TRANSPORTATION, ROADS, BRIDGES AND DEVELOPMENT IN SOUTHEAST ASIA

TRANSPORTATION IN SOUTHEAST ASIA

Toyota is the top automobile maker in Southeast Asia. Pick ups and small vans are popular in the countryside. At one time around 70 percent of the vehicles sold in Thailand were pick up trucks. In the 1990s, Thailand was the second biggest pick up truck market in the world. One-ton pick ups are popular for hauling stuff and using to transport people. The most preferred models are made by Isuzu and Toyota.

Motorcycles and motorscooters are the most popular and common modes of transportation in Southeast Asia as they are inexpensive and fuel efficient. Both within cities and around the countryside, motorcycles are used for work and personal travel. Many people can both eat and talk on a cell phone while riding with several family members piled in front and back of them on the bike.

There are said to be four times as many motorcycles as cars in Laos and there are more motorbikes all the time. Many are driven by women. It is not usual to see three motor scooters riding abreast and the people on them having a conversation. You can occasionally see a family of five ride on a single motorbike.

Foot travel is an important means of transport among the poor in the mountains. There are few roads and few people can even afford bicycles. Because there are so few roads and existing roads are often in poor condition airplanes are often the best way to get to remote locations. In the cities people use cheap transport like tuk tuks or minivans.

River travel is very important in Laos and Cambodia. The Mekong River system is the chief transportation route and is important for trade throughout Southeast Asia. See Below.

Cheap Chinese Motorcycles Change Life in Laos

Reportedly Long Lao Gao in Laos in 2007, Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times, “The pineapple that grows here on the steep hills above the Mekong River is especially sweet, the red and orange chilies unusually spicy, and the spring onions and watercress retain the freshness of the mountain dew. For years, getting this prized produce to market meant carrying a giant basket on a back-breaking, daylong trek down narrow mountain trails that cut through the jungle. That is now changing, thanks in large part to China. Villagers ride their cheap Chinese motorcycles, which sell for as little as $440, down a badly rutted dirt road to the markets of Luang Prabang. "No one had a motorcycle before," said Khamphao Janphasid, 43, a teacher in the local school whose extended family now has three of them. "The only motorcycles that used to be available were Japanese and poor people couldn't afford them." [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, December 26, 2007 ==]

“The motor scooters, which typically have small but adequate 110cc engines, literally save lives, says Saidoa Wu, the 43-year-old village headman of Long Lao Mai, a village nestled in a valley at the end of the dirt road, adjacent to Long Lao Gao. "Now when we have a sick person we can get to the hospital in time," Wu said. The improvised bamboo stretchers that villagers here used as recently as a decade ago to carry gravely ill family members and neighbors down the mountain on foot are history. In a village of 150 families, Wu counts a total of 44 Chinese motorcycles, up from zero five years ago. ==

“About seven years ago, residents here say they, Chinese salesmen began arriving with suitcases filled with smuggled watches, tools and small radios, closing up and moving on when the police arrived. More recently Chinese merchants, who speak only passable Lao, received permission to open permanent stalls in the towns and small cities across Indochina. In Laos, these are known as "talad jin," or Chinese markets. ==

“The enthusiasm for Chinese goods here is tempered by one commonly heard complaint: maintenance problems. "The quality of the Japanese brands is much better," said Gu Silibapaan, a 31-year-old motorcycle mechanic in Luang Prabang. People with money, he said, buy Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki motorcycles. (People with lots of money buy cars.) ==

Gu claims he can tell a Japanese brand, manufactured in Thailand, just by listening to the engine. "It sounds more firm and the engine noise is softer," he said. Some Thai-made Japanese motorcycles can go 10 years without an engine overhaul. Chinese bikes, he said, usually need major repairs within 3 to 4 years. "I want a motorcycle from Thailand but I don't have the money," said Kon Panlachit, a police officer who brought his Jinlong 110cc motorcycle to Gu's shop for repairs on a recent weekend. "When I ride it, it makes a noise - dap, dap dap," Kon complained. "It's the second time I've brought it here for this problem." ==

The cheapest Thai-made Honda goes for 55,000 baht, about $1,670 - four times the price of the cheapest Chinese bikes, which are sold under many brand names, including Yinxiang, Dashan, Yincin, Zongshen and Honshun. The influx of Chinese motorcycles is keeping mechanics busy in Luang Prabang. A decade ago there were only two or three repair shops in the city, says Gu. Now he counts 20. Gu does not worry about maintenance for his own motorcycle. "I have a Honda," the mechanic said. ==

Transportation on the Mekong River

The Mekong River and its tributaries provide crucial transportation links in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Between Simao in Yunnan and Jinghong on Laotian border the river is navigable. The river runs for 786 kilometers between Simao and Luang Prabang in Laos.

Myanmar, Thailand, China and Laos has signed an agreement to open a navigation route along the upper reaches of the Mekong River. Under the agreement the four countries allowed commercial navigation across each other’s borders. There are plans to make an access route from southern China to the Indian Ocean via the Mekong River.

