Why go to Vientiane
After the bustling capital of Thailand with it proud high rises piercing the skies, modern skytrain whisking passengers around the city above the ground and busy world-class shopping centres, Vientiane may feel too sleepy, too low-storied, too rustic and too simple. And in some way it is. But if you stop comparing Vientiane to Bangkok, you will discover tons of charm in the wide leafy boulevards and elaborately decorated historical wats and enjoy simple Lao pleasures – from spicy laap salad and ice-cold beer Lao to the measured pace of local life. The mighty Mekong adds to the meditative mood, and the amazing sunsets over the river never fail to impress.
From Bangkok to Vientiane
The road distance from Bangkok to Vientiane is 650 km and you need at least 10 hours to get to Laos, including the time you send at the border. Nong Khai–Vientiane border crossing is most probably the busiest one among all the other land border crossings between Thailand and Laos. That said, queues are normally reasonable and you are not pushed too much to pay extra for your Lao visa if you need one.
Flights from Bangkok to Vientiane
There are direct flights between both Bangkok airports and Vientiane, all taking 1¼ hours. The cheapest deals are often offered by AirAsia which uses Don Mueang Airport in Bangkok as their hub. Normally you can get tickets for THB2000, less if you buy in advance during promotion periods. If you prefer to fly from Suvarnabhumi, consider Lao Airlines, which is more expensive (THB3500 and up), but includes 20 kg of checked luggage into their ticket price. Thai Airways and Bangkok Airways also operate their flights from Suvarnabhumi.
In Vientiane the International Airport Wattay is located 3 km northwest of the centre. The terminal building has been given a facelift recently and now features ATMs, currency exchange counters, several snacks outlets, restaurants and the information counter. You can get an official taxi to the centre of Vientiane right at the airport in the arrivals hall. The rate is flat and is USD7. A budget option is to get out of the terminal building and walk to the main road (about 500 m) where you can negotiate a ride with tuk-tuk drivers (normally at half of the taxi price) or hop onto a local bus which costs 4000 kip (USD0.5).
Tip A decent alternative to taking a direct flight from Bangkok to Vientiane is heading from Bangkok to Udon Thani instead. This domestic flight costs less and you have a wider choice of departures throughout the day with AirAsia, Lion Air or Nok Air. From Udon Thani airport you can take a bus to get to the city bus station and take the direct international bus to Vientiane from there. The international service departs eight times a day from 8am till 6pm and costs THB80. There is also van service to Vientiane from Udon Thani airport (THB200). In total it is 80 km from Udon Thani to Vientiane; expect to spend from two to three hours to get to Laos, including the time you spend at the border.
Note If taking the international bus/van from Udon Thani to Vientiane you may be rejected the ride if you do not have your Lao visa yet and are going to get one at the border. The only reason for rejection is that the bus drivers do not want to wait for the passengers obtaining their visas at the border. In this case ask for the transport to the Thai border – once at the Lao side of the border, you can then take a tuk-tuk to your destination.
Direct bus from Bangkok to Vientiane
There is direct international bus service from Bangkok to Vientiane. The service is operated by Transport Co Intl based at Morchit Bus Terminal in Bangkok. The bus departs daily at 8pm from and reaches Talat Sao bus station in Vientiane by 7am the next morning. If you are heading to the Thai consulate in Vientiane to apply for your Thai visa, this bus is a sure bet to get to the consulate in time. Tickets cost THB1000 which is in fact approximately one third more than you would spend if taking a bus to Nong Khai and then catching the international bus to Vientiane from Nong Khai bus station.
Note that there are only six buses a day from Nong Khai to Vientiane with rather an inconvenient gap in schedule between 9.30am and 12.40pm.
The bus from Bangkok to Vientiane is an ordinary VIP bus with four seats per row. Some of the buses serving the route do look rather tired; so do not expect extra comfort. There are several bathroom stops en route at large gas stations with food courts and/or convenience stores to stock up on munchies. Snacks and water are served on board along with late dinner in the form of a lunch box containing some rice and curry. In general, taking the direct international bus from Bangkok to Vientiane is a convenient and hassle free way to get to the capital of Laos.
