A Thai digression to Laos

How do you get from Burma to Laos? You don’t… There’s no way around: you have to go through Thailand! Here is how.

(We left our cameras in the bags during the trip, so in this post I will use some stock photos pics taken on arrival in Bangkok in January)

You shall -still- not pass!

At first we wanted to cross to Laos by land… And one last time, Burma would force us to review our plans : only the locals can get the permission to cross the Myanmar-Laos border.

From that point we had three two options:

  • Burmese authorities currently forbid tourist land travel in eastern Shan state -as you may have already guessed from the Myitktyina episode, there is fighting against rebels in this area too.
    >> So, mandatory plane for Tachileik, Thai border crossing, bus to Chiang Rai, night on site, one or two morning buses to get to the Lao border, cross by foot to Huay Xai, early enough to get through immigration and then catch a bus to Luang Namtha -or spend the night there, and oh yeah, there was no information online about any of the buses’ schedule or cost, which remained an open question mark
  • Flight to Bangkok, overnight train to Nong Khai, crossing the border at the Friendship Bridge and 20 minutes bus ride to Vientiane
  • The Doomed Plan: get false Laotian papers, escape rebels and police by crossing at night, on our own, the whole Shan state, learn to speak Lao, disguise ourselves as locals to get through checkpoints and immigration, and try our best not to end up in jail as there is no extradition agreement…

Conclusion 1: even without reading you already guessed that there is a simple option and a option that we’ll call “less simple” -and no, the doomed plan was never considered an option.

Conclusion 2: no passage through Laos without getting on an airplane.

Well that’s not exactly true: technically you could get on a bus from Yangon to Myawaddy, then cross the border by foot (hope not to get in any trouble if you arrived by plane an want to leave by land), tehn get on another bus from Mae Sot to Bangkok. In the end the total cost of the operation would be a bit lower but the journey’s duration would be much higher.

At Yangon’s airport, we learn that KFC is totally compatible with the 227 precepts of monastic Buddhist life … Or is it?

What about the budget then? As always it all depends on how organised you are. In our case, we have plenty of time and we like to leave room for the unexpected … meaning we often decide on itineraries quite late, sometimes even too late.

We booked just one week before departure: at the time Mandalay-Tachileik plane tickets were worth twice the cost of Yangon-Bangkok tickets, and we also had to plan a night in Chiang Rai … So, even when taking in account the Nyaungshwe-Yangon bus cost and the Bangkok-Nong Khai train ticket, the budget difference remained slightly in favor of the Bangkok route.

Then there was another strong argument in favor of this itinerary: we would get to ride in a sleeper Thai train …

Train 3.0

Thai trains reputation is firmly established, and after experiencing the Burmese version, we stood in awe of about every small detail in our sleeper. There were super clean toilets with soft tissue, a clean space under the lower berth to store our bags, a small clean table, functional electrical outlets, clean sheets and a steward to make the beds at night …

You acute reader may have noticed a very slightly predominant  feeling of cleanliness! The whole car was properly gleaming and seemed to come straight out of a SF film from the 80s, all accessories included: automatic doors sliding with a smooth “woosh”, blue lines of light on the floor, white plastics covering everything with rounded corners and a guy in uniform at each entrance …

Walking through the door was quite like entering another spatio-temporal dimension via a wormhole.

It is possible that the contrast with a dirty large railway station played its part here, but I had never boarded a train that clean before -I mean, nowhere. Perhaps you can find trains like that in Japan, but certainly not in Europe … In fact it was so good that I got almost no sleep that night, taking advantage of the ride to finally complete a video that was running late since our departure from France on month before.

The train to Nong Khai offers 10 hours of welcomed freshness in hot season -here is a totally unrelated bus driver in Bangkok getting a freeze break at the red light

If there was one point of criticism to make, that would be the polar AC temperature, somewhat reminiscent of Abu Dhabi’s airport -but this is another story. The meals from the dining car also presented a suspicious resemblance with the trays they serve inflight … On the other hand the steamed buns were ok and fed us for less than 100 bahts per person.

Best read before buying

Sabaidi – welcome to globalized Bangkok

This will save you some research time, and perhaps some money: in order to get the best rates you’d better book train tickets from the official website!

This may sound obvious but many websites with names that just sound official are actually travel companies: thailandtrainticket, thailandtrain … Their websites are rather ergonomic, so for the trouble their commission is close to 100% of the ticket’s real cost.

The only official website is www.thairailwayticket.com -no we don’t get any money from this link, it just took us forever to find it so here it is, plain and simple.

You can use your credit card to pay, then you will receive PDF tickets by email and will need to print them before boarding.

Our ticket for the Special Express 25 train costed us 750 TBH for the top bed and 840 TBH for the lower bed (convenient to put the bags and sit together before sleeping). Plan your trip ahead: there were not many beds left in second class 5 days before departure and some other trains were already fully booked.

Bulk tips to cross the Lao border

Tuk tuk in the bustling streets of Bangkok -which have nothing to do with the near-zero traffic we experienced in Nong Khai on a Sunday morning at 6 AM

Here are a couple of handy before-you-go informations and advice:

  • Tuks tuks will take you from the Nong Khai station to the border crossing point. It may be worth it if you carry heavy luggages, but you should know that this is a very short walk -500 meters- and an itinerary boiling down to: go left from the station – turn left into the main street – walk straight up until you reach a T junction and can’t go straight anymore – that’s it, the Thai immigration post sits to your right.
    You may use the dining bar’s wifi to look it up on the previous night -wagon and wifi will be closed on arrival at 6 am
  • After getting the exit stamp from Thailand, crossing the border itself is done by bus on the Friendship bridge for 20 TBH – or a 3 km walk for the brave ones
  • If you cross before 8 am or on a Sunday, expect to pay an extra $ 1 to Lao immigration to cover “extended hours” ;->
  • Once you get your visa, an ATM sits conveniently on your right to withdraw kips (LAK) and the public bus #14 will bring you to Vientiane Talat Sao bus station for just 6 000 kip -vs 15 to 30 000 for a taxi or shared tuk-tuk
  • Once in Talat Sao you may buy a local SIM -read this post before!- a Lao sandwich or some fruits and then walk the remaining 1.5 km to the central area around Wat Mixai where all guesthouses and youth hostels are located

Have a nice trip !

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