China is currently involved in dredging upper parts of the river to make them navigable. In the dry season, 150-tons can not navigate these sections. Dredging will remedy this. Dredging between Vientiane and Simao in Yunnan Province in China will make section of the river capable of handing 2,000 ton ships throughout the year except for a couple weeks in the dry season when water levels are exceptionally low. Both the Chinese and Laotian governments support the project as a means of promoting economic growth through increased trade.

Many locals oppose the dredging operations, They complain large ship creates wakes and waves that can sink smaller boast and worry that large Chinese boats will take away cargo business from smaller local boats and flood the market with cheap Chinese goods and produce. Environmentalist say the dredging damagesriver banks, destroys fish stocks and threatens endangered animals. The dredging operations involves using explosive to blast apart shallow rocks, reefs and shoals and widen channels.

River Travel in Laos

Laos as 4,600 kilometers of navigable waterways and river travel is a common way of getting around. the main thoroughfares being the Mekong, Nam Ou, Nam Khan, Nam Tha, Nam Ngum and Se Kong. The main routes used by travelers are along the Mekong, Nam Ou, Nma Khan, Nam Tha, Nam Ngum and Se Kong River. With the construction of better roads water transport is become less vital to the transport system. Many ferries no longer operate. Many travelers like to get around by water because it is more romantic, scenic and mellow. Boat trips from Vientiane and Luang Prabang are very popular.

According to Lonely Planet: “The Mekong is the longest and most important route and is, in theory if no longer in practice, navigable year-round between Luang Prabang in the north and Savannakhet in the south (about 70 percent of its length in Laos). Smaller rivers accommodate a range of smaller boats, from dugout canoes to ‘bomb boats’ made from junk dropped from the skies during the Second Indochina War. [Source: Lonely Planet]

“Sealed roads and buses, however, mean that the days of mass river transport are as good as finished. Every time a new road is opened more boatmen go out of business, unable to compete with the price and pace of those modern conveyors of the masses – buses and sawngthaew. This aspect of progress means local people have access to faster and cheaper travel, and it’s not our place to begrudge them that. However, from a travelers’ point of view, the gradual death of river transport is a great shame. There were few things more romantic than sitting on a slow boat, tacking from one riverside village to another as the boat worked its way along the river, picking up people, produce and animals on the way.

“While there are barely any regular local boats on the Mekong anymore, there are still a few places left where you can do this, if you’re prepared to get right off the beaten river and seek out the adventure…and you can be certain it will be a memorable trip, one way or another. So whether it’s on a tourist boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang or on a local boat you’ve rustled up in some remote corner of the country, it’s still worth doing at least one river excursion while in Laos.

“For shorter river trips, such as Luang Prabang to the Pak Ou Caves, it’s usually best to hire a river taxi. The héua hang nyáo (longtail boats) are the most typical, though for a really short trip (eg crossing a river) a héua phái (rowboat) or one of the small improvised ferries can be hired. The héua hang nyáo are around US$5 an hour for a boat with an eight- to 10-person capacity. Larger boats that carry up to 20 passengers are sometimes available for about US$8 per hour, although higher tourist prices are often applied, and prices go up with fuel consumption if you’re heading upriver when the river is at full flood.

Along the upper Mekong River between Huay Xai and Vientiane, and on the Nam Ou between Luang Prabang and Hat Sa (Phongsali), Thai-built héua wái (speedboats) are common. They can cover a distance in six hours that might take a ferry two days or more. Charters cost at least US$20 per hour, but some ply regular routes so the cost can be shared among passengers.

Southern and Northern Lao are very different. The south is mainly about the river, staying on one of the islands in the Si Phan Don area, down towrds teh Cambodian border is well worth a few days. Mostly very peaceful, Don Khong is my favourite island but Don Dhet can be a bit of a party place. In the north The main lux. cruise operator is http://www.luangsay.com/ which runs from Huay Xai near the Thai border to LP. Don't expect to be sailing through pristine rain forest as much of it along the banks has been destroyed by slash and burn agriculture over the years. We also rented a boat to get further north along one of the smaller rivers to Luang Namtha etc. but I certainly would not describe it as "high quality" but the forest is less damaged there - real Heart of Darkness stuff.”

Types of Boats Used by Travelers on the Mekong River

Speed Boats called heua wai are used primarily between Luang Prabang and Hat Sa (Prongsali) on the Nam Ou River and between Vientiane and Huay Xai on the Mekong Rivers. They are able to cover a distance in five or six hours what might take a ferry a couple of days but are very dangerous, noisy and uncomfortable. Passengers sit on wooden benches and wear life jackets and crash helmets. They are so noisy passengers on other boats can hear them when they are almost a mile away. Speedboats can take up to six passengers and are generally rented for about $23 a hour, a cost that can be split among several passengers. A trip between Vientiane and Luang Prabang can done be done with six people for about $25 per person.

