The Laos-China Railway opened on the 2nd of December 2021, making it the first railway in Laos (not counting the border shuttle at Thanaleng from Nong Khai in Thailand). The train from Vientiane to Boten takes just 3.5 hours, and its main stops include Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, and Muang Xai.
Laos was still closed for international travel when it opened, so the railway has been running as a domestic service during its first few months of operations. Laos reopened its borders in May 2022, so I returned to see for myself.
I have been waiting to ride this train since construction began in December 2016. I made a map of current and proposed railways in Southeast Asia, and this is one of the biggest railways projects in the region.
In my quest to ride all of the railways of Southeast Asia, I rode the Laos-China Railway from Vientiane to Boten and back again, stopping at the major stations along the way.
This is a trip report of my travels on the Laos-China Railway in May 2022. The information on this page was already out of date when I published this as there has been a price change and another station opened. The timetable will also change over time once trains from China and Thailand start operating.
I have a separate Laos-China Railway Guide which will be updated with information about tickets and services.
Laos-China Railway Map
My trip began at Vientiane Station, which is the start and end of the Vientiane-Boten line.
The first thing that stood out was the station name is only shown in Lao and Chinese.
There are tri-lingual signs (Lao/Chinese/English) and announcements in the train station are also tri-lingual.
The stations have airport-style security where you have to have a ticket to enter the stations and your bags are scanned. Aerosols are listed as a banned item, so my can of deodorant was taken from me.
If you are bringing in water they make you drink a sip of it tp prove that it is not an explosive substance. This is the most sensible system I have seen anywhere for liquid security.
Restaurants and shops
I arrived at Vientiane early with the intention of doing some people-watching at the station cafe. It turns out that there were no shops of any kind inside or outside the station. There were only a few vendors outside the stations, and inside the station was one lone vending machine.
I was joined by my friend Calvin on the Vientiane to Luang Prabang section of this trip, so we celebrated with a can of coffee from the vending machine.
The vending machine also dispenses beer (a thing that would never happen in Australia), and instant noodles.
This vending machine was the only one I saw at any of the express stations, and there were no shops at any other station. There were pop-up Beerlao stands at each station, which looked to be a recent promotion that had ended. You would have to assume that shops will be set up eventually as this seems like a missed opportunity to collect rent revenue.
There were some roadside shops at the entrance to Luang Prabang, but apart from that, there was nothing to eat outside the other stations.
One thing that every station has is water fountains serving hot and cold water. This reminded me of my travels in China, where people bring their own flasks of tea, and where instant noodles are served everywhere.
The stations have the options of sit or squat toilets.
I was once again reminded of my travels in China by the fact that there is no toilet paper. If you have been travelling in Southeast Asia for a while you should be packing your own in your day bag. If you are new to this part of the world, then remember to bring your own.
Express and Local Services
There are two train types operating on this domestic route. The express service travels up to 160 km/h and only stops at the main stations:
– Vang Vieng
– Luang Prabang
– Muang Xai
– Na Teuy
A local train service also runs at a speed of up to 120 km/h. This one stops all stations and the tickets are cheaper. Not all of the local stations are open yet, so this will cover more destinations over time.
[Boarding the train at Vientiane.]
It was a strange sensation to be on a modern and fast railway in Southeast Asia, and when the train departed on time I couldn’t believe it was happening. “I’m on a train in Laos!” I exclaimed out aloud, still getting used to the idea that that is a phrase that can now be said.
This trip from Vientiane to Luang Prabang used to take two days before the expressway was built, and even now it can take up to a day. Now it takes less than two hours.
Here is what the express train looks like arriving at Luang Prabang:
The train can travel at a speed of up to 160 km/h, making it a semi-high-speed railway. It is not – as some media outlets keep repeating – a high-speed railway. It is an ideal speed for a country the size of Laos.
The seats in economy are in a 3×2 configuration, so the seats are a bit narrower compared to trains with a 2×2 configuration.
I travelled in Business Class from Muang Xai to Boten, where the seats are in 2×2 configuration. I have also seen images of a carriage with 1×2 seat configuration for Business or First Class, but I didn’t see that on this trip.
The most important thing is leg room, of which there is plenty. You can easily pass someone in the aisle, or recline your seat without guilt.
On my return trip from Vang Vieng to Vientiane my seatmate had taken over my space with her bags. there is so much legroom that I didn’t bother to move her bags for the 55-minute trip.
There are power outlets under the seats, but no wifi onboard.
With only a can of coffee on offer at Vientiane I was hoping that there would be a cafeteria or drink cart on board. There is no cafeteria section on this train, and I didn’t see any drink cart between Vientiane and Luang Prabang. On another day I saw a drink cart going through the carriage.
The only items on offer was water and Pepsi.
There are hot water dispensers in the train as well, but they weren’t selling instant noodles. This might have been a Covid-related issue (like some airlines not selling food), so I will give them the benefit of the doubt about the lack of food for sale onboard.
One of the main reasons that trains are better than buses is that you can go to the toilet whenever you want.
