TRAVELING BY OVERNIGHT SLEEPER TRAIN FROM BANGKOK, THAILAND TO VIENTIANE, LAOS
Southeast Asia is the world’s most popular hiking destination. It is hard to compete with the beautiful landscapes, the crystal clear ocean waters, the friendly mentality of the people and the great cuisine of countries like Thailand, Cambodia, Laos or Vietnam.
A particularly common travel route runs between the capitals of Thailand and Laos, Bangkok and Vientiane. When the distance is around 400 miles, it can be overwhelming to choose the most efficient way.
BASIC TRAVEL INSTRUCTIONS
In this first paragraph I would like to briefly review the possible travel routes before giving a detailed picture of my number one option, the night train.
There are basically 4 direct ways to get to Laos via Vientiane (flight, bus, self-drive, train) when you arrive from Bangkok (and vice versa). The most convenient and cheapest way is to fly from Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok to Vientiane International Airport.
This one-hour direct flight costs around US$150-250 and departs from Bangkok several times a day. The bus journey usually takes about 10-12 hours and costs about US$25-50, depending on the bus line and booking time.
You can also drive directly with a rental car, but that does not really have clear advantages. The road structure is not very developed and renting a car for a backpacking trip seems a bit negative as it has to be returned especially for a rental or there will be a charge.
The rental price for the smallest car with all recommended insurance is approximately US$50 per day, excluding petrol. The journey itself takes about 10 hours. The last way to travel directly is by train. A regular train ride costs only $10, while a “night train” costs about $35 per person per ride.
BECAUSE THE NIGHT TRAIN IS THE PERFECT CHOICE FOR EVERYONE
Given all the options, the big question is really: what does “efficient travel” mean to us? Some want to save time, others money. And that is exactly why I recommend the night train. It’s a perfect compromise considering both aspects.
First of all, the night train is quite cheap compared to flights or rental cars. Another advantage is convenience. The night train has real beds that offer you the perfect place to sleep.
We all know what it feels like to travel long distances on buses or trains and always sit upright. Compared to a rental car, the train offers us the opportunity to relax.
However, the biggest advantage of the night train is that, as the name suggests, it runs at night. This means you don’t waste precious days/adventure time. You’re on a train that gently takes you to your next destination while you sleep soundly in a real bed.
Before you know it you wake up in another country. Well, that was a theory now, but what was it like in real life?
ADVENTURE TRIP BETWEEN THAILAND AND LAOS
After a few days in Bangkok, my wife and I started looking for the best ways to get to Laos. After considering all the pros and cons of each of the above modes of travel, we decided to take an overnight trip on the overnight train which was scheduled to depart from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong Station at 8pm on the same day.
The train station is quite central and there is a huge choice of eateries in the immediate vicinity. Arriving a little earlier (6pm) gave us just enough time to explore the train station and have a romantic dinner together.
After our favorite meal, Pad Thai, we approached the platform where our train was already waiting for us. We quickly spoke to a railway official who showed us the right car.
The two seats we were allocated were actually part of a 4 seater setup. The type with 4 seats opposite each other (2 seats on the left and 2 seats on the right). We wondered if there would be other people sitting next to us and what the sleeping situation would be like.
Around 10pm, a railway official (not the same one we spoke to outside the train just before departure) ran over the train and folded the mattresses that were partially hidden in the walls. And voilà, our 4-seater became a bunk bed.
The whole change happened so fast that we were a bit shocked. The railway manager barely spoke English and at first we didn’t know what he wanted. Eventually he just started playing with the chairs so we stepped aside and watched the magic happen.
He didn’t just turn these people’s seats into beds on seats, but the entire car. Soon after, the lights above the corridor went out and it became very quiet. There were about 10 other passengers in our car.
Some travel alone, others in groups. When the lights went out, we didn’t hear anyone talking. A quick glance showed that all the people on the bed had closed the yellow curtains that hung in front of their sleeping quarters. That’s why we did the same.
Headlights on, my wife and I squeezed through my senior year to keep writing our travel journal and spend more time together. We tried to be as quiet as possible and were happy to chat about our previous experiences in Bangkok.
Eventually my wife got back into her bed and we immediately fell asleep like two babies after their first walk. Before we knew it, the same railway director who had turned the seats into beds was walking down the aisle, waking everyone up at 6:00 in the morning, 30 minutes before we reached Nong Khai, Thailand’s northernmost point.
If there is anything negative about this way of travelling, it is that we had to cross the border into Laos ourselves. However, this was by no means a difficult task and the road to the border was very easy to find. We could have taken a taxi, but we weren’t allowed.
First of all, taxis must be insanely expensive and second, the journey was easy to walk. Especially after 10 hours of inactivity, this was a great morning exercise to wake us up.
Even though we didn’t have a cell phone, we decided to follow the dirt road, which seemed to be the only plausible route. We didn’t have cell service, but we knew that (worst case scenario) we could just follow all the other passengers. After all, everyone had to walk the same path.
There was nowhere to go but the border crossing. With that in mind, we felt very comfortable and soon arrived at the Nong Khai customs border post. No one checked anything there so we just walked through. After crossing the Thai side of the border, we found that we weren’t allowed to walk any further. We were even asked to wait for the bus.
We didn’t quite understand why and what bus it was, we got in line with people who were already waiting. About 15 minutes later, a bus with probably 20-25 people pulled up in front of us. After all the passengers had left the vehicle, we were two of the last five people allowed to enter.
Therefore, we had no place to sit and stood in the small bus corridor. For a few minutes nothing happened. It already seemed to be very hot. We didn’t really know if it was real time or the engine of the bus.
When we started cycling, we soon arrived at the kilometer-long Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, which was opened on April 8, 1994. The whole journey only took about 3 minutes and we reached the other side of the bridge. After getting off the bus we headed straight to the immigration points in Laos.
PASSPORT PHOTOS ARE REQUIRED TO OBTAIN A VALID VISA
As we walked by, we saw a poster telling arriving passengers that a passport photo is required to obtain a valid visa. Directly behind the poster was the person running the photo booth (how practical!).
We quickly took new photos for $10 each, went to the immigration officer and happily handed them over with our passports.
No questions, no information provided. It took a few minutes for the immigration officer to calmly hand us back our passports, visa included. We exited the immigration building and obviously the people trying to get us into one of their taxis/rickshaws immediately filled up.
When two guys offered us a ride at the same time, we jumped at the chance and told them we’d go with whoever offered us the best price. We originally started at $35 but were able to get a ride for $10.