The Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge stretches 1.2 kilometres over the Mekong, connecting the small border town of Nong Khai, Thailand with Vientiane, Laos. A shuttle bus and train runs across. The border is open from 06:00 to 22:00 daily.
Nong Khai is a pleasant-enough small town with a train station and direct train line to Bangkok. It also has a bus station with service to Udon Thani.
On the Lao side, the border is 20 kilometres away from the downtown city centre.
Going from Thailand to Laos
If you are arriving overland from Thailand, most nationalities can get a Lao visa-on-arrival that is valid for 30 days. The visa fee ranges from $20 to $42, depending on your country. It’s best to pay in US dollars. If you don’t have a passport size photo for your visa application form, it’s an extra $1. There’s also an overtime fee of $1 if crossing outside of regular hours 08:00-16:00 or anytime on Saturday and Sunday.
Trains run between Bangkok and Nong Khai, a 12-hour journey. At Nong Khai station you can stamp out of the country and take a shuttle train across the Mekong to Thanaleng station in Laos, which has its own border post and can issue visas.
However, Thanaleng is in the middle of nowhere which means you are stuck with taking a tuk tuk the final 20 kilometres to Vientiane and you have zero bargaining power. We suggest you skip the shuttle train and from Nong Khai station, make your own way to the Thai immigration/passport checkpoint. It’s a 10- to 15-minute easy walk from Nong Khai train station to the bridge, or a quick tuk tuk ride is always an option.
A bus from Udon Thani to Nong Khai is one hour and costs under 100 baht. From Nong Khai bus station, catch a tuk tuk to the border. Hope to pay around 80 baht for one person from the bus station.
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 Lao visa at the border.
By air (kind of)
Flights to Laos are not cheap and a popular way to save money is to fly into Udon Thani and cross the border overland. Flights from Bangkok to Udon Thani are numerous and cheap, serviced by Nok Air, Thai Smile, Bangkok Airways and Thai AirAsia. If time is not an issue and you don’t mind the hassle, you can save a lot of money. To give you an idea, our one-way flight from Bangkok to Udon Thai on Thai Smile was US$35 including all taxes, luggage and fees. The regular rate from Bangkok to Vientiane on Lao Airlines is $175. Nok Air does “Fly n Ride” where the price of the ticket includes ground transfer service to Vientiane. A representative meets you at the luggage carousel and guides you from there.
The most streamlined way to get from Udon Thani Airport to the Friendship Bridge is to buy a ticket at the “limo” desk — it’s actually a shuttle in a comfortable air-conditioned van right to the border, an approximately one-hour drive on smooth sealed road. It’s 200 baht per person.
From the border to Vientiane
Once you’ve stamped out of Thailand, shuttled across the bridge and received your Lao visa, you have a few options for making the 20 kilometre journey to downtown Vientiane.
The frequent green and white air-conditioned bus #14 takes you to Vientiane’s central bus station. From there you can take a tuk tuk but you will be hard pressed to find one who will take you into the tourist centre, a mere kilometre away, for less than 30,000 kip. With a backpack the walk will take you 20-25 minutes.
Otherwise, you can try joining a shared songthaew (look for others waiting). You will pay up to 25,000 kip or 100 baht to squeeze in. Or finally, hire a tuk tuk on your own which will deposit you right at your hotel. Considering the distance, a fair rate is 80,000 to 100,000 kip for one person. If you haven’t booked accommodation, the tuk tuk driver will try to steer you to a place he receives commission on. Otherwise, ask to be taken to Wat Mixay smack dab in the downtown core.
Going from Vientiane to Thailand
Book your train ticket through an agency in Vientiane. It will cost about 200 baht more but it will include transport from your guesthouse to the border, sometimes even all the way to Nong Khai train station.
The #70 Express train to Bangkok departs at 19:10, scheduled to arrive at 06:00 the next morning (though it usually gets in much later). A hard seat costs 300 baht, a soft seat costs 450 baht. Considering the journey takes more than 13 hours, a sleeper is definitely worth it and costs 600 baht for fan, 700 baht for air-con upper berth, 800 baht for air-con lower berth or 1,317 baht for air-conditioned first class.
From the central bus station, take bus #14 to the Friendship Bridge. It departs every 10 to 20 minutes, and costs 6,000 kip.
Nong Khai: 07:30, 09:30, 12:40, 14:30, 15:30, 18:00, takes 1 hour, costs 15,000 kip.
Udon Thani: 08:00, 09:00, 10:30, 11:30, 14:00, 15:00, 16:30, 18:00, takes 2-3 hours, costs 22,000 kip.
Khon Kaen: 08:15, 14:45,takes 4-5 hours, costs 50,000 kip.
Bangkok (VIP): 18:00, takes 12 hours, costs 248,000 kip.
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you’ll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.