From Bangkok to Vientiane via Nong Khai
Nong Khai makes for a convenient transit point for travelling to Vientiane overland. In Bangkok, buses for Nong Khai depart all day through from the northern bus terminal, Morchit, and arrive to Nong Khai bus station, the majority of them taking from nine to 10 hours (THB500-THB600).
From Nong Khai bus station take the international bus to Vientiane (7.30am, 9.30am, 12.40pm, 2.30pm, 3.30pm. 6pm; THB60; buy tickets on the spot) or get a tuk-tuk to the border (THB60), then hop onto the shuttle bus over the bridge to the other side of the border (THB50) and negotiate a tuk-tuk ride to Vientiane from there (from THB100).
Nong Khai sits at the end of the Northeastern Line of Thai railway network and it is a good point to get there by train. The most convenient option is arguably train #69 departing from Hua Lamphong train station in Bangkok at 8pm and reaching Nong Khai at 6.45am the next morning. It offers first (THB1500) and second class (THB1000) sleepers (ladies only as well) which are a great way to travel.
From Nong Khai train station you can either take a shuttle train to Tha Nalaeng train station in Laos or walk to the border, exit Thailand, get onto the shuttle bus running over the bridge to the Lao side, get your Lao visa (if you need one), enter Laos and enjoy a hearty welcome from numerous tuk-tuk drivers offering reasonable prices for a 20 km ride to Vientiane (from THB60 per person or THB200 for the whole vehicle). Taking a shuttle train to Tha Nalaeng is less preferable as you will have then get from Tha Nalaeng to Vientiane, with the transportation options limited to few tuk-tuk drivers who do not know what modesty is about!
Getting your Lao visa on arrival
If you need a visa to enter Laos, you can get one on arrival in Vientiane airport, at the immigration offices on the Lao side of Nong Khai–Vientiane border or at the train station of Tha Nalaeng.
The majority of the nationalities can obtain a 30-day tourist visa on arrival (check in advance). The visa fee varies depending on your country of residence but is USD30 for the majority of the countries. You can pay in Thai baht, too, but it will cost you a bit more (THB1500; ~USD45). Take a visa application form from the officer, fill it in, have 2 small photos to attach to your application (or pay a couple of bucks if you do not have pics) and get your Lao visa.
Getting around in Vientiane
Wide Vientiane boulevards and streets do not see as much traffic as other Asian capitals, and the flat terrain makes it possible to negotiate the city thanons by bicycle. These are available for rent in many guesthouses at about USD1 per day, though the quality of such bicycles leaves much to be desired.
Tuk-tuks are plentiful but those hanging around the night market close to Mekong do not fall below USD5 with their rates.
There are public buses in Vientiane (6,000 kip) and the most useful route is #14 from Talat Sao (Morning market) to the Friendship bridge and further to Buddha Park.
Things to do in Vientiane
Though at first sight Vientiane may look modest compared to the capitals of the neighbouring countries, it definitely has enough sights and activities to keep you busy at least for a couple of days. The city features quite a few interesting wats and stupas out of which try not to miss Wat Ho Phra Kaew, the 16th century temple which used to house the sacred Emerald Buddha image, now resident in Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok. Not less impressive is Wat Sisaket, the oldest monastery in Laos with great murals depicting scenes from Jataka. That Luang, one the most important religious monuments in the country, dates back to the 16th century as well, but was rebuilt in the middle of the past century; yet the shape of this stupa reminiscent of a lotus bud has been replicated in many wats throughout the country and in Thai region of Isan.
You will come across Patuxia and the black stupa more than once while taking a stroll around the city; the former has a nice park with a fountain and is especially pleasant at sunset. The weird Buddha Park located 25 km southeast of Vientiane is worth visiting, too, even if you have already seen the similar park in Nong Khai. The atmosphere there is serene and there are usually not too many visitors wandering between the stone images of Buddhist and Hindu deities.
Onward travel from Vientiane
The two star destinations in Laos easily reached from Vientiane are Luang Phabang, a rare gem of elegant French architecture, golden wats and traditional wooden houses, and Vang Vieng, a famous tubing capital of the country which now enjoys a much quieter vibe after all those bars along the river have been ordered to close. Out of international destinations you can get to overland, consider Hanoi, though a 22-hour bus ride is not the experience everyone is longing for.