Hua Lumphong station in Bangkok

From Laos to Thailand: The 72-Hour Journey

Jan 19, 2015 - Julie

After 4000 Islands, we had officially traveled the full length of Laos and were ready to head back to Thailand for the holidays! We had some friends coming to meet up with us in southern Thailand, so we were headed towards the islands off the east coast in the Gulf of Thailand. First stop: Koh Phangan! Getting there took much longer than we expected. While not continuous, all the transfers and layovers took a total of over 72 hours – the longest journey we’ve ever had yet. We also took an unprecedented number of different means of transportation in one journey: boat, tuk-tuks, buses, minivans, subway, trains, ferry, taxi, walking…

4000 Islands to Pakse

We described the most memorable parts of this short trip in our bus stories from Laos but we included it here because 4000 Islands was really our starting point from Laos. With no real plans to stay in Pakse, we stayed overnight mostly due to missing the afternoon bus into Thailand. Looking back, we should have just gone straight into the Thailand side directly from 4000 Islands because the layover in Pakse was essentially useless. However, we only bought tickets for one section of the main journey at a time because it was cheaper than buying one combined tickets. Plus there was no guarantee that we would not have had to layover with the combined tickets anyway.

Pakse to Ubon Ratchathani

The next morning we departed Pakse bright and early (7:00 am) for a bus first to the Thai border, then to the nearest city of Ubon Ratchathani (Ubon for short). A tuk-tuk picked us up from the hotel to take us to the mysterious bus station that we could not find the day before. Usually we prefer to buy bus tickets directly at the station as opposed to from a travel agent that tacks on commission. However, there were multiple bus stations in Pakse, and the ones with buses to Ubon kept changing so we settled with an agent in town.

Our last bus ride in Laos, and not to be negative, but we were admittedly looking forward to smoother roads on the Thai side. It was the first bus where I wore my mask for a good portion of the ride due to a smoky smell. At the border, it was a chaotic mess on the Laos side. Everyone elbowed to get in front of the window to hand over their passports in order to be stamped out. The in-between section was confusing, with a large part under construction and no signs for which way to go. Eventually we found a ramp leading into the Thai side of the border. After customs and putting our luggage through a scanner, we were back in Thailand!

Julie crossing the tunnel at the border between Laos and Thailand
Julie crossing the tunnel at the border between Laos and Thailand

The rest of the journey seemed to take no time at all. It had been so long since we drove on such smooth roads at such high speeds. We marveled at how modern everything on the Thai side looked. Having said that, our time in Laos officially came to an end and it’s always sad to think that we may never go back again. We reached Ubon by noon.

Ubon Ratchathani to Bangkok

Similar to our time in Pakse, we had a long layover in Ubon. The next step was to take a bus to Bangkok and we figured we might as well take an overnight bus as opposed to staying overnight in Bangkok for a few hours. A variety of companies sold bus tickets to Bangkok, but the cheapest was the government bus – 999. At first I was unsatisfied that we were not offered the time with the cheapest fare as we wanted (those were always full). Being a government bus, they have the right to reserve seats for locals during peak season. Once I thought about it from a local’s point of view, I felt much better about it. If I were home, rushing to get back to my family during the holidays, I would want to have access to the most affordable means of transportation primarily meant for locals. It wouldn’t be right for foreigners to take those spots. When I thought about it that way, I was happy to pay a little bit more as I should for the bus leaving at 8pm.

For 8 hours we hung out at the Ubon bus station, had two meals (so happy to be back to cheap and flavorful Thai food!), and sat at a coffee shop with wifi (dependable internet was back!). We even sorted out a new Thai SIM card, which had Carlos surrounded by many Thai women trying to figure out what we wanted. Time passed by relatively quickly, we got a ton of work done on the blog, and I didn’t even mind paying 3 baht each time I went to the bathroom.

Seats on the Thai government bus
Seats on the Thai government bus

A bit before 8pm, we boarded our overnight ride. After the state of buses in Laos, the Thai one was so fancy. Both the back and leg rest were adjustable, the seats were cushioned, and there were even massage features!

Massage controls on the Thai government bus
Massage controls on the Thai government bus

Each passenger also received a blanket, a snack package (cake, instant coffee, paper cup), water, and orange juice. It was VIP treatment compared to the bus earlier today where I had to wear my mask. Yet I’m sure this was not at all luxurious since it was the cheapest option.

Meal set on the Thai government bus
Meal set on the Thai government bus

Carlos slept through the whole ride like a rock. I fell in and out of sleep during the course of the night after watching Divergent on the bus TV. All I remember was waking up when we stopped at a bus station at 2am, and not only was the place all lit up, there were a lot of people around. Only a few days ago, places were deserted at 9pm. How can it be so different between either sides of an artificial, arbitrary, and imaginary line? We arrived at Mo Chit bus station in Bangkok at 6am.

Bangkok to Surat Thani

We were determined to not have another full-day layover in Bangkok, but no such luck – this journey was meant to drag on and on and on. We missed the only bus leaving for Surat Thani in the morning by the time we found the right ticket counter (Mo Chit was huge!). The next buses weren’t until 5pm later that day. We couldn’t believe it. However, this was Thailand after all, and buses were not the only option.

Not ones to give up, we found an 8:30am train to catch. The nearest train station was Bang Sue, which looked close on GoogleMaps. The lady at the information counter laughed when we asked if we could walk there (apparently all the train lines block direct access from Mo Chit). She kindly wrote the name in Thai for us to hand to a taxi driver. A few Bangkok rush hour traffic jams later, we arrived at Bang Sue by taxi, only to find out that the 8:30am train was full (it really was peak season). No! It can’t be! The next one was later that night. Now we were really dejected and didn’t know what to do.

