So with the flooding still cutting of the northern train route, I'm considering a few options on making it to Nong Khai and into Laos. (We considered going through LP, but have decided we'd rather see southern Laos, since we've already seen northern on our last trip.) I've come to 2 options:
1.) Fly to BKK, and take the train to Nong Khai. I've heard that you can still take the train to NK, and that it uses the eastern route? I've been trying to find more info about this, and if its true. Has anyone heard anything, or travelled it in the last few weeks? Don't want to fly to BKK and then find out its not possible to train there. Also curious if its a train/bus combo or something of that sort.
2) The second option I'm considering is taking the bus from CM to Phitsanulok, and then from there to NK. We aren't in any time constraints (our visa is good until the 3rd of Nov.) and just looking for an easy and affordable route.
I'm currently in Vang Vieng and heard that the train from Bangkok to Vientiane is operating as normal.
Is it true the only way to get between CM and Bangkok right now is to fly? Do you know if all the flights are booked up and cost lots of $$$?
Its not true, the buses are running on detoured routes. I haven't done the detoured bus ride, but I hear it adds 3-4 hours. Last year when I was here I took the bus the opposite route and the bus was aircon and comfy. If you are looking to budget then its still a good way to go. Tickets aren't as booked as we thought they would be to fly... I flew Bangkok Air for $65USD. AirAsia is $63 but they do charge you for any checked bags, and if you don't check in online they now charge a "counter" fee. I would reccommend booking through their website (assuming you have a credit card) because if you go to any agency they'll charge you commission. The cheapest we found at any agency was 2500THB (about $85USD), before checking online.
Also to note, I found out there is a nightly bus that will take us from Chiang Mai to Koen Kahn, (12hrs, 580THB, aircon) and then can catch a bus to Nong Khai from there, so thats what we decided to do.
You can fly from Chiangmai to Udon Thani on Thai Airways, then take the short trip to Nong Khai by bus, train, minivan, songthaew, or taxi. Plenty of options.
The bus trip you mentioned via Phitsanulok is quite nice. If you have time, a good route to take is to just go as far as Loei then head north to Chiang Khan by bus or songthaew (about 30-45 minutes). From Chiang Khan (lots of decent guest houses and homestays ... and a lovely town) you can follow the Mekong along #211 to Nong Khai. It's a beautiful trip through small villages, rolling farmland, banana plantations, and jungle, always with great views of the Mekong and the Laotians hills beyond. There are several very nice spots where you can stop, but the best place in my opinion is Sangkhom and Buoy Bungalows, a very relaxed, old school place with thatched bungalows on the bank of the Mekong and superb food. Very affordable, as well.
My friend in Vientiane says that the area has been spared spared the flooding that other areas are getting.
You don't need to bother with going to Bangkok.
1. Fly Chiang Mai to Udon Thani on NokAir for 2500 baht, then bus 1 hour to Nong Khai, cross the Friendship Bridge and take a 50 baht bus into Vientiane.
2. Overnight bus Chiang Mai - Udon Thani about 12 hours, VIP sleeper around 650 baht, then as above. You can break the trip at Phitsanulok but some more direct buses skip it and turn off closer to Uttaradit then via Loei (alternate route described by Tilapia is gorgeous but of course takes a bit longer).
"Is it true the only way to get between CM and Bangkok right now is to fly?"
Nope! Plenty of buses running between CM and BK, down highway 11 then A1 then detour via Suphanburi and Nakhon Pathom, etc. Just allow a couple extra hours.
"the train from Bangkok to Vientiane is operating as normal"
Yes, but it detours via the eastern line to Chachoengsao then north to Kaeng Khoi before joining the Northeastern Line.