trip.
For all long-distance train travel, I plan using the website “The Man in Seat 61” which is an excellent and highly reliable resource. For this trip I used its section on Hong Kong to Hanoi and its coverage from Hanoi to Bangkok. The information the website provided turned out to be almost perfect.
The writer Paul Theroux wrote about his experience doing most of this route in reverse (from Bangkok to the Chinese border, although there he went to Kunming not Hong Kong) in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star.
Were it not for a gap around Thailand, it would be possible to travel only by train all the way from Hong Kong to Bangkok. Indeed, one could travel all the way from the north of Scotland or London to Singapore. However, Laos and Cambodia both currently lack operational passenger railways and so the route inevitably involves some other form of transport through one of those two countries. We opted to travel through Cambodia rather than Laos out of personal preference. That also gives the significant advantage of a much longer section travelling down through Vietnam than would be the case if one took the Laos route.
We decided to start in Hong Kong and fly home from Bangkok, which had the sense of being on a journey and discovery and also meant that the midwinter weather got better not worse as the journey went on. However, in retrospect it may have been slightly better to do the journey in reverse, by flying to Bangkok first and then taking the train to Hong Kong. Several of the train timings would have been more conducive that way. We also would have avoided the sense of being up against the clock in getting to Bangkok in time for our homebound flights.
This trip involves a lot of travel and as we had time constraints we were unable to spend as much time in some of the places visited as one would have liked. We decided to have the biggest break in Hoi An. Hoi An was enjoyable but I preferred what we saw of Hué and if doing the trip again would probably change the rest day to there, or maybe build in an additional stop somewhere like Nha Trang.
For trips like this I plan the itinerary in a spreadsheet. The itinerary which in fact we ended up using was this one with the exception that we missed the HK-Guangzhou train so instead took the MTR to Lo Wu, had dinner in Shenzhen and then took a local Shenzhen to Guangzhou East high speed train.
|1||Friday||8:01 p.m.||10:00 p.m.||Z802||HK – Guangzhou East||Overnight in Guangzhou|
|2||Saturday||11:53 a.m.||3:49 p.m.||D3706||Guangzhou South – Nanning East|
|6:10 p.m.||T8701/MR2||Nanning – Hanoi||Sleeper train|
|3||Sunday||5:20 a.m.||Overnight in Hanoi|
|4||Monday||6:00 a.m.||7:47 p.m.||SE7||Hanoi – Hué||Overnight in Hué|
|5||Tuesday||8:56 a.m.||11:26 a.m.||SE1||Hué – Danang||Overnight in Hoi An (close to Danang)|
|6||Wednesday||10:47 p.m.||SE7||Sleeper train|
|7||Thursday||4:05 p.m.||Danang – Saigon||Overnight in Saigon|
|8||Friday||11:30 p.m.||5:30 p.m.||Sapaco bus||Saigon – Pnhom Penh||Overnight in Pnhom Penh|
|9||Saturday||7:30 a.m.||2:00 p.m.||Boat||Pnhom Penh – Siem Reap||Overnight in Siem Reap|
|10||Sunday||9:00 a.m.||12:00 p.m.||Private car||Siam Reap – Poiphet (for Aranyaprathet)|
|1:55 p.m.||7:40 p.m.||276||Aranyaprathet – Bangkok|
On a trip like this there is always the question of whether to book in advance. Doing so provides certainty but at the expense of flexibility. On this occasion I did decide to book in advance in so far as was possible:
- I prepurchased Hong Kong to Guangzhou tickets several days before at China Travel Service in Hong Kong. Even then the train I wanted was sold out so plumped for an earlier one.
- I prebooked the Guangzhou to Nanning tickets at China Travel Service in Hong Kong the week before.
- The Nanning to Hanoi ticket is only available within China. There are some online agencies who ticket it internationally but this process takes time and brings additional cost. It also requires proof of Vietnamese visas where relevant. So I simply decided to take a chance of getting the Nanning to Hanoi ticket on the day of departure at Nanning station. Once there, I went to window one (the English-speaking window) at Nanning station and bought the tickets easily. There were multiple spare soft sleeper berths on the train.