Accidents involving heua wai are very common. Accidents occur on a weekly basis and often involve fatalities. Because the boats are very light and travel at high speeds, the results can be quite nasty if they hit a rock, sand bar or branch in the river, which is not all that hard to do. Sometimes a bow wave from a large boat is enough to flip them over.

Long-Tailed Boats (named after drive shaft which extend beyond the back of the boat and connects the an automobile engine to a propeller) are used by locals and tourists to get around the rivers of Laos. Tourist generally travel on boat trips sponsored by travel agencies and locals get around on boats that run scheduled routes like buses. The fares for local boats are quite reasonable. The tours aren't very expensive either. Many of the long tailed boats used in Laos are long narrow river taxis with a covering for protection form the sun and rain, A boat that carries eight to 10 passengers can be hired for about $10 an hour

Cargo Boats make the trip between Vientiane and Luang Prabang in about three to four days down river and four to five days upriver.

Slow Boats in Laos

Stephen Bugno wrote in his blog Bohemian Traveler: Before visiting Laos I had images of gliding down rivers at an impossibly slow speed all the while enjoying both the view and necessary transportation with friendly locals. That was hardly the case. In fact, it describes only one of my four slow boat rides. The reality is, the slow boat is being replaced by bus and sawngthaew as a means of transportation, especially now that roads are improving slightly. The only genuine slow boats that are still plying the rivers of Laos are the ones where no roads go. So that’s the secret to getting a real slow boat experience: choose your routes wisely. Below is a description of a few of the slow boat routes on the waterways of the Nam Ou and the Mekong in northern Laos [Source: Stephen Bugno, Bohemian Traveler, July 13, 2011]

Houayxai to Pakbeng: This is the most touristy slow boat experience. Groups of backpackers are shuttled from Chiang Mai, Thailand to the border with Laos and are packed on to huge boats for the two-day journey to Luang Prabang, stopping at the village of Pakbeng for the night. Eating, drinking, music, card playing were all commonplace on the boat I rode. Out of about 150 passengers, only two were Laotians. Needless to say, this was not a Lao cultural experience. It was, however, riding a slow boat down the Mekong. The boat is a huge one, and the scenery is pleasant, passing villages and quite remote areas of the country. It leaves more or less at 11am from the slow boat docks 1 kilometer upstream from Houayxai. This trip is a mainstay on the Banana Pancake trail. Scenery: Very Nice; Touristy: Very Touristy; Time: 5-6 hoursl Costs: 110,000-130,000 kip

Hat Sa to Muang Khoua: This is the most remote and off the beaten track slow boat that I rode, and consequently the most authentic. The boat was so narrow that it only allowed two people to sit abreast. The bags were loaded into the back of the boat and covered by a tarp. The boat was filled with all locals except for my chain-smoking Swiss friend who shared his cigarettes with our new friends as well some rambutan and bananas we bought before boarding. We passed remote bamboo villages, the inhabitants farming the hillsides with subsistence agriculture. About every thirty minutes of the we passed a village on the riverbank, usually comprised of less than 25 houses. Most times there would be a fisherman casing a net or kids playing in the river alongside their water buffalos. Hat Sa is only a village, but serves as the Phongsali’s river port, reachable by bus via a slow-going 24 kilometers winding dirt road. Scenery: Nice, but not spectacular; Touristy: Very local; Time: 4-5 hours; Cost: 100,000 kip

Muang Khoua to Muang Ngoi: You’ll arrive in Muang Khoua in the afternoon and most likely spend the night there. From the wooden balcony of my guesthouse’s restaurant, I watched life unfold in and around the river. There is no bridge on this road that passes through the village going to the Vietnamese border. A tug-boat of sorts nudges a ferry barge the short push across whenever traffic arrives. Local long boats come and go. A neighbor buns rubbish. Kids play and swim in the water on both sides of the river.

I met a teacher and freelance trekking guide who was strategically hanging out close by. We got to talking, and unfortunately I didn’t have the time or extra money to go on one of his three day treks to nearby hill tribe villages. So we’d have to hang around the rest of the afternoon and be out on the boat at nine the next morning. “Do you have internet in town?” I asked. “No,” he laughed. “We just got electricity.”

The 4-5 hour trip to Muang Ngoi leaves in the morning, usually around 9:00am and because there are very few locals making this trip, filling up a boat depends on how many travels are present. You’ll need at least 6-8 passengers to make the fare (approx 1 million kip per boat) more reasonable for each passenger. The scenery gets more and more outstanding, with dramatic karsts, as you get closer to Muang Ngoi. Scenery: Very Nice; Touristy: Mostly tourists, but small boat; Time: 4-5 hours Cost: 100,000-120,000.

