I’ve crossed the border from Nong Khai, Thailand, into Laos several times over the past few years. During the previous times it was a total pain in the ass. About a year and a half ago, I found myself standing in front of the Thai border at the ass crack of dawn. I was freezing my balls off amidst a herd of about three hundred people. When they opened the border it was like a stampede of cattle running wild. People were at a jog trying to get to be first in line and avoid the wait. It was a long morning.
When I was browsing around online about a week ago, I read a quick paragraph about Thanaleng. I didn’t pay it much attention to be honest. However, when I arrived at the Nong Khai Train Station, I noticed the Thai immigration booth off to the left. There was no one in line so we spoke to the officer. He indicated that we just needed to purchase a ticket to Thanaleng and he’d stamp us out of Thailand. We could get our Laos visa upon arrival at Thanaleng Station.
It sounded so easy that I thought there had to be a catch.
Anything, I mean anything has to be a better option than having to deal with the crowds like last time. Let’s try it.
We went over to the ticket window and there happened to be a train station employee standing in front of the ticket windows. He was assisting tourists with the options. When it was our turn, he showed me a map of sorts that had Thanaleng Station and Vientiane on it. The train fare was only 20 baht to get to Thanaleng. It was 300 baht in total to get all the way to Vientiane. I understood him to mean that the train would continue on to Vientiane. That turned out to be incorrect. The train takes you to Thanaleng Station and then you hop on a van the rest of the way to Vientiane.
I decided to pay the full 300 baht and see what adventure that would take me on. I figured that I would do some asking around when I got to Thanaleng to see if buying the ticket in advance was a ripoff or a deal. I subliminally already knew the answer.
After purchasing the tickets, we stood in line for about 3 minutes and were quickly stamped out of Thailand. We waited for around 15 minutes and the train arrived.
Thanaleng Train Station and Laos Immigration Procedures
The ride across the Mekong lasts about ten minutes and you’re at Thanaleng Station.
The thirty or so passengers exited the train and began the process. I initially went to window number one and handed the official our visa application forms I had downloaded from the internet. We had already filled them out and affixed two passport photos.
The guy at window #1 was an asshole. To avoid confusing you by telling that part of the story, I’ll shorten the outcome and what the procedures are.
United States Citizens
- Go to window #1 and get an arrival & departure card and a Laos visa application form.
- Fill out the forms and attach one photo to the visa application.
- Submit the forms and your passport at window #1, along with $35 U.S. dollars or 1,500 Thai Baht.
- Wait in front of window #2 until the official holds up your passport for you to claim.
Note that $35 U.S. dollars is the equivalent of roughly 1,227 Thai baht. If you have dollars, pay the thirty-five bucks in U.S. currency. Paying in Thai money costs you an extra 273 baht ($7.80). Note that if you do not hand them the exact amount, they will give you change in Laos kip and rip you off again on the exchange rate.
If you are from any of the countries in ASEAN, go to window #3. Get an arrival & departure card. Fill that out. You do not need a visa application form. Hand the official at window #3 your passport, the arrival & departure card, and 50 baht. In a few minutes he will hand back the passport and you’re good to go. People told me that since no visa is required for ASEAN citizens, it’s supposed to be free. I gave the guy 100 Thai baht and he returned 10,000 Laos kip for change. That’s roughly 43 baht. Ok, so they steal a quick 50 baht from everyone when it’s supposed to be free, then rip you again for 7 baht on the exchange rate. Par for the course in Laos. Just have 50 Thai baht ready to go.
Thanaleng to Vientiane – Transporation, the Scams, and the Typical Bullshit
This sign at Thanaleng Station clearly indicates 100 Thai baht is the cost per person from Thanaleng to Vientiane.
We showed the guy sitting at a desk next to the sign our tickets. He told us to wait at the end of the walkway. There was an unmarked van parked in the lot.
Let’s recap the numbers so far: The train ticket alone was 20 baht. That meant I had paid 280 baht for the ride into Vientiane. Since the sign said 100 baht, I figured the Thai folks ripped me for 180 baht. Ok, whatever. That explains why the guy was standing in front of the line with that map, pushing sales toward the 300 baht ticket. With those numbers, it seems that it’s better to purchase only the train ticket in Nong Khai for 20 baht. Once you get to Thanaleng, buy the van ticket for 100 baht. That should be the logic, but listen to the rest of the story before you decide…
Five of us piled into the van. There were two male backpackers in their twenties sitting in front of my girlfriend and I. In the back was a lone female backpacker.