The express trains have the option of squat toilets or sitting toilets.
Like the stations, there is no toilet paper, so come prepared.
I only saw squat toilets on the local train.
Edit: You can now buy tickets via the online travel agent Baolau, and it was announced that there will be an official app by the end of 2022.
The ticketing system was the biggest issue I encountered, which will become even more problematic once more international passengers start using the railway.
There are no online sales for tickets, so tickets have to be bought at the stations or at a ticket office in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. And tickets are only available 3 days in advance (same day plus next 2 days).
In Vientiane, I bought tickets at the ticket office at the Vientiane Center shopping mall. This office doesn’t accept cash or credit cards. I had read online that they accept Wechat, so I had set up my Wechat to make payments. When I arrived at the office I found out they only accept a local payment app called OnePay. I ended up asking someone in the queue to pay for me with their app, and I gave them cash. The ticket offices at the train stations accept cash.
[OnePay and UnionPay at Luang Prabang ticket office.]
It was still early days in the reopening of Laos so there weren’t many international travellers about. When I was buying tickets in Vientiane there was a foreigner couple in the queue who left the ticket office loudly complaining.. This ticketing system will be a real problem once more tourists return.
[Ticket at Luang Prabang ticket office.]
The city ticket offices only sell tickets departing from that destination, so that is another inconvenience.
So far there are no official ticket sellers at travel agents. I read on some forums that you could arrange to have tickets bought for you, but I haven’t found any reputable way to do this. There was also a problem early on of people buying lots of tickets and then reselling them at a higher cost, so the amount of tickets you can buy is limited.
I bought a ticket for my friend at the Vientiane ticket office, and I needed his passport copy and vaccine certificate when buying his ticket.
I thought the ticket prices were very reasonable for what we were getting. They must have realised that as well, because they announced that there would be a 20% increase in prices just days after I finished this trip. Most of the seats were filled on every day I travelled, so they may still be in price discovery mode. This is a sample of what I paid:
Vientiane – Luang Prabang 217,000 LAK ($16.03 USD)
Luang Prabang Muang Xai 105,000 LAK ($7.76 USD)
Muang Xai-Boten (First Class) 90,000 LAK ($6.65 USD)
Boten-Muang Xai 58,000 LAK ($4.29 USD)
Boten-Muang Xai (Local Train) 41,000 LAK ($3.03 USD)
Muang Xai-Vang Vieng 178,000 LAK ($13.16 USD)
Vang Vieng-Vientiane 103,000 LAK ($7.61 USD)
1 USD was approximately 14,000 Laotian Kip (LAK) at the time of my trip.
Vientiane station is 17 km outside the city centre, so you need to factor in extra travel time to get there. Google Maps said it was 30 minutes in the morning, and we got there in 20 minutes.
Coming back to Vientiane it took about 55 minutes by bus to get from the station to the central bus station in peak hour traffic.
We got a private taxi that was arranged by the hotel for 170,000 LAK. On the way back I got the local bus that goes to the central bus station for 15,000 LAK.
Vang Vieng Station is about 4 km from the city centre. The transport prices are:
Shared tuktuk: 30,000 LAK
Private tuktuk 50,000 LAK
Motorbike taxi: 20,000 LAK
Luang Prabang Station is about 12 km from the historic centre of Luang Prabang, and it took about 25 minutes to get there. I was wondering what the transport situation would be like here as it will most likely be the most popular stop for tourism.
When we arrived we got a shared tuktuk with two Laotians. One of the men was a policeman (he showed us his ID) and we all paid 50,000 LAK each. With the policeman paying the same rate I guessed we paid the correct fare. On the way back I rented a private tuktuk for 80,000 LAK, and my friend went back earlier and rented a private car for 170,000 LAK. The official shared minivan price is listed at 35.000 LAK.
Muang Xai Station is about 3 km from the city centre.
Electric trolley: 5,000 LAK
Shared tuktuk: 30,000 LAK
Private tuktuk: 50,000 LAK
I also visited Boten at the end of the line, but it is not open for tourism when I was there. It was still a big construction site and you needed to do a covid test to enter. The station is 4.7 km from the city area and there was one lone motorbike taxi at the station when I arrived. Everyone appeared to be there for work purposes and had their own transport. The motorbike taxi knew I had no options and charged me 100,000 LAK to ride to the city.
I will finish up with some views from the train. Actually, once you get north of Vang Vieng you are going to see a lot of the inside of tunnels (there are so many tunnels!).
Here is what to expect outside the tunnels.
[View near Vang Vieng.]
[Mekong crossing near Luang Prabang.]
[Second Mekong crossing.]
Future international travel
The railway has been built with a connection to China, and there will eventually be trains from Kunming. The border at China was still closed so I will come back and do this trip when it is open.
At Boten station you will have to leave the train and follow the path to the international section of the station.
There is a separate international entrance at Boten.
I am wondering if you clear Chinese immigration here as well (like how you clear British and French immigration at the same station on the Eurostar service). I will find out next time when I do the trip from Vientiane to Kunming!