First off I will say that the train doesn’t actually go to Vientiane; it stops at a station about 16km away. Thai Railways will sell you connecting minivan ticket for the last part of the journey, so that is close enough to qualify as a train to Vientiane.
I had an exact date I wanted to travel on so I booked my ticket in advance with 12go. Trains can book out well in advance during the high season so I didn’t want to leave that to chance.
12go have an office opposite Bangkok train station, and you can elect to pick your ticket up here before you travel. They charge a small commission, for which they physically go to the station to buy the tickets. Thai Railways don’t have their own online booking facility or offer it to other agents.
I was happy with this option as it saved me from going to book a ticket once I got to Bangkok. The 12go website is easy to use and beautiful to look at. I say that because if you go and look at the official Thai Railway website, you will see what an unusable mess of a site that is.
The train to Vientiane is via the Bangkok – Nong Khai service. Nong Khai is on the Mekong River on the Thai-Laos border. Get the train to Nong Khai, and from Nong Khai there is a connecting shuttle train to Thanaleng in Laos. I booked the #25 overnight train from Bangkok to Nong Khai.
This train leaves Bangkok at 8pm, and if everything goes to plan you can be in Vientiane by around 8.30am.
The day I left Bangkok I stayed at the Train Guesthouse which is next to the train station. This is a cheap backpacker guesthouse that has private rooms, and it’s an ideal place to stay if you don’t want to be out all day before the train leaves.
It turned out that I had good timing with this trip as I got to experience the new train carriages which had just come into service the week before. I didn’t detect a “new train smell” like you get with new cars, but it still looked shiny and new.
The new carriages come with the number one most desired amenity for the modern traveller; a personal power outlet for every seat.
Another improvement from the old train are the airline-style western toilets. The bum gun has been retained so it’s like the best of both worlds.
There are public sinks outside the toilets.
There is a dining carriage with food and drinks available onboard. I had dinner before I left so I didn’t feel the need to eat, apart from some instant noodles.
The offer of “crapmeat” didn’t awaken my appetite.
When booking tickets there is a price difference with the upper and lower bunks, with the upper bunks being cheaper. It’s cheaper because the bed is narrower and there is no window.
When you board the train the seats are still out and you sit at your assigned seat, which becomes your bunk number.
Not long after the train departs the seats are converted into beds. It’s an efficient operation and the railway staff make it look so easy. Here is a video of my seat being turned into a bed.
[YouTube: Converting seats into a bed.]
I have travelled on overnight trains in Thailand before and I remembered that the top bed was smaller, so I booked the lower bed. While the mattress was comfortable, the compartment is shorter than me (I’m 6’1″/185cm) so I had to lie at an angle and have my legs bent to fit in.
Another thing I remembered about the trains is that the air conditioning is set to a level to make you shiver your arse off all night. I wear jeans and a long shirt when I travel, just in case. Fortunately the temperature was set to a reasonable 22c. I know this because the new carriages have travel information screens.
One difference from the old sleeper trains compared to the new ones I noticed is that there are no bunk ladders in the new train. There are no ceiling fans either and it feels a bit more sterile compared to the old trains.
I also recall that they turned off the lights at some point on the old trains, but on this one they left them on all night. I’m a light sleeper (so to speak) so I found this irritating. I think I did nod off eventually even though I planned to use the night as reading trip.
The train is scheduled to arrive at Nong Khai at 6.45AM so I was surprised to see that we arrived early, even with a late departure. A lot of the rail network in Thailand runs on a single track, so throughout the night the train stops at sidings while waiting for opposing trains to pass. Time can be made up or lost depending on the wait for other trains to pass. There are plans to double track the railways of Thailand, so this will one day be a thing of the past.
Once you arrive at Nong Khai you then buy the ticket for the train from Nong Khai to Thanaleng (they don’t sell this ticket in Bangkok). The ticket is only 20 baht (.56c USD), and they will sell you a train/minivan combo ticket for 300 baht. This is quite an expensive minivan ride given that it’s only 16 km from Thanaleng to Vientiane. For the purpose of this review I took this option.
The cheaper option is to walkout outside the train station and look for the Friendship Bridge shuttle. This will take you to the Thai-Laos border, and once you clear immigration and cross into Laos you can take local transport to Vientiane.
I stayed in Nong Khai for the day and continued this journey the next day. If you plan to stay in Nong Khai then getting the train would be more hassle.
The one good thing about getting the train to Laos is the easy border crossing experience. The Thai immigration checkpoint is at the end of the platform that the train from Bangkok arrives on.
The connecting train to Laos is timed to depart after the Bangkok train arrives. There is a 45 minute space between trains so there is plenty of time to get your ticket and clear immigration. When I got the train the Bangkok train was running late, so Laos train was also an hour late.
There are two third-class carriages for this shuttle train, operated by Thai State Railways (Laos currently has no railway of its own).
The train crosses the Mekong over the Friendship Bridge, which is closed for traffic when the train is on the bridge.
Welcome to Laos!
The total journey takes 8 minutes for the 4km journey, and you have just traversed the entire length of railway in Laos.
Like at Nong Khai there is an immigration gate at Thanaleng, and it’s also an easy border crossing experience. Visa on arrival is available here ($30USD for Australians – check for your country before you go).
At the station the minivan was waiting for those with a pre-purchased ticket. There was one other minivan there looking for business, though I didn’t get to ask what the price was.
One of the passengers was hoping to get the local bus to Vientiane but there was no other transport options at the station. Thanaleng is not near anything and there was no throng of tuk-tuk or taxi drivers here. There are only two train services a day, and the day I went there was about 20 passengers on the train. Perhaps it is not worth the taxi drivers time to wait here.
Here is a map of Dong Khai – Thanaleng (Dongphosy) – Vientiane.
This cross-border railway opened in 2009, and the original plan was going to extend it all the way to Vientiane. This plan has since been shelved as there is a bigger and better plan in the works. As part of the Singapore-Kunming Rail Link there will be a new railway that travels from Kunming through Laos, connecting Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, and Vientiane. This will then continue through Thailand to Bangkok.
Work has started on this line, though the exact alignment is not publicly known. I have read that there will be a new railway bridge closer to Vientiane and that Thanaleng will become a freight terminal.
The exact location of the future Vientiane railway station hasn’t been made public, which I was hoping to find out. I did find this plan of what the station might look like.
[Found via skyscrapercity.com, original author not known.]
With more low-cost airlines servicing Laos it is become easier to get to. AirAsia has a flight from Bangkok to Vientiane which have made flights much cheaper. The train is an economical and comfortable way to travel, especially when you consider that you are saving a nights accommodation by sleeping on the train (and in a bed, not just on a seat). In the future, there will also be a Bangkok–Nong Khai high-speed railway. This will join the Vientiane-Boten railway, making it possible to get a high-speed train from Bangkok to Vientiane.
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