I have posted this brief survey of several thousand kilometres of travel, because much of it was a blur of days and nights spent on trains and buses. Soon followed by another blur through Indonesia.
Yuanyang (China) to Luang Prabang (Laos)
This was actually very, very interesting. Slow, bad roads, but absolutely amazing scenery with rice paddies and plantations (tea, palms) climbing high up remote and incredibly steep valleys. I enjoyed a day of this journey in the company of an intelligent, muscular, young Dutch doctor.
It takes a good three days to get from Yuangyang, to Luchun, then Jingcheng, then Mengla, Mohan and into Laos. The buses range from small, local mini-buses to the luxury sleeper that got me across the border and right through to Luang Prabang. The roads on the Chinese side are variously washed out and bumpy, but the works being done at the time I went through suggest it should be smooth sailing sooner rather than later. The necessary stops in two small towns are fine because they are worth a wander for an hour and the accomodation is really cheap.
More on the Laos side here.
Luang Prabang (Laos) to Nong Khai (Thailand)
An overnight buses of varying quality are available- I took the cheap option which had hard seats, and additional locals jammed on plastic stools in the aisles. The bus dropped us in Vientiene at 6am, where it is a short shared tuk-tuk ride to the local bus station in the centre of town. From there you can get a taxi, bus right through to NongKhai, or local bus to the border. I chose the latter, and it was quicker, and cheaper than the other options. It is then another bus for the short ride across the bridge (or tuk tuk), then tuk tuk to the train station where I bought my ticket for the overnight train that night.
I was quite happy with how quickly and easily I did this, but only because at every single change I knew exactly where I was going and how much it would cost, so could bargain hard or move quickly. By refusing to buy the train ticket from the agents in Luang Prabang, getting the local bus, bargaining etc. I reckon I saved at least 2/3 on what I could have paid for this 18 hours of travel.
Nong Khai to Bangkok
A lovely sleeper train with crisp, clean sheets (I MUST buy myself some beautiful linen sheets when back in Australia, and hire a maid to wash and iron them everyday), helpful attendants, clean bathrooms and sink area, and good airconditioning. You sit opposite one or two other people, and your facing seats convert into upper and lower beds. More expensive than trains in India, but still great value.
Bangkok to Butterworth
1100 Baht. Again, a comfortable, air-conditioned cabin with similar set-up to the previous train, although I think the seats were a bit wider to accommodate two people for just the daytime part of the journey. Third class isn’t even available, so you just have to go for something nice. I think you could sit, but that would be a bit awful. I even scored a berth adjacent to power supply (exactly mid-cabin in seat 13 I think, so choose that if you are booking online), so was able to work while also enjoying the warm evening light over the countless fields and plantations of southern Thailand. Ends at Butterworth which is a compulsory stop – the connections are not immediate. The train station is immediatley adjacent to the ferry across to the island of Penang, and everything on the other side is walking distance.
Butterworth to Kuala Lumpur
Same same (sami sami), after the better part of a day wandering Georgetown (Penang).
Kuala Lumpur to Singapore
The train from Butterworth arrived early morning via a smoke-clogged tunnerl, and I then waited for two or so hours in the terminal at KL. I only moved about 100 metres from where I got off the train, with toilets, food, newsagent, a quiet spot to meditate and powerpoints all nearby.
The KL to Singapore train is just a day journey, and when booking online go for the seat at the very end of the cabin. There you get leg-room, and a table right in front of the TV: first-class while everyone else is in third. Exccept, of course, when what’s on the TV is utter shit, like the scratched, skipping Harley Davidson doco and American princess movie I got. The scenery is also not that interesting – endless palm plantations.
If you want any more details of these trains, do check out seat61 for every little detail of timetables, how to book, through to the style of bedding
P.S. Spread across these trains I worked a lot. While not producing much new of value, I was in a good mood (tired) for sorting out the piles of ‘reference’ and ‘reading’ material stored in email folders, folders on my desktop and scans of notes and mindmaps from the past three years. While not directly conducive to happiness in itself, it is something I have been wanting to do for a long time.