Muang Ngoi to Nong Khiaw: Muang Ngoi is a quiet little traffic-free village. It feels very cut off from the rest of the world. My travel partner stayed here for three days as I made my way more slowly down the Nam Ou. Most of the time he spent in his hammock and at the local cafes reading, writing in his journal and soaking up the gorgeous views of the surrounding limestone mountains. If I had the chance, I would return to Muang Ngoi for some serious chill time. The following morning we got the 9:30 am boat to Nong Khiaw. This is one of the most scenic slow boat rides in all of Laos. And one of the most packed little boats I had ever been on: both with locals and their cargo and backpackers moving on downstream. It’s hard to tire of these serene mountains that have an ancient and oriental air to them. Scenery: Very Nice; Touristy: Locals and travelers; Time: 1 hour Cost: 20,000 kip

Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang: Slow-boating it from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang is also supposed to be a trip of spectacular beauty. But I opted for the 40,000 kip ride in the back of a sawngtheaw to save a bundle of money. In general, taking ground transportation saves money over river transport. The boat to Luang Prabang supposedly leaves at 11am, and if I had to guess, I’d say very few locals would be taking it, seeing that the bus is so much cheaper. But if I had the money, I’d opt for this scenic route on the river. Scenery: Nice; Touristy: Touristy Time: 5 hours.

Trans-Indochina Rail-Link

There is some discursion of building Trans-Indochina Rail-Link a railway across Laos that would connect Singapore and Bangkok with China and continue on through to the Trans-Siberian and connect Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia with Europe. First proposed b Malaysia in 1995, the project would entail the construction of a 5,350-kilometer (3,344 mile) lie between Singapore and Kunming. China.

The route would incorporate existing lines in Malaysia, southern Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam—all of which would require some serious overhauling— and require construction of 430 kilometers new tracks across Cambodia. There would be spurs to Burma and within Laos, which does not have a sinel rial track. If completed the train would stop in Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.

The entire project would require about a decade to complete. The biggest obstacle is raising the $2.5 billion needed to get the project going. ASEAN has endorsed the project. Thus far it s clear where the money to build it will come from.

Roads in Southeast Asia

Three major road systems have recently been built or are being built to improve development and economic growth in Southeast Asia: They are: 1) the East-West Economic Corridor between Bangkok and Da Nang, Vietnam Laos; 2) the Second East-West Economic Corridor between Bangkok and Saigon via Phnom Penh; 3) the North-South Economic Corridor between Bangkok and Kunming, China via northwest Laos and far eastern Myanmar. One of the main purposes of the road system is to offer an overland alternative for the movement of goods across Southeast Asia, which can take as little as five hours, much less time than the sea journey around the Malaysian peninsula and through the Malacca Strait, which usually takes at least 30 hours.

Japan has provided financial support support for the construction of another branch of EWEC connecting Da Nang in Vietnam and Mawlamyaing in Myanmar through Laos and Thailand. Japan beagn providing financial support for the Southeast Asia region in the 1950s when it assisted a survey to develop power resources in Laos.

China is helping construction of the North-South Corridor connecting Kunming of China's Yunnan Province and Bangkok through Laos and Myanmar.A diplomatic source close to ASEAN said, "Japan planted the seeds [of the region's development], but China likely will harvest the fruits."

East-West Economic Corridor

The 1450-kilometers East-West Economic Corridor (EWEC) between Bangkok and Danang in Vietnam reduces the transportation time between Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City from five days by sea to one day by road. This support was partly extended with a wary eye on China's growing presence in Southeast Asia. The EWEC was finished in 2006. Japan has also provided financial and technical assistance for the building of the western half of Route 9 in Laos, and the Hai Van tunnel in Vietnam (at 6,400 meters the longest in Southeast Asia) and improving the port in Danang.

The Laotian government is building a special economic zone in Savannakhet where a new bridge between Laos and Thailand—the Second Friendship Bridge—opened in 2006, forming the last link of a highway system called the East-West Economic Corridor that spans the width of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, linking Bangkok with the coastal city of Danang in Vietnam.

Kavi Chongkittavorn wrote in the Thai newspaper The Nation in 2007: “ The East West Economic Corridor (EWEC)— a US$200 million project by the Manila-based Asian Development Bank (ADB)—refers to the 1,450-kilometre road network linking Burma's Gulf of Martaban on the Indian Ocean to Vietnam's Danang on the Pacific Ocean. The road network also cuts across central Thailand through Tak, Sukhothai, Kalasin, Phitsanulok, Khon Kaen, Yasothon and Mukdahan. Since its inception in 1992 as part of the Greater Mekong Sub-region, it has in effect helped these four countries to synergise their economic development and resources. The completion of the second Thai-Lao bridge links all existing transport networks. The 100-kilometre portion linking Burma and Thailand has been delayed due to the former's political uncertainty. [Source: Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation, August 6, 2007 ||||]

