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HomeColumnsDestination Portrait9. Explore Mekong – Getting around within the GMS

9. Explore Mekong – Getting around within the GMS

Travelling within the GMS is increasingly easy thanks to the development of infrastructure  but also to a greater variety of transport options.  They are also more traditional mean of transportation, from tuk tuk in Bangkok to samphan in Halong Bay, from elephant rides in Laos to a hot air balloon ride over Bagan in Myanmar. This diversity in transportation provides the possibility to unique multi-modal transportation experience.

Boats along the Mekong, Irrawaddy and Kwai Rivers

Cruises generally are best during the winter months from July to January. It is possible to do cruise trips on the Mekong during the dry season but only in some areas as water levels can be very low. The Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia is generally not navigable for cruises between November and August due to extremely low levels of water. The River Kwai is navigable all year round. The Irrawaddy River is navigable from October to April all along its 2,147 km length.

Amawaterways. Two boats for two classic Mekong river cruises.

Avalon Waterways. One small size cruise ship, the Avalon Angkor, with only 16 cabins allow the boat to be the sole in the region to go non-stop from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City.

Cruiseasia owns the RV River Kwai boat, a colonial style ship with 10 teak wood cabins which goes along the River Kwai for a four-day/three-night tour.

Mekong River Cruises and Mekong Islands Tours. Three boats for Southern Laos Mekong cruise and between Vientiane/Luang Prabang and the Golden Triangle.

Orient Express. Luxury river cruise on the Irrawaddy River on the “Road To Mandalay” for a three- or 11- night cruise. 43 cabins including deluxe ones and a suite on the boat.

Pandaw. Ten luxury boats doing among  tours on Irrawaddy and Chindwin Rivers in Myanmar and the Mekong River in Cambodia/Vietnam.

RV Mahaythi Cruise. First cruise company to offer tours along the Irrawaddy Delta from Yangon. Since 2013, the company’s four boats have been shifted to Mandalay for tours in Upper Irrawaddy River and especially on the Mandalay-Bagan route.

Uniworld Mekong Rivercruise. Present in the market since 2012 with a 15-day tour on the River Orchid cruise ship combining a Mekong River trip with a visit in Hanoi.

Viking River Cruises. Two cruises along the Mekong river and the Irrawaddy River. The Mekong river tour goes from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City via Cambodia. Memories of Mandalay is a totally new tour starting from Bangkok and combined with a River tour in Myanmar from Mandalay to the colonial frontier post of Thayetmyo via Minhla/Gwechaung, Magway, Salé and Bagan.


Probably not the quickest trip –except for the luxurious Eastern Orient Express Train which runs from Bangkok into Singapore, a ride with a train is ideal for travellers who like to move at slower pace while enjoying local life. Night trains are generally comfortable with sleeping berths and include food. First and second class coaches are available on all trains.

Most popular train rides are:


Myanmar has a dense network of trains dating back to the British time.

The most popular route is Yangon-Mandalay via Bago (Pegu) and the new capital Naypyidaw. It takes 16 hours of travel but trains are comfortable and provide a great Burmese experience. There is since 2010 a daily ride between Yangon and Bagan with sleeping cars. It takes up to 18 hours of travel. There is also a pictorial tourist train connecting Thazi to Shwenyaung on Inle Lake with possible connections in Thazi for the express train Mandalay-Yangon.

Possibilities exist to go by train from Mandalay to Bagan, from Mandalay to Pyin Oo Lwin (Maymyo) and from Yangon to Moulmein in the South.

No computerized booking systems but local incoming travel agencies can secure seats or sleeping berths in the Upper Class.


Thailand used to have one of the most comfortable trin system back to the 1930s. Nothing has been so far done to modernize it and trains are rather slow albeit quite comfortable. Plans have been launched to modernize the train network including the construction of semi-high speed trains.

  • Bangkok-Chiang Mai is an 8 to 12 hour ride with stops at Ayutthaya, Phitsanulok, Lampang/Lamphun.
  • Bangkok-Vientiane (Thanaleng) is a 9 to 12 hour ride with stops at Ayutthaya, Udon Thani and Nong Khai.
  • Bangkok-Ubon Ratchathani is an 8 to 12 hour ride with stops in Nakhon Ratchasima.
  • Bangkok-Surat Thani or Hat Yai via Hua Hin is an 11 hour trip to Surat Thani and 19 hour trip to Hat Yai.