About thirty minutes later, the van stopped in front of the Thai consulate, which was our destination. The driver quickly exited and opened the sliding door. The backpacker in front of me got out. The driver then closed the door as my girlfriend and I were trying to exit.
“What the fuck’s wrong with this guy? He just closed the damn door on me.”
The four of us laughed as I fiddled to open the door. We all just thought he was an idiot and not paying attention. As I figuring out the piece-of-shit latch, the driver and the backpacker started yelling at each other. When I finally got the sliding door open, the driver looked kind of surprised. We jumped out and started walking toward the consulate. I didn’t exchange any words with the driver.
The backpacker told the driver to fuck off and broke contact. I spoke to the guy and he said the driver told him he had to pay an additional 100 baht. He said he purchased the 300 baht ticket in Nong Khai the same as we had. The Thai train station employee specifically told him that the van ticket was for transportation from Thanaleng to the Thai consulate.
It seemed as if the driver’s plan was to keep everyone in the van while he strong-armed us one at a time–divide and conquer. His plan was interrupted when my girlfriend and I got out on our own. He didn’t have an opportunity to hassle us. I looked back and felt sorry for the lone female backpacker. Hopefully the last guy in the van grabbed a set of balls when they got to their final destination.
Thanaleng vs. Friendship Bridge Border Crossing
Crossing at Friendship Bridge is a pain in the ass. Taking the train to Thanaleng is so much easier and quicker. Stamping out at the Nong Khai train station takes all of two minutes. The time spent getting your Laos visa at Thanaleng is minimal. I think we were there for less than 15 minutes total. The van took us straight to the consulate.
Advice? Buy the 20 baht train ticket to Thanaleng only. That cuts out the middle men on the Thailand side and their commission. When you get to Thanaleng, buy the van ticket from the guy in front of the sign. He will probably try to charge you more than 100 baht, if I had to guess. It’s Laos. Or, the van driver will hassle you upon arrival at the consulate. It seems like you’ll get hassled no matter where you buy the tickets so it doesn’t matter.
The downside is that there aren’t a lot of other travel options there at Thanaleng. There were no tuk tuk drivers hanging out. It was just the van parked in the lot. I wouldn’t be too aggressive while bargaining with the guy sitting next to the sign or you’ll find yourself walking. They have the monopoly. Sure, you can walk away and try to bluff them. That usually works when there are a dozen tuk tuks to choose from. A bluff might not work when you’re staring at an empty road and they know it.
General Advice for Border Crossings in Southeast Asia
To avoid losing my mind and getting pissed off at petty scams and bullshit in Southeast Asia, I’ve adopted a simple travel policy. When I go to cross a border in this region of the world, I put the equivalent of $25 U.S. dollars in a separate pocket. I consider that as an already-spent slush fund for bullshit, scams, taxi ripoffs, and bribes. If any of that money is left after I clear the border area, I’m happy and use it for more beer.
Before my first trip to Southeast Asia, a buddy of mine gave me some advice:
Don’t spend your time arguing over tuk tuk and taxi prices. Agree to a reasonable price for a foreigner and get on with your travels. I started out by arguing with every driver in an attempt to get the local rate. After three days, my wife pulled out a twenty-dollar bill and handed it to me. She said that all the time I wasted trying to bargain had saved me less than twenty bucks. She was paying me the difference to keep my mouth shut for the rest of the trip. She said I was wasting too much time and pissing her off. She was right. My advice is don’t spend thirty minutes arguing over fifty cents. Pay the money and enjoy your vacation.
Hey, if you’re a broke backpacker on a budget, then by all means bargain away. You’ve probably got more time than money. If you are here in Southeast Asia for a 10-day vacation, don’t spend hours trying to figure out how to save 200 baht. There’s probably more money than that underneath your couch cushions back home.
Going from Laos back to Nong Khai – Just Cross at the Friendship Bridge for the Return Trip
If you are handling business at the Royal Thai Embassy in Vientiane, you will get through around 3:00 P.M. or so. The Friendship Bridge is not crowded at that time of day. There’s no need to take the train from Thanaleng back to Nong Khai. Just cross at Friendship Bridge.
For reference, the taxis at the Thai consulate will start out by asking for 300 baht per person for a ride to the Friendship Bridge. We ended up paying 100 baht per person. A tourist I spoke to said he negotiated it down to 150 baht for two persons (75 baht each).
After you clear Laos immigration, look to your left. There is a booth with a blue sign. Purchase a bus ticket there for 4,000 kip. The bus will take you across the Mekong River to Thai immigration. As you exit the bus, there is an information booth. Get an arrival and departure card from the booth and fill it out. Proceed inside to Thai immigration.