“Travelling overland from Mukdahan to Danang, one could feel the excitement brought about by the EWEC. Customs and immigration officials in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam all shared the same optimism that the EWEC would bring investment, tourists and a better standard of living. But they have to work closely together to facilitate border-crossing formalities and procedures for movement of people and goods. Most important will be the harmonisation of import-export procedures. At the Lao-Vietnam border at Dansavanh-Lao Bao, a unique single-stop customs inspection has reduced the processing time by half, to less than an hour. ||||

“The strategic No 9 route linking Savannakhet and Quang Tri has now become indispensable for the whole Mekong region. It has turned land-locked Laos into a land-linked country. But Laos is aiming beyond the status of transitory territory, hoping to reduce poverty and pull itself off the list of the world's poorest countries. Therefore, its economic progress depends on how efficiently it uses the EWEC network and the opportunities that come with the Mukdahan-Savannakhet bridge.” ||||

Economic Impact of the East-West Economic Corridor

The heart of the East-West Economic Corridor runs through Savannakhet in Laos. Kavi Chongkittavorn wrote in the Thai newspaper The Nation: “Sandwiched between the more developed Mukdahan on the Thai side and Quang Tri on the Vietnamese side, Savannakhet is the most populated province in Laos. "We must make Savannakhet into the supply chain for the East and West and go for eco-tourism," an official there said, referring to neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam. With 850,000 people, Savannakhet is the most populated province in Laos. It has great potential. With good alluvial soils, the province can attract foreign investors who are interested in rubber, peanuts and corn, among other products. Thai agro-industry companies such as Charoen Phokphand and Mitr Phol have already invested there. Recently, the latter opened a sugar refinery there. [Source: Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation, August 6, 2007 ||||]

“Meanwhile, Lao authorities have been making pitches for the Savan-Seno Special Economic Zone, established in 2004. The first zone is located just opposite Mukdahan across the Mekong, and consists of an export processing zone, hotels, golf course, residential units for retirees and other facilities. The second zone is in Dansavanh at the other end of the Lao-Vietnam border, which will serve as a distribution hub. Potential investors are from China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan. A five-star hotel opened there. ||||

“Savannakhet is also blessed with rich minerals and other resources. Oxiania, an Australian mining company, is bringing in more than $400 million a year in foreign exchange through exports of gold and copper. "We still have lots more resources including silver, gas and oil," the vice governor said. With these natural assets and its role as a transit route, it will be interesting to watch how the Lao economic planners map out their strategies.” ||||

North-South Economic Corridor

In the early 2000s, Laos, Thailand and China agreed to build 1,260-kilometer road through Laos linking Thailand and China. The road runs from Chiang Khong in Thailand to Jinghong in China. It was originally estimated that the cost of the two-lane asphalt road, called the R-3, would cost between $60 million and $90 million and was expected to be completed in 2006.

In March 2008,Thomas Fuller of the New York Times reported from Luang Namtha in northern Laos: “The newly refurbished Route 3 that cuts through this remote town is an ordinary strip of pavement, the type of two-lane road you might find winding through the backwoods of Vermont or sunflower fields in the French provinces. But On Leusa, 70, who lives near the road, calls it “deluxe.” As a young woman she traded opium and tiger bones along the road, then nothing more than a horse trail.” In the spring of 2008, “the prime ministers of Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam officially inaugurate the former opium smuggling route as the final link of what they call the “north-south economic corridor,” a 1,150-mile network of roads linking the southern Chinese city of Kunming to Bangkok. [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, March 31, 2008 <=>]

“The network, several sections of which were still unpaved as late as December, is a major milestone for China and its southern neighbors. The low-lying mountains here, the foothills of the Himalayas, served for centuries as a natural defensive boundary between Southeast Asian civilizations and the giant empire to the north. The road rarely follows a straight line as it meanders through terraced rice fields and tea plantations. <=>

“During a weeklong journey through the cities and villages along the route from Kunming to Bangkok, rice farmers, tea pickers, businessmen, traders and government officials expressed satisfaction and some excitement that a project decades in the making was nearly completed. Chen Jinqiang, a Chinese government official from Xishuangbanna in Yunnan Province, said the road would help ensure that farmers get their vegetables and flowers to market, avoiding a problem he witnessed in the 1980s, when poor transportation left watermelons rotting in the fields. “Even the pigs refused to eat them,” he said. <=>

“The Kunming-Bangkok road is not a seamless experience. There are sections on the Chinese side that have yet to be upgraded. With the bridge over the Mekong still in planning stages, passengers must take ferries across the Thailand-Laos border. And formalities at border checkpoints, especially for freight, can sometimes take hours. But the road is an obvious improvement from the one Ms. On knew as a child. Her son drives her around in his Toyota pickup truck, but she is not interested in going very far. “I get carsick,” she said. <=>

