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Across the Friendship Bridge:  An Alternative Way to get from Thailand to Laos

By Jack Clontz

In spite of the recent State Department Public Announcement regarding travel to Laos, it is safer than ever to travel in this fascinating and least well-known country of Southeast Asia. From the bustling capital of Vientiane, to the caves of Vang Vieng, to the stunning ruins and charming town of Luang Prabang, Laos is a destination worth visiting now, and is easy to do if you are in Thailand.

Find hotel reviews of Vientiane Hotels

Travelers should be aware of an interesting and cheaper alternative than flying directly from Bangkok to Vientiane. This route combines a flight and an overland passage across the famous Friendship Bridge. What is so appealing about this alternative is that one seldom sees any foreigners at all. Apart from a few expatriates, one will normally encounter only ordinary Thai and Lao people.

FLIGHTS FROM THAILAND

Thai International has four daily flights to Udon Thani in northeastern Thailand (Isaan). One of these flights will soon be terminated, and another one arrives too late in the evening. Take the 11:15 A.M. flight from Bangkok to Udon Thani. This flight takes 65 minutes. 

Thai International flies three times weekly from Bangkok to Vientiane. Return airfare is 7,300 baht. Thai International's Bangkok-Udon Thani flight is 3,030 baht return. Thus, at the current exchange rate of US$1 to 43.65 baht, the traveler would save US$97.82 on airfare. Moreover, tickets are slightly cheaper at travel agencies in Bangkok, and any hotel in Bangkok can recommend reputable agencies.

The airport at Udon Thani was one of seven U.S. air force bases in Thailand constructed and used during the Vietnam War. All are now Thai domestic airports. The air base at Udon Thani was very heavily involved in the C.I.A.'s secret war in Laos (1964-75) in which untold thousands died. This area along the Mekong, together with Vientiane itself, forms part of the background to parts of John Le Carre's spy novel, "The Honourable Schoolboy."

TO THE FRIENDSHIP BRIDGE

Udon Thani is about 50 km. south of Vientiane across an international border. You must get from the airport at Udon Thani and across the Friendship Bridge on the Mekong River to Vientiane. 

Thai International runs bus transport (strangely called "limousine service") from the Udon Thani airport to Nong Khai, a Thai town on the banks of the Mekong River.  Catch this 100-baht bus, but don’t ride all the way to Nong Khai proper. After about forty-five minutes the "bus boy" will yell "Lao!" Yell "Lao!" in return, and get off the bus. At the bus station, someone will appear to help with luggage and to show the way to the ticket window. 

Purchase a bus ticket to cross The Friendship Bridge (Saphan Mittaphap Thai-Lao) across the Mekong. This ticket costs 10 baht. The bridge bus leaves the terminal every twenty minutes during the time the bridge is open.  The bridge is open from 8:00 AM to 5:30 PM.  If you took the 11:15 A.M. flight from Bangkok, you should be at the bridge on the extremely crowded bus by 1:30 PM.

CROSSING THE BORDER

The shuttle bus takes about five minutes to get from the bus station to Thai immigration and customs at the west end of the bridge. Bags are kept in the hold of the bus, while a Thai immigration official stamps your passport for 10 baht. There is no customs inspection. Get back on the bus and ride for about ten minutes as you cross the Mekong.

Just past the Lao side of Friendship Bridge, you come to the Lao immigration and customs posts.  You can get a visa upon arrival. The price varies between $35 and $50 with an additional $1 charge if it is lunchtime or Sunday. The visa fee can ONLY be paid in U.S. dollars in CASH. Two passport-size photographs are also required for the visa upon arrival. A Lao porter will extract your bags from the hold of the bus, and will escort you to the immigration counter. Unlike in some countries, these porters can be trusted, and are very helpful in locating the correct forms you need.

After immigration the porter will take you and your bags to Lao customs. There is no real inspection, but you still must pay 10 baht to the customs inspector. Then you will get a final examination from a dour and officious official in a Soviet-style uniform. Soon you are waved on, and your porter guides you to a kind of parking lot where there are taxis. 

At this point you must pay your porter. I suggest being generous because they are very helpful, entirely honest and very hard working. I think this warrants at least 200 baht.

GETTING TO VIENTIANE

There will be at least one person in the parking lot that speaks English. Now you must bargain for the taxi fare to downtown Vientiane some forty-five minutes away on sometimes pretty bad roads. Just give the name of your hotel even if you have just pulled a name out of your guidebook to placate the immigration official. Given the situation in Laos, there is no need to worry about whether a room is available or not at the hotel you give. 

Through the interpreter, the taxi driver will suggest a price. Do not pay this price. You should not pay more than 400 baht, though some travelers are able to get taxis for 250-300 baht. It is not
necessary to tip the taxi driver.

RETURNING FROM LAOS TO THAILAND

If you choose to return from Laos to Thailand via this route, it is a little less clear-cut. However, your hotel can help in this regard. Advise your hotel's front desk about twenty-four hours in advance that you will require a taxi to take you to Friendship Bridge. The hotel will try to charge you about $10, but you can get it reduced to $5 or $6 in most cases. You pay the hotel and not the driver.  Nonetheless, the driver will greatly appreciate a small tip, preferably in U.S. dollars. 

You should leave the hotel about five hours before your flight time. On the return from Laos to Thailand, take the flights leaving Udon Thani for Bangkok at either 1:00 PM or 8:05 PM. This is a 60-minute flight.

The driver will let you off with your bags near the Lao immigration and customs posts not far from the east end of Friendship Bridge. There are no customs inspections, and immigration stamps your passport with alacrity.

At this point you will see an array of vehicles, including some vans. Some of the drivers will approach you. It is best to negotiate a price with them to take you directly to the airport at Udon Thani. It should cost around 400 baht. After agreeing on the price you and your bags will be taken across the bridge to Thai immigration and customs. Again, there is no real customs inspection, and Thai immigration will give you a visa upon entry. 

It will take about an hour to get from the Thai side of the Friendship Bridge to the airport at Udon Thani. And from there, your flight to Bangkok is easy.

NOTE ON CURRENCY

It is extremely important to have a supply of Thai baht and U.S. dollars in small denominations. It is virtually impossible to get anything as large as a Thai 500-baht note changed in this poor area. The Lao currency is the kip which is now officially valued at 7,600 kip to the dollar. The kip is not a convertible currency, and, in Laos, the baht, the U.S. dollar and the kip are all regularly used for everyday transactions.  It is best to have all three currencies at hand. 

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