May 29 2013
The early 1990s marked a new era for Laos as its borders were opened both to trade and tourism. The Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge — Mittaphab Bridge in Lao — was built in 1994, courtesy of the Australian government. It has since become the path most travelled between Laos and Thailand. Only vehicles with papers can cross — though bicycles can cross without them in the car lane — so travellers should take the bus or train. Walking across the bridge is technically illegal, so could get you arrested, though we have had reports of travellers crossing without incident on foot.
The Friendship Bridge stretches 1.17 kilometres across the Mekong, with a border post at the foot of each end and a shuttle bus running in between. It’s open from 06:00 to 22:00 daily. Nong Khai is the pleasant little border town at the Thai end of the bridge; the centre is about 10 minutes from the border by tuk tuk. Nong Khai has a train station and offers limited coach services to popular destinations like Bangkok and Chiang Mai. The nearest city to Nong Khai, Udon Thani, is about an hour away. The bridge is about 20 kilometres from Vientiane, the Lao capital.
Trains run between Bangkok and Laos, making several stops along the way. There are various price brackets, starting with third class car with wooden benches and going up to first class air-con private compartments. The second-class sleeper with fan has been discontinued, and sleeper cars are only available with air-con, usually at full blast. At around 500 baht, this is an affordable and comfortable option — book a bottom bunk and bring a jumper.
The trip takes about 12 hours from Bangkok, and trains depart morning and evening. The Lao train station, Thanaleng, has its own border post, and it issues visas. It’s located near the Friendship Bridge, so you will need to take a tuk tuk, taxi or jumbo into Vientiane.
Coach services from Thailand into Laos end at the Thai border. The buses coming here will not sell tickets to foreigners who do not already have a Lao visa. Otherwise, you’ll need to get a bus to either Udon Thani or Nong Khai. Busses from Udon Thani to Nong Khai cost under 100 baht and take 90 minutes to two hours. From Nong Khai, catch a tuk tuk to the border. Hope to pay around 80 baht from the bus station and don’t be shy about haggling.
Be wary of some tuk tuk scams in Nong Khai. Drivers have claimed they can sort you out with a visa and may even insist on driving you to their ‘office’, where they will charge you up to $80 to give you a fake visa. You can only get a visa at the border. If they take you somewhere else, firmly insist on going to the border, and if necessary, go find yourself another tuk tuk. Don’t get aggressive. Never leave your stuff unattended in the tuk tuk.
By air (kind of)
Udon Thani airport is serviced domestically by AirAsia, NokAir and Thai Airways. Flights into Udon Thani are often a fraction of the price of the Lao Airlines flights into Vientiane. The airport offers a ‘limousine service’, which is in fact a shuttle, but a very comfortable one, that departs when full and deposits passengers right at the border for 250 baht. This is undoubtedly the most convenient way to get to the border from Udon Thani airport and takes approximately one hour.
Getting your visa
After you get your Thai exit stamp, the shuttle bus will take you across the bridge for 18 baht. Upon arriving at the Lao end, you can apply for your visa. Bring two passport photos and enough cash to pay for the visa. They don’t accept credit cards. Prices vary depending on nationality, ranging from US$30 to $38, except for Canadians, who pay US$44. You can also pay in baht. You don’t need exact change. After filling in the form, you’ll wait around 10 minutes, or longer if it’s busy. You’ll receive your receipt and any change along with your visa.
The border post charges a fee that will be included in the cost of your visa. In 2013, the government introduced a barrier system with swipe cards that has resulted in mass confusion. After you get your visa, go to the booth, show your visa receipt and you will get a temporary swipe card. Next, go get your visa stamped and then feed your card to the barrier to exit.
From the border to Vientiane
Once you’ve passed border patrol, you’ll need to get into the city. You will immediately be accosted by a crowd of eager tuk tuk and taxi drivers trying to whisk you into their vehicles. A sign has been posted indicating their prices, so check them before you agree to a price — feel free to try haggling. It takes 45 minutes or longer to get to Vientiane city centre.
The bus is the cheapest option at around US$2, but the mob of drivers will tell you there is no bus service to Vientiane. There is — bus number 14 takes you to Khua Din central bus station, but there isn’t an obvious bus stop. You can wait for it at the right hand curb in front of the noodle shops. The quickest option is sharing the nearest jumbo. You will pay 25,000 kip, or 100 baht, to squeeze in and get to downtown Vientiane. The driver will drop you off at Khua Din central bus station, unless you specify you want to go elsewhere. If the driver doesn’t know the name of your accommodation or you haven’t booked any, ask to be taken to Wat Mixay and you’ll be deposited in the heart of downtown Vientiane. You should be able to pay for your transport in kip, baht or dollars.
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