China and the North-South Economic Corridor

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times: Southeast Asian countries “alternately crave closer integration with that empire and fear its sway as an emerging economic giant. China, in turn, covets the land, markets and natural resources of one of Asia’s least developed and most pristine regions. With trade across these borders increasing by double digits every year, China has helped construct a series of roads inside the territory of its southern neighbors. The Chinese government is paying half the cost of a bridge over the Mekong River between Laos and Thailand. It financed parts of Route 3 in Laos and refurbished roads in northern Myanmar, including the storied Burma Road used by the Allies in World War II to supply troops fighting the Japanese.” [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, March 31, 2008 <=>]

“But the road also excites old fears of the monolith to the north. Preecha Kamolbutr, the governor of Chiang Rai Province, in northern Thailand, said it might exacerbate what he calls a “Chinese invasion.” He is particularly concerned for Laos, he said, an impoverished country the size of Britain but with a population of just 6.5 million.“Chinese businessmen come in with their own capital, their own workers and their own construction materials,” the governor said. “I fear that in the future the Lao people might feel that they’ve been exploited. They will feel they’ve been invaded.” <=>

“For now, those fears do not appear to be shared by many Laotians. Residents of the sparsely populated Luang Namtha Province said they welcomed visitors and were counting on an influx of Chinese, Thais and others to help raise their incomes. Alinda Phengsawat, the head of tourism planning in the province, said the road would bring visitors to what has been a very remote part of the country.“Maybe they will stay overnight,” she said. “That would be better than just driving through.” <=>

“Li Hui, an official in the foreign affairs office of Yunnan Province, which borders Laos, says one segment of the journey from Kunming to the border used to take three days. “Half of the people were throwing up,” Mr. Li said. On the new highway the same segment takes only a few hours. The Chinese spent $4 billion building the highway from Kunming to the border. One particularly difficult stretch of road required the construction of 430 bridges and 15 tunnels. That portion of the road is also monitored by 168 cameras centrally controlled by highway department officials who watch for elephants “” there are an estimated 275 in the area “” and other stray animals. The cameras also assist the police in catching suspected criminals. <=>

“We’ve helped solve 130 cases of drug smuggling, robberies and murder,” boasted Zhang Zhulin, director of the Chinese segment of the expressway, which opened in April 2006. In a large room with a “Keep Out!” sign posted at the entrance, Mr. Zhang toggled a joystick to show how he could scan different segments of the road as well as zoom in on the faces of passengers as cars passed through toll booths. <=.

New Roads in Northern Laos Aim to Speed Trade

New roads in northern Laos aim to boost trade and tourism between Thailand, Laos and China. In March 2008,Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times: “Taken together, these roads are breaking the isolation of the thinly inhabited upper reaches of Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, areas that in recent decades languished because of wars, ethnic rivalries and heroin trafficking. The roads run through the heart of the Golden Triangle, the region that once produced 70 percent of the world’s opium crop. [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, March 31, 2008 <=>]

“The new roads, as well as upgraded ports along the Mekong River, are changing the diets and spending habits of people on both sides of the border. China is selling fruit and green vegetables that favor temperate climates to its southern neighbors, and is buying tropical fruit, rubber, sugar cane, palm oil and seafood. “You never used to see apples in the traditional markets,” said Ruth Banomyong, an expert in logistics who teaches at Thammasat University in Bangkok. <=>

“Overall, even before the completion of the road, trade between China and the upland Southeast Asian countries Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam had risen impressively, to $53 billion in 2007 from just over $1 billion a decade ago.People are on the move as well. Wang Suqin, the director of express services at the Kunming bus terminal, says Chinese tourists are eager to travel overland to Thailand.“Every day we receive calls about this,” Ms. Wang said. Bus service to Bangkok, which has not yet started, will take at least 24 hours, but that is not a deterrent, Ms. Wang says; it is part of the fun. “We don’t want to miss the scenery along the way,” she said. <=>

“Since paving was completed late last year, people who live deep in the jungle have come to the edge of Route 3 to sell vegetables and forest products, residents say.“You have a huge hinterland that’s pretty badly served at the moment, from Kunming down through Laos and northern Thailand,” said John Cooney, director of the Southeast Asia infrastructure division at the Asian Development Bank, which financed one section of the road in Laos. “That suddenly is becoming a market.” <=>

“The main draw so far is not the factories or warehouses typically associated with these zones but a casino, which is off limits to Laotian gamblers, according to Ms. Alinda. “I went up there and everyone was speaking Chinese,” said Pansak Gardhan, a Thai engineer who is helping rebuild the small airport in Luang Namtha. “All the signs were in Chinese.” Chinese coming here to gamble will drive through what is probably the most beautiful section of the Kunming-Bangkok road, a four-lane highway that soars over valleys and clings to hillsides striated with rubber-tree and tea plantations. <=>

Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge

The First Friendship (Mittaphan) bridge across the Mekong River connects the Thai city of Nong Khai with the Lao port of Tha Nalaeng. Built mostly with Australia money, it opened in 1994 and is 1,174 meters long and 19 kilometers southeast of Vientiane, the capital and main city in Laos. The bridge has two 3.5 meters (11 feet 6 in) wide road lanes, two 1.5 meters (4 feet 11 in) wide footpaths and a single 1,000 mm gauge railway line in the middle, straddling the narrow central reservation.