The most famous line is the “Reunification Express Train Line” which goes from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City via Nha Trang, Danang, Hue and Vinh. It takes an average of 14 hours from Hanoi to Danang and an average of 27 hours from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. There is also a tourist train line linking Hanoi to Sapa in 9 hours on average.


In Yunnan, they are daily trains connecting Kunming to Dali, the Stone Forest or to Lijiang.  The Kunming-Lijiang ride via Dali was opened in 2011 and offers very comfortable ride with sleeper seats and berths.

There is also a train connection with spectacular scenery between Kunming and Nanning. Nanning is also linked to Hanoi by a daily train.

Air connections

The densification of domestic routes provide quick and fast alternative to travel within a country. Each country offers a choice of state and private airlines which assure competitive pricing and high service quality.


Six large airlines (Air China, China Eastern, China Southern, Hainan Airlines, Sichuan Airlines and Xiamen Airlines and another eight to ten regional carriers offer flights to any cities across the country.


Cambodia Angkor Air is Cambodia’s main carrier with daily flights linking Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and from Phnom Penh and Siem Reap to Sihanoukville.


Two airlines, Lao Airlines and Central Lao Airlines compete on Vientiane-Luang Prabang. Lao Airlines is the only domestic carrier on routes linking Vientiane to Houaisay, Luang Namtha, Oudomxay, Pakse, Savannakhet and Xien Khouang.


They are eight airlines flying domestic routes including Air Bagan, Air Mandalay, Asian Wings, Air KBZ, Myanmar Airways International (MAI), Myanma Airways, Yangon Airways and the latest Golden Myanmar Airlines.

Flights link mainly Yangon and Mandalay to Bagan, Heho, Sittwe, Thandwe, Myitkyina, Putao, Dawei, Nay Pyi Daw, Myeik, Kawthaung, Tachileik, Kyaing Tong, Lashyo and Kalay Myo.


Six carriers offer flights from Bangkok to 15 cities across the country. National carrier Thai Airways International flies only to Thailand largest destinations (Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Hat Yai, Koh Samui, Krabi, Phuket, Ubon Ratchathani and Udon Thani) with its new affiliate Thai Smile proposing connections to secondary domestic destinations. 

Low fare carriers AirAsia and Nok Air fly to a dozen destinations within the Kingdom. Orient Thai offers only a few weekly domestic flights –check their website-. Regional carriers Bangkok Air propose regular flights from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, Krabi, Lampang, Samui, Sukhothai and Phuket as well as some frequencies out of U Tapao (Pattaya). They are regional flights from Happy Air to niche destinations.


Three Vietnamese carriers compete domestically: Vietnam Airlines, Jetstar Pacific and Vietjet serving twenty cities within Vietnam from Buon Ma Thuot, Ca Mau, Can Tho, Chun Lay,Con Dao,  Dalat, Da Nang, Dien Bien Phu, Dong Hoi, Hai Phong, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Nha Trang, Phu Quoc, Pleiku, Quy Nhon, Rach Gia, Than Hoa, Tuy Hoa and Vinh.


With the improvement of the road network within the GMS –including the development of highways, travelling by bus is becoming more and more convenient. They are regular public busses services in all GMS countries offering intercity connections on a daily basis. Thailand offers the densest network of bus connections all across the country. Bus rides are more hazardous in Laos and particularly Myanmar where roads are in bad conditions except for the newly opened highway linking Yangon to the new capital Nay Pyi Daw and further to Mandalay.

It is also possible to rent a car, a mini-van or a limousine car with driver in all GMS countries. Prices vary according to the number of days and the type of vehicle.

Public transport

Busses are generally available in main cities. In Bangkok, they are four rail lines managed by three different companies. Yangon offers also a limited rail network within its city boundaries. Ho Chi Minh City is currently building an underground system. Local public transport in cities include mini-vans, tuk tuk or pedicabs as well as moto-taxis and taxis (metered in China, Thailand and Vietnam). In Bangkok, public boats run along the Chao Praya River. Ox-cart rides are also offered in Cambodia (Chambok Community for example).

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TravelDailyNews Asia-Pacific editorial team has an experience of over 35 years in B2B travel journalism as well as in tourism & hospitality marketing and communications.