Woke up on the sleeper train again today after another less-than-perfect night's sleep - still much better than the overnight buses though! We arrived at Nong Khai, close to the border, at about 8:30am, and saw that the international train to Laos was leaving at 9am. We quickly bought our tickets for the 15 minute train ride - only 20 baht each! Then it was through passport control on the station platform to be stamped out of Thailand and onto the train in 3rd class (I think we can cope given the length of the journey!).
We travelled across the Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge to Thanalong station in Laos on the only railway Laos have got…all 3.5km of it! Thanalong station on only about 13km away from our destination of Vientiane, so it was up to us to arrange transport there once we arrived. This is blatantly a racket to keep the tuk-tuk drivers in business since the arrival of the railway, but there's not much we could do about it! There's been talk of extending the line through to Vientiane but I'm sure the tuk tuk drivers would have something to say about that! Anyway, when we arrived, the visa process was very easy - collect the form, fill it in, go to the next window with the form, $35US and a passport photo and get stamped in.
We found a couple of songthaew waiting outside the station and paid 300baht to get to our hotel - not too bad! We'd booked the Hotel Khamvongsa after reading some brilliant reviews on Tripadvisor so we were looking forward to our stay, and our first impressions were very good, although we were too early to check into our room. Instead, we went for a wander through the capital and found a restaurant selling fresh baguettes for breakfast for next to no money - yes please!
Then we headed towards the Laos National Museum for a look around. The building itself is quite underwhelming for a national museum, especially as it stands over the road form the Chinese-funded Cultural Hall, a huge, gold covered building that stands mostly empty as Laos can't afford to put shows on in there. Inside the museum, it tracks Laos' history from the days of the 'US imperialist' aggression (their words!) in the 60s and 70s. Not a bad place for a quick visit, but it definitely needs an upgrade.
Afterwards, we headed to an air conditioned café across the road for a fruit shake and some free wifi. Then it was time to check-in and our first impressions were right - this is an amazing place, one of the best we've stayed in so far! Modern rooms, huge bed, very clean bathroom, fridge, air con, TV - we were very happy!
We spent a few hours relaxing in the room before heading out for dinner. Luckily for us, the restaurant that the Lonely Planet describe as serving the best Lao food in Vientiane is only a few doors down from our hotel! It was pretty quite when we arrived and we were served quickly; we ordered some Laos sausage, a spicy beef stew and a vermicelli salad. These were all famous local dishes and all delicious, washed down with our first taste of Beerlao which si the national brew here.
Afterwards, we crossed the road toward the Mekong river and had a wander through the night market there, although we managed to resist buying anything! Next, we walked the other way along the riverfront but this quickly became an unlit dirt track so we decided to turn back and headed for another bar we'd seen in the guidebook called Wind West. This place turned out to be very pricey and completely empty so we didn't hang around. Our last stop was a western type bar called the Drop Inn - good music, much cheaper beer and football on TV!
Then it was back to our fantastic room for a good night's sleep. When we arrived back at the hotel, the front door was locked, so we knocked and were let in by one of the staff who happened to be sitting in a tent with his friend in the lobby. Random, but nothing really surprises us these days!