Traveling from Chiang Mai to Beijing via any method other than direct flight can prove to be a bit of a hassle and a challenge. But if you have the time and the patience to map out the trip, it can also save you some money and give you a chance to see a few other places along the way. I opted to go the long way, bus-ing from CM to Bangkok, flying into Shenzhen, China, then taking an overnight train home to Beijing.
The trip was not without its frustrations, but ended up being enjoyable overall. If you take a similar route, however, I’d recommend flying into Hong Kong and taking the train from there to Beijing, rather than from Shenzhen. This especially applies if you’re not pressed for time and can afford to spend a couple of days in another city. I was on a bit of a time crunch but ended up having to spend an extra day in Shenzhen anyway, and I definitely would have preferred to have seen Hong Kong. (If you do end up in Shenzhen, though, it’s not the end of the world. The city is cleaner than Beijing and not difficult to get around.)
If this is your first time traveling into China, be prepared for hassles. Things rarely go right the first time, and if you go into it with that mindset, you’ll be more relaxed and appreciate the misadventures of China for the good stories they are rather than trip-ruining headaches.
Here’s the route I took from Chiang Mai to Beijing, including transportation, travel costs, and hostels.
Bus from Chiang Mai to Bangkok (arranged by guesthouse): 450 baht (~$15)
You can also take a train to Bangkok. I looked online and I believe it was more expensive, but it might be worth it in terms of comfort. The bus ride to Bangkok was comically awful, in my experience — no AC, crowded, loud, overhead lights didn’t work, crazy uncomfortable. It’s cheap, for sure, and I would consider doing it again if I find myself back in Chiang Mai and on a budget, but if it’s comfort you’re worried about, the train or a flight might be a better option.
Single room in a hostel in Bangkok: 450 baht (~$15)
The bus dropped us off in the Khao San Rd. area, so I wandered around until I found a hostel with an available room. None of them seemed keen to give a half-day rate (I got in to the city around 6 a.m. and only wanted a room for a few hours, until I left for the airport), and at that time of morning, most dorms seemed full so I had to pay more than I had originally budgeted. However, after the hellish overnight bus ride, the single room was a nice break from being hot and crowded around other people.
Mini-bus from Khao San Road area of Bangkok to the airport: 120 baht (~$4)
I booked this at a little travel and Internet shop called Terranet. You may be able to get a better price by haggling with taxi drivers, but I was too tired to argue and remembered that I got a way better rate using a minibus when traveling in Bangkok before (between the two bus stations on the way to Chiang Mai) so I took a chance on them. It worked out fine.
Flight from BKK to Shenzhen, China (booked through AirAsia): $142
The AirAsia website can be a pain to use sometimes, so I went directly to one of their offices, which is across the street from Lanna Guest House in Chiang Mai, just before you turn the corner to walk toward El Diablo, the Mexican place. That was a totally painless process, but even if there are any promotional prices offered for the flight when you look online, they won’t apply that price if you book in person. Make sure to tell them no meal, no checked luggage, no insurance to avoid sneaky extra charges (unless, obviously, you want those things).
Taxi from Shenzhen airport to Small Inn Fuhua, in the central business district of Shenzhen: 150RMB ($24)
Two nights at Small Inn Fuhua, Shenzhen (found/booked on hostelworld.com: 270RMB (~$43)
I totally recommend this place. The staff doesn’t speak much English but they are pleasant and checking in and out was a cheerful, easy process. The rooms are small but they’re cute and the bathrooms are clean with good showers — hot, good water pressure. They also include tea, a water boiler, and some other little items…like bottled water. And condoms featuring black men and Russian women on the package. And lube. (I’m totally serious.) That aside, it really is a charming place and it’s near a metro station. The cab ride to the rail station costs about 20-25RMB. The only downside to the hotel is that there is no wi-fi, though there are internet cables in each room and a community computer in the lobby. I just went to a Starbucks in Shenzhen’s Central Business District and used the wifi there all day, which worked out fine.
Overnight train from Shenzhen to Beijing, hard sleeper bed (booked in person at the Shenzhen Luo Hu Railway Station): 437RMB (~$70)
It is way easier to go to the train station and book the ticket yourself than to try to get some online company to do it. The further in advance you go, the better (11 days ahead is the max.) so you can get a soft sleeper, but I went the day before I wanted to leave and still got a ticket with no trouble. The actual purchasing process is fast but the lines are long. Bring your Kindle.
Total cost of travel: About $313
On top of that, there was obviously the cost of food and toiletries, which was maybe another $100 but probably less than that, and would vary person to person.