I wasn’t sure what to expect going overland from Thailand to Laos, but after Poipet I knew I should be prepared for just about anything. For the most part (with the exception of actually getting the visa sticker, but I’ll get to that later) the Lao border is a lot simpler, and certainly less sketchy, than the Cambodian border.
There are many ways to get to the Lao border from Bangkok, the simplest being the overnight train. This was my first experience with a Thai train, and I must say I was impressed. I walked into the station expecting it would resemble the dirty, chaotic Indian train stations and instead found a clean, orderly station. We were able to find our platform and train (also incredibly clean) without any drama or delays. The next morning we arrived in Nong Khai (in northern Thailand, near the Lao border).
Upon exiting the Nong Khai station passengers are met by tuk-tuk (auto-rickshaw) drivers offering a ride to the border. The drivers seem to have mastered the art of cramming in as many people and packs as possible.The tuk-tuk’s are probably only mean to hold three or four people, but they each managed to jam in at least five people, most of whom had huge packs. Fortunately it was a short ride to the border, where we got Thai exit stamp, and boarded a bus across the Friendship Bridge to the Lao border.
At the Lao border we filled out our visa applications, turned in out passports for a visa sticker, and waited. And waited, and waited some more. It seems the Lao immigration officials have gone to great lengths to make the visa process as inefficient as possible. By this point there was a crowd of people waiting to get their passports back and trying to figure out just how long it takes to put a sticker in a passport. The small window into the immigration office provided ample insight into just how long it took. The process appeared to be: put a sticker in, take a break and get a snack, put another sticker in, get some more food, check make up and hair, and so on. Once about six passports were done (a process that seriously took about twenty minutes) came the passport lottery (how people in line came to refer to the system in which passports were returned) in which a man would open up the window and distribute the finished passports. In the end it took us around an hour to get our passports back; I would highly recommended getting a Lao visa in Bangkok instead of doing it on arrival.
From the border it was about a twenty minute taxi ride to Vientiane. I only spent a few hours in Vientiane before my flight to Luang Prabang, but it appears to be a cute city that I wouldn’t mind spending some more time in.
It was with mild trepidation that I headed over to the airport for the flight to Luang Prabang. The flight was on Lao Airline, an airline that is somewhat famous for having had five crashes in the past two decades, and a quick Google search reveals many more horror stories ranging from near crashes to painfully uncomfortable seats. My seat was right next to the propeller and despite the triple reinforced window, having the propeller spinning mere feet from my face was slightly disconcerting and rather noisy. Fortunately our flight proceeded without major incident and we had a magnificent view of Luang Prabang as we landed.