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