Vang Vieng, Lao PDR

Railway tourism making a swift comeback in the Mekong

Rail travel is experiencing a renaissance on the Asian mainland. Inspired by China’s multi-billion dollar investment in a nationwide rail system, other countries in the Mekong have followed suit with ambitious rail plans of their own.

To be sure, China has set a high bar to clear for its neighbors: China Railways has built over 40,000 km of rail lines throughout the nation since 2008, reaching 70,000 total kilometers of rail to be built by 2035.

Yunnan, China: Rail Reduces Carbon Footprint

The part of China that abuts the Mekong, though far from the heart of the nation, has benefited from this investment. A Shanghai-Kunming line and a Guangzhou-Guangxi-Yunnan high-speed rail route now connect China’s Mekong Sub-Region provinces to China’s major centres of industry and business.

The railway network even links the traditional Naxi city of Lijiang to a conventional-speed train system  that reduces the 17-hour bus trip from the provincial capital of Kunming down to a single 9-hour rail trip: reducing environmental impact (by offering a more sustainable alternative to buses and cars) and bringing tourism to a beautiful if far-flung area of Yunnan Province.

Laos: Faster Connection between Vientiane and Luang Prabang

Chinese investment in railways has extended across the border to southern neighbor (and fellow Mekong Sub-Region member) Laos. Thanks to a US$6 billion investment in the Laos-China Railway, a new high-speed line now runs from Vientiane to Boten on the Chinese border, stopping by Phonhong, Vangvieng, Luang Prabang, and Xay in between.

Tourists can ride the Vientiane-Luang Prabang  route, taking two hours to complete the journey compared to ten hours by bus. Due to travel restrictions, travelers cannot yet cross over to China from Laos (the line extends all the way to Kunming), but future post-pandemic arrangements can change that.

China outbound tourism to Laos is expected to increase by 50% once the borders open; Laos was already attracting upward of 1 million Chinese tourists annually prior to the pandemic.

Viet Nam: What’s New in Luxury Train Travel

Viet Nam’s well-established rail system comprehensively covers the nation’s major cities, north and south; it’s long been a favorite for budget travelers. To explore a different direction, Viet Nam’s rail has opted to explore old-school luxury.

The Vietage was launched in July 2020 by luxury hotel brand Anantara. Its custom-designed carriage will admit only 12 reservation-only passengers, traveling over 300km down Vietnam’s South Central coast between Anantara Hoi An Resortand Anantara Quy Nhon Villas.

Its luxuriously-appointed carriage features six spacious booths, a sit-up bar, gourmet dining, private restroom and a dedicated area for head and shoulder treatments.

Whether they prefer speed, range or luxury – we predict that tourists will choose rail transportation more often as travel reopens in the Mekong Sub-Region.

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