- For the Vietnamese tickets I asked the concierge at our hotel in Hanoi (the Metropole) to book them for me in advance. They have a dedicated travel advisor who was helpful and efficient and did that. I needed to pay in cash and presume that I paid some sort of service fee (I did not check) but the process was painless. At the Vietnamese stations we visited the level of English spoken was low but the ticket desks often only had a queue of one or two people so it would have been fairly easy to buy them in person, it seems. Again none of the trains was full to bursting.
- From Saigon to Phnom Penh we booked the bus tickets on the day of travel from a nearby travel agent (Van at Asiana Link, 92-96 Nguyen Hue Street, District One). Again we paid a small premium for this but I felt that it was well worth it. Van booked the ticket, issued us with a ticket voucher, then later collected us by taxi from our hotel and dropped us at the bus station, making sure that we received our bus tickets through exchanging the ticket voucher. She was friendly and helpful. Some travel agencies in Vietnam do seem unscrupulous but this one worked fine. The bus had empty seats and, if you chose the bus company you wanted and went to their departure point, you could probably purchase a ticket easily. However for me the travel agent here made things easier and smoother at little cost.
- From Phnom Penh to the dock near Siem Reap we again used the concierge at our hotel (the Hotel Royal). They were excellent, going to the dock at six o’clock in the morning and personally purchasing the tickets on our behalf which we paid for later in the morning, at no service charge. The tuk tuk from the dock to Siem Reap was arranged dockside in Phnom Penh.
- Our only ticketing problem was from Siem Reap to Poiphet. In retrospect, we should have arranged it in advance through our hotel or a reputable local travel agent. Instead, we simply went to the bus station before the scheduled departure time as per Seat 61 – this was the only time the information failed us, although it may well have been our fault rather than that the information was wrong. The bus station was the epicentre of multiple bus companies and booking companies there and in a nearby street and there was a strong feeling of a risk of scams, with multiple people offering to sell us tickets (cash upfront) for buses they promised would arrive later from somewhere else. Instead, we opted to arrange a private car through one of those agencies. As I say, in future I would pre-arrange the bus.
- In Aranyaprathet, we bought the tickets on the day of departure at the station. The booking office opens around one hour before each of the two daily scheduled departures to Bangkok. Again, the train was not full and I imagine that you could turn up and buy a ticket for immediate departure on most days.
We prebooked most accommodation through the Hong Kong travel agent Travel Expert and one night in a newly opened property in Siem Reap through Agoda at an excellent price. For Guangzhou we simply walked into a local hotel in Tianhe district on the evening of arrival. Some of the hotels on this route offer free transfer from the airport and often also from the railway station, which can be a considerable benefit. For example, we arrived in Vietnam around dawn with no local currency and opted to walk to our hotel. That was a lot of fun but a pickup from the hotel would have been more convenient.
A trip like this reflects one’s personal preferences, so different travellers will enjoy or dislike different elements. A few points to mention:
- Think about whether it is worth prebooking Hong Kong to Guangzhou! That service requires a ticket on a specific service from its sparse timetable and the tickets are non-refundable. This is the only train we missed, as we arrived late at Hung Hom station after the Kowloon Motor Bus Company’s 103 service failed to show up on time. We then took the MTR to Lo Wu, walked across the border and took a train to Shenzhen. That is much more flexible than booking on the HK to Guangzhou train and is how I would always do it in future as the HK to Guangzhou’s ticketing policy is unduly restrictive and feels like a bit of a rip off in that sense.
- The trains were good throughout. China’s sleeper trains are better than Vietnam’s, which have a slightly less user friendly design and staff who are quite strict so, for example, it is hard to go onto the platform at some brief station stops. The Vietnamese trains lack dining cars though they do have hot water boilers at the end of each carriage and a food cart service.
- The boat trip was excellent fun and a lovely way to see Cambodia.
- We stayed at some lovely hotels but given that we often arrived late and left early didn’t necessarily get the best value from them.
- Although I opted not to go to Angkor Wat, an afternoon or early morning there (many people recommend sunrise) fits well with this itinerary.
Picture: Sunset near the far reaches of Bangkok
This was an enjoyable trip which ran very smoothly. It makes for an unusual and interesting way to travel between Hong Kong and Bangkok, or for that matter Hanoi. It does benefit from some planning, but that is easy and relatively fast to do. It can almost all be done from Hong Kong and can be done at relatively short notice.