Navigating Chaos – Booking a Train in Laos

The China-constructed high speed train from Vientiane to Luang Prabang (with onward connection by slower train to Boten) is a huge improvement in the country’s travel infrastructure. Prior to this train link being completed your only options were a seven to eight hour minivan journey (or an 11 – 12 hour bus trip) on very rough roads. Now, travellers can book a comfortable, two hour journey on one of the four “C Trains” that run between the two cities every day (with a stop in the always popular Vang Vieng) for about USD $35/pp for a First Class ticket. 

We took one of the C Trains each way on this route, and can attest to the comfort of a relatively inexpensive First Class journey. The stations are spacious and comforable (contrary to some blogs there are snacks and coffee available for purchase), and the train itself is similarly modern and clean. The seats are spacious and comfortable, with a great recline angle. The coach itself was gently air conditioned, and the on-board toilet was spacious and very clean. No complaints on any of those aspects of the journey.

The Screening Issue

We read a lot about the particular (peculiar) security screening procedures you will face prior to boarding the train. Security screening at the station are similar to those at an airport. You will be asked to present your tickets and passports upon arrival, after which you are directed to a security screening station. All bags go through an X-Ray screener, and every passenger will be scanned with a hand wand. 

There is a listing of prohibited items on your ticket, including: 

  1. Weapons and ammunition of any kind;
  2. All kinds of explosives;
  3. Chemicals of any kind;
  4. Drugs of any kind;
  5. Sharp objects;
  6. Animals, both alive and dead;
  7. Food with strong odors or liquid consistency;
  8. Liquids, aerosols, and gels (LAGs) – yes, bottled water will be confiscated (*Note: we took some. liquids of 100ml or less in standard airline carry-on, 1L plastic bags and there was no issue.)

These prohibitions are a huge hassle for anyone on the road for any length of time. Travel blogs are replete with stories of people having their expensive Swiss Army Knives and Leathermans confiscated, as well as expensive bottles of sunscreen, makeup and the like. 


In our case we left a bunch of items behind at our guesthouse in Luang Prabang – including an expensive Swiss Army Knife, high quality sunscreen, and even mosquito repellent . This wasn’t a big deal for us since we were returning there after our visit to Vientiane. But that’s not an option for most; these prohibitions are real and you need to be aware of them.

Booking Tickets – a unique Laotian challenge

The biggest thing you need to be aware of is that you cannot book a train ticket online directly from Lao Railways. You can use travel apps (the most common being 12Go), or book through your guesthouse or hotel – or any one of dozens of “travel agencies” scattered about in Vientiane, Vang Vieng or Luang Prabang. But there’s a catch – and it’s a doozy.

These ticket sellers aren’t actually able to book through Lao Railways either. All of them – including online apps like 12Go – have to book through (apparently) approved representative, third-party “agents”. This presents all manner of challenges, many of which we encountered as we booked tickets each way.

Online booking

We pretty much default to online booking for travel anywhere in the world. Apps like Trainline (Europe and the UK), RedBus and 12Go (SouthEast Asia), and even Agoda provide easy to navigate options for booking travel by bus and train. But this ease of booking does not apply in the case of Lao Railway. 

You can request a specific booking option, but the app notes up-front that they have to check with a third-party agency to see if the tickets you’ve requested are even available. *To be clear, there is no way for you to see if the option you’d like is available, or if it’s sold out!

And you have to be very (very) conscientious about pricing. When exploring options for booking tickets online we saw prices ranging from USD $35 pp to as high as USD $47 pp!

In addition, you need to be aware that the prices you’ll see are inclusive of the third party representative “service fees”, which can be as much as fifty per cent (50%) of the actual ticket cost! And these fees apply even if you book in-person at your hotel (see below) or go directly to the ticketing agent at the railway station – crazy! 

If your preferred option is unavailable (something you may not find out for up to 48 hours from initial booking inquiry!!), they give you the option up-front of saying “No” and starting over, or letting them book you on any available alternative. This makes travel planning very, very difficult. And while this is bizarre, it actually gets weirder.

While you’re told that you “should” hear back about your booking within 48 hours of your first inquiry, we found this was simply not a hard and fast rule. When we used 12Go, we didn’t hear anything back for four days (96 hours) – even though we paid for tickets up front! It wasn’t until we’d sent repeated email requests to 12Go’s Customer “Support” (don’t get us started about their antiquated system) that we finally heard that our tickets were available (less than 24 hours before our requested departure time). This was stress-inducing to say the least.

In-Person Booking

Your other option (which we actually recommend) is to find a reliable, in-person contact to arrange for tickets on your behalf. If you trust the person running your guesthouse, or the staff at your hotel, they’re likely your best bet for this step. 

But even then the process is remarkably cumbersome and frustrating. These contacts have to contact the authorized representatives by telephone to check for ticket availability. (apparently there is no online “backend” that provides these contacts with access to this information) In our experience, we found out that our first choice for a train departure was booked, but a much earlier departure was available. “Fine”, we said. “Let’s book that.” But by the time the return calls went back and forth that option had also sold out! So, we were left with only one possible option, the last departure on our preferred travel day. We waited on pins and needles to see if there was availability; lo and behold there was, but then the next wrinkle showed up. 

Our very helpful hotel staff informed us that the representative they worked with would only accept cash payments, and we had to pay the hotel right away so they could go get the tickets. We didn’t have 1.6 million kip on hand (of which fully 550,000 kip were the service fees – see above), so we had to ask the hotel to convince the representative to hold the tickets while we hoofed it to the nearest ATM to withdraw the cash. Thankfully, the tickets were still available; we counted out the cash and walked away relieved.


Book as far in advance as possible, and unless you absolutely need/want to use a credit card (not American Express, btw – see another blog about that) we recommend using the in-person method. You can use 12Go to get a sense of how much cash to have on hand for your booking. 

Be sure to vet your luggage carefully. If you have something very expensive that you fear might get confiscated find another way to get it to your destination. A couple of options: mail it forward (if you’re going to be at your next spot for a while); find someone you trust who is travelling by bus or minivan to carry your items for you; or, in a pinch, ask a minivan service to bring your item to your next destination for you (be prepared to negotiate a fee for this).  Clearly none of these options are preferred, but that’s what you’re left with if you want to take the train.

Get to the train station at least one hour before departure. These trains are in high demand and there is only one scanner at the stations. If you arrive late you may not get onto your train in time (they will leave without you!).

Oh, one more thing. Don’t get too relaxed prior to the official boarding time. People line up early for boarding, and a First Class ticket doesn’t provide you with priority boarding. If you have large suitcases you will need access to the relatively limited luggage storage at both ends of each carriage, so you’ll want to be near the front of the line to ensure that’s available for you.

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Elutheromania, from ancient Greek, is a mania or frantic zeal for travel.”  Chiara, an Italian slow traveller, is the poster child for the ideal. She exudes wonder and joy, with a genuine appreciation of people, culture and landscapes. Oh, and she’s a great photographer.

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He’s traveled hundreds of thousands of kilometres, slept in countless hostels, tried “weird” food, learned multiple languages, and, most importantly, made it his mission to help people like you realize their travel dreams.


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Frommer’s has been in continuous annual  publication since the 1957 debut of Arthur Frommer’s revolutionary “Europe on $5 a Day”. That iconic book changed the way the world travelled, and Frommer’s is still a reliable “go-to” today.

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