Opened on April 8, 1994, it was the first bridge across the lower Mekong, and the second on the full course of the Mekong. The cost was about $30 million, funded by the Australian government as development aid for Laos. The bridge was built by Australian companies as a demonstration of their ability to complete major infrastructural projects in Southeast Asia. The official name of the bridge was changed by the addition of "First" after the Second Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge further south at Savannakhet opened in January 2007. [Source: Wikipedia]

Traffic on the bridge drives on the left, as in Thailand, while traffic in Laos drives on the right. The changeover at the Lao end, just before the border post, is controlled by traffic lights. A shuttle bus service operates across the bridge, between the Lao and Thai border posts. The bridge is part of the AH12 Asian Highway Network. A metre-gauge rail track from Nong Khai station runs along the centre of the bridge. Road traffic is stopped when a train is crossing.

On March 20, 2004, an agreement between the Thai and Lao governments was signed to extend the railway to Thanaleng Railway Station in Laos, about 3.5 kilometers (2.2 miles) from the bridge. This will be the first railway link to Laos (but not the first railway, as a short portage line once existed). The Thai government agreed to finance the line through a combination of grant and loan. Construction formally began on January 19, 2007. Test trains began running on July 4, 2008. Formal inauguration occurred on March 5, 2009.

On February 22, 2006, approval of funding for the rail line from Thanaleng Railway Station to Vientiane, about 9 kilometer, was announced by the French Development Agency. In November 2010 plans to extend the service from Thanaleng to Vientiane were abandoned. A posited high-speed rail link from China to Thailand through Laos would make the extension redundant. It would also necessitate the construction of a new bridge near to the current First Friendship Bridge. In 2011, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's revised plan prioritises domestic rail expansion over the ambitious regional connectivity plan spearheaded by China. Since February 2010 the Eastern and Oriental Express crosses the Mekong via the bridge into Laos.

Second Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge

The second Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge—the 1.6-kilometer-long Second Mekong International bridge over the Mekong River between Savannkhet in Laos and Mukdahan in Thailand----opened in 2006. Built with money from Japan’s official development assistance (ODA) program and the Sumitomo Mitsui construction (a Chinese company), the bridge cost $75 million to make. The bridge was scheduled to be completed sooner but was delayed by the Asian financial crisis. Eight construction workers died in an accident in July 2005. The bridge is the final portion of the East-West economic Corridor.

The second Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge has two traffic lanes 12 meters in width and 1,600 meters long. Officially inaugurated by Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand and Lao Vice President Bounnhang Vorachith, it is part of the land transport development plan of the East-West economic corridor running through Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar. Bridge construction began on March 21, 2004 and took three years to complete. The bridge is expected not only to promote overland tourism in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, but also to facilitate trade and investment in the Mekong subregion. As of 2011 more than 5,000 vehicles used the bridge daily, generating taxes and fee revenue to the Thai government of 60,000 baht a day on average.

Kyodo reported: “The Japan Bank for International Cooperation provided 8.09 billion yen (about $80 million) in soft loans to both Thailand and Laos for the shared construction costs. Thailand borrowed 4.079 billion yen, Laos borrowed the other 4.011 billion yen. The bridge is part of the transportation initiative headed by the Asian Development Bank known as the "East-West Economic Corridor." The idea is to create transportation corridor running the entire width of mainland Southeast Asia, approximately 1,500 kilometres long, linking the Andaman Sea from Mawlamyine in eastern Myanmar to the South China Sea. [Source: Kyodo, December 20, 2006 ==]

Thai-Lao Friendship Bridges No.3 and No. 4

The Third Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge over the Mekong is a bridge that connects Nakhon Phanom Province in Thailand with Thakhek, Khammouane in Laos. The bridge's foundation stone was laid on March 6, 2009, and it opened for traffic on November 11, 2011. The bridge is 1423 metres long and 13 metres wide. The name "Third Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge" was previously also used to refer to the planned bridge from Chiang Khong, Thailand to Huay Xai, Laos, but this bridge is now known as the Fourth Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The Fourth Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge over the Mekong River, linking Chiang Rai Province of Thailand and Ban Houayxay in Laos, opened in December 2013. About 480 meters long and about 14.70 meters wide, the bridge is about 10 kilometers from Amphoe Chiang Khong (Chiang Khong District) in Thailand and about 12 kilometers from Ban Houayxay of Laos. The Thais, Laotians, and Chinese have jointly invested about 1,900 million Baht in the budget for this construction project. The share will then be divided in half between the Thailand and China.