A banner by the ticket counter caught our eye – joint tickets to Koh Phangan, including train and bus and ferry. After all the missed connections, we agreed that it would be nice to secure all of the transportation to come. Unfortunately, it was not offered there and the lady at the ticket counter directed us to the main train station in Bangkok, Hua Lamphong. How do we get there? Take the metro (MRT) conveniently with both train stations as its two endpoints. At this point we could only laugh – we never thought this would be the circumstances of our first Bangkok metro ride or that we would ever take the metro end to end.

Bangkok MRT was quite modern and nice. There was a metal detector and bag checking at the entrance which did not make sense. Everyone’s pocket range set off the alarm unnecessarily. At the platforms, people waited in queues along marked lines on the ground reminiscent of Taipei metro, which was a pleasant surprise. We were the only idiots wearing jackets (the overnight bus ride had been cold) and huge backpacks… and we were both already naturally bigger than most Thai people even without anything. Needless to say we were not a welcome addition to rush hour in Bangkok metro.

The next hour was a blur of metro stops and crammed cars. We stumbled into Hua Lamphong train station with absolutely no idea of where to find this joint ticket seller. Maybe it was because we looked so lost that a man approached us. Traditionally we never follow anyone who heckles us about any service offerings because it’s usually a rip-off. I don’t know why we did this time. He was wearing a somewhat official-looking badge? The only explanation I have is that we were so worn out from all the traveling that it was easy to depend on someone else for once.

Hua Lumphong station in Bangkok
Hua Lumphong station in Bangkok

Of course he led us straight to a travel agent. They did sell joint tickets, but we received a quote high enough to make us reconsider. We found prices for train tickets that we could buy directly from the station, and we found prices for the ferry to Koh Phangan from the Surat Thani (Donsak) pier, but we were missing the connection in the between. Google told us that it was a 1.5 hour drive between the Surat Thani train station and pier. That sealed the deal for the travel agent because we were afraid getting a ride for such a long drive would be difficult and pricey, not to mention another possible missed connection. Later on we found out that we could have easily booked a joint bus to the pier and ferry ticket once we got to the Surat Thani train station, but we made decisions based on what little we knew at the time. At least we avoided any possibility of another really long layover in Surat Thani.

For the rest of the day in Bangkok until our 6:30pm train, we ventured into the Silom area and found a nice mall to chill out. Needing wifi to do some work, we made a beeline for Starbucks assuming it had free wifi. Two pricey drinks later, we realized there was no free wifi and we had never bothered to ask. Sigh. What kind of Starbucks doesn’t have free wifi? I always thought that was a franchising requirement. We had to pay for our own AIS wifi with our SIM card credit, but at least I got a peppermint mocha like I do every holiday season.

Peppermint Mocha at Starbucks in Bangkok
Peppermint Mocha at Starbucks in Bangkok

The overnight trains in Thailand were much better than I expected, many level above the night trains in Vietnam. Each bed had bleached-white clean sheets, pillow and blanket for every ride. They were so clean I felt like I was making them dirty with my days-old clothes. A curtain provided some privacy, and the shaking wasn’t so bad. The only downside was that our cart had AC (the cheaper non-AC carts were sold out) and it became quite cold during the night, even with my thickest clothes (not so thick) and the blanket. The train arrived in Surat Thani by 7am the next morning.

Julie on the train from Bangkok to Surat Thani
Julie on the train from Bangkok to Surat Thani

Surat Thani to Koh Phangan

Right outside the Surat Thani train station were a bunch of buses waiting to take everyone to Donsak pier, where ferries to the islands Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, and Koh Tao departed. A few companies ran ferries – Lomprayah (the fastest and also the most expensive), Songserm (cheaper but also slower than Lomprayah), and Seatran (supposedly the worst?). Our joint ticket bought in Bangkok was with Songserm, so the choice was made for us. The bus ride to the pier took another hour and a half.

We had always known that this was peak season in Thailand, but it wasn’t until we got to Donsak pier that it really sank in. A huge crowd of people were waiting for the ferry… and those were just the ones with Songserm! I was beginning to doubt how two small and one medium-sized island was going to fit everyone. Once the ferry arrived, it felt like forever until we were actually boarded. First, people coming to Donsak had to get off the boat, one by one. Then they each had to claim their bag from a pile of bags manually dragged off the boat, also one by one. Once the pier was cleared, the next passengers could board (us!). Now the reverse process took place, boarding and bag drop off, one at a time of course.

Our ferry first stopped at Koh Samui before heading to Koh Phangan for a total ferry ride of about three hours. The sky was very cloudy like it might rain any second. Strong currents and choppy waves added to the far from ideal conditions. The boat literally went up then down like a mini roller coaster… that did not end. This meant a lot of people were seasick. So many people constantly got up to go to the bathroom, puked into a bag, or in general looked sickly and uncomfortable. The only reason I didn’t feel seasick was because I slept through most of the ride, which I’m thankful for.

Songserm boat at the Donsak Pier in Surat Thani
Songserm boat at the Donsak Pier in Surat Thani

When we finally touched land on the island of Koh Phangan, we couldn’t believe it. Our journey was finally over! Considering how Laos and Thailand share a very long border, we never imagined it would take so long to get from one to the other. The total time starting from when we left 4000 Islands was a little over 72 hours (!!). Hopefully we never have to repeat anything like this ever again. At least we made it in time for the Christmas and New Years holidays! We looked forward to the next few weeks spent on the three islands, especially when our friends come to visit to ring in the new year with us.