The overnight train to Vientiane to Bangkok begins in the village of Thana Leng, just past the Friendship Bridge, about half an hour from downtown Vientiane. This is where Laos' only train lives. We arrive with an hour to spare before our 5pm departure, fill out our immigration forms and then wait on plastic chairs on the platform.
Finally, at 5 minutes to 5pm, the train pulls in. It's an old fashioned affair and the kids are particularly excited by the fully open windows. We climb aboard with our luggage and wait. The minutes tick by and finally, at 5.30pm, the train pulls out of the station.
It's a fun-filled 10 minute ride across the bridge before chugging into Nong Khai station.
We hop off the train and line up again for our immigration entry into Thailand. After about 40 minutes shuffling along in the single immigration queue, we finally reach the front of the line.
When I presented my 4-year old at the counter, I was amused that the immigration official invited herto “sign” her name on the arrival docket, which took a little time, especially as I was balancing her on my knee. I tried to pretend there weren't several people waiting behind us. Post signature, the official suddenly whipped out a phone, called out “smile!” and took several selfies of himself, my daughter and me laughing in the background.
Unfortunately all the "no camera" signs prevented me from doing the same. Gotta love the Thais.
Post immigration, there’s still a while to go before our train depart just after 7pm. We're already tired from the last 2 hours of travelling to get just over the border. I can't help but wonder if it wouldn't be much more time efficient to simply drive to Nong Khai and catch the train from there.
There’s not much at the station to eat so here’s when you need to pull out your wrapped sandwiches or takeaway pasta from Vientiane. If you’re desperate for a snack, there’s a small shop selling packets of Pringles and chips, and cold water. Otherwise, exit the station and trot down the road for a few blocks for some takeaway street food.
A confusing number of Bangkok-bound trains of varying levels of age and wear pull up and depart from the platform we're on. They’re all “Express” or “Special” trains to Bangkok. They disgorge hordes of passengers then linger just long enough to make you wonder dubiously if this is your train and you need to jump on rather than gawk at it.
It’s starting to get dark and there’s still no sign of our train.
At this point, I decide we should probably go to the bathroom. There’s a clean though primitive public toilet at the station (10 baht per person) which I visit with the kids, though the squat toilet facilities confound us all. Exiting that, we turn the corner back to our bags and there it is - the Hogwarts Express.
Gleaming, polished steel, with plush red bedding peeking through the glinting windows. It’s the brand new Chinese-built express to Bangkok and it’s certainly special.
I’d like to gape at it like a Muggle but they’re urging people aboard so we pick up our bags and hurry down the platform to the very end. We’ve booked two first class cabins because we may as well do this overnight train gig properly. Besides, travelling with kids requires that at least they get some sleep, even if we, their parents, don't.
The train is just as slick inside as it is out. It’s a lovely feeling to be pleasantly surprised when travelling to parts unknown, particularly for me as I embrace the concept of zero expectations, which means I can only be impressed.
Our first class cabin (US50/person) is spacious for such a compact space with soft velvety red bunk beds, clean pillows and blankets, bottled water, wall-mounted TVs, a washbasin and a little table. An interconnecting door opens up our two cabins for a much larger space.
Exploring our carriage, we find sparklingly clean bathrooms and even a shower - no squat toilets so we really should have waited. They're similar in size to airplane bathrooms.
Beyond the single first class carriage are 2-3 sleeper carriages, one of which is just for women. Each carriage is separated by push buttons and automatic sliding doors. Everything is super clean and comfortable-looking. The sleepers are exactly the same as the first class beds, with pillows, blanket and bottled water, only without the cabin itself which does help suppress noise and light when you’re actually sleeping.
After the sleepers is the seating carriage which also look fairly comfortable as the seats recline and you can stretch our your legs. then comes the restaurant compartment; the tiny diagonal kitchens manages to produce at least half a dozen choices of hot meals, eat in or take away.
Returning to our cabin, it’s time to switch off the lights and get some sleep. Unfortunately we can’t see much of the countryside outside; it’s pitch black except for the brief platform stops and railway crossings we pass through.
The kids fall asleep almost instantly, rocked by motion of the train. I’m a light sleeper though and I wake frequently. We’ve changed into long pants and switched off the a/c in our cabin but it’s still cold from the corridor outside and the blanket is snug though thin. A pair of ear plugs and an eye mask wouldn't go astray either.
The train is due to arrive into Bangkok at 6am and the conductor has said he’ll wake us at 5.30am but the station announcements inexplicably start at 4am. It’s a little muffled for us within the cabin but annoying nonetheless. By 5.30am, we’re all awake and staring bleary-eyed out of the window at an equally sleepy grey Bangkok morning.
Promptly at 6am, the train pulls into the main Bangkok station and everyone gets out and shuffles towards the taxi ranks, ignoring the odd private taxi hawker.
It’s great to have a full day in Bangkok stretching ahead of us. The only problem is that almost nothing opens in this town before 10am. We head to our hotel, drop off our bags and then make our way to The Gardens in Thong Lor. This lovely garden cafe opens at 8am and is the perfect spot for kids to explore with hidden gardens, fish ponds, various animals wandering about, and friendly staff with lettuce leaves.
Meanwhile, tired parents can greet the day a little more serenely - with caffeine. And pancakes.
The new #26 overnight train to Bangkok departs Nong Khai station daily. 1st class sleepers cost about $US45 per person, plus about $5 for the Thena Lang leg.