On the official opening of the Fourth Thai-Lao bridge, the Bangkok Post reported: “Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn officially opened the Fourth Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge across the Mekong River, linking Chiang Rai province with Bokeo in Laos. The box girder bridge is a 1.57-billion-baht joint investment between Thailand and China to improve transport and boost trade and tourism in the Greater Mekong Subregion, an economic area shared by the two nations with Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. Thailand and China equally shared the cost of the construction of the bridge. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and Laos Vice President Bounnhang Vorachit were also present at the opening ceremony. [Source: Bangkok Post, December 2013]

Phitsanu Thepthong wrote in the Bangkok Post, “The fourth Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge will further increase trade and travel not only between the two countries but also among the six countries in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS). The GMS comprises countries sharing the Mekong River: Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam and China's Yunnan province and Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region. [Source: Phitsanu Thepthong, Bangkok Post, February 16, 2011 \~\]

“The project, part of North-South Economic Corridor International Bridge Project, will connect with Route 3A (East), running between Bangkok, Chiang Rai and Kunming in South China and would benefit commercial traffic between the two countries through Laos's Laungnamtha province. The new bridge is expected to boost the trade potential of both lignite imports from Laos and Thai consumer goods. A second, larger port is under construction in Chiang Rai's Chiang Saen district in order to link Mekong River routes between China, Laos, Burma, and Thailand. The original Chiang Saen port is now overwhelmed by the increase in cross-border traffic. \~\

“The CR5-KT Group of China and Krung Thon Engineering of Thailand jointly constructed the facilities of the 11-km-long road with the bridge, with a combined budget of Thailand and China of US$44.8 million (1.38 billion baht) plus a consulting fee of 2.5 million baht. For the financing of the bridge, Beijing has granted a loan of US$20 million through the Lao government in 2008 for spending on bridge construction, and the Thai government also spent about 700 million baht. Trade with Burma and Laos along the Chiang Rai border from January to November 2010 was worth 18.27 billion baht, with Thai exports accounting for 15.51 billion, raising the country's trade surplus by 38.6 percent to 12.76 billion.” \~\

Air Travel in Southeast Asia

Since 2001, more than a dozen airlines—many of them budget carriers—have been launched in Thailand, Singapore , Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. The new airlines brought down ticket price and gave tourists, business people and local people more travel options but put pressure on local infrastructure and raised safety issues, particularly in Indonesia.

The 10 countries of ASEAN plan to fully liberalize the aviation market by 2015. The move would remove barriers and make it easier for airlines to operate in the region and likely would improve air travel from Southeast Asia to China and India, the world’s most populous nations. As of the late 2000s restrictions to capital cities in the region had been eased.

Asian carriers have buying and placing orders for large numbers of planes. This has been a real boost for Boeing and Airbus as demand for new planes has fallen off in North American and Europe.Airbus expects to sell 9,870 aircrafts worth $1.6 trillion in the Asia Pacific between 2014 and 2034.

Smaller Planes in Demand as Asia Travel Boom Deepens

Martin Abbugao of AFP wrote: Smaller passenger planes are increasingly in demand in Asia as budget carriers cash in on the region's growing middle classes by expanding their reach to less prominent cities, industry executives say. So-called "regional" jets -- short to medium-haul aircraft that generally seat under 100 passengers -- were among the best-sellers at the Singapore Airshow which ended at the weekend. Jimmy Lau, managing director of show organiser Experia Events, said demand for smaller aircraft will rise as Asia's burgeoning middle class sustains the growth in air travel that began in metropolitan areas. "The people who will be likely making good inroads are the Embraers and the Bombardiers who will be selling their smaller regional jets to countries like Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia," Lau told reporters as the Airshow ended with deals totalling a record $32 billion. [Source: Martin Abbugao, AFP, February 16, 2014]

Embraer, the Brazilian plane maker, forecasts that Asia-Pacific carriers will take delivery of 1,500 new jets in the 70- to 130-seat segment over the next 20 years, with a total value of $70 billion. This would represent nearly 20 percent of global demand. Canada's Bombardier expects the region to get one-third of the 12,800 aircraft in the 20 to 150-seat segment it forecasts to be delivered worldwide in the next two decades. The company's vice president for marketing Philippe Poutissou told AFP that Bombardier sold almost 80 percent of its planes to Western countries in the past.

Four-month-old Indian carrier Air Costa sprang the biggest surprise at the event when it ordered 50 E-Jets E2 planes from Brazilian manufacturer Embraer worth $2.94 billion, with purchase rights for 50 more. Air Costa wants to connect cities in southern India such as Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad and Vijayawada, as well as key secondary cities in the country's north and northwest. "Our philosophy is that we believe that 70 percent of the population, of the huge 1.2 billion population in India, still reside in these non-metros," Air Costa chief financial officer Vivek Choudhary said.

Bangkok Airways, which describes itself as a "boutique" airline that serves popular tourist destinations in the country as well as the Maldives, Laos and Cambodia, ordered six 72-600 planes from European plane maker ATR for $150 million. Thai budget carrier Nok Air ordered two Q4 100 aircraft -- which can seat 70-80 passengers -- from Bombardier to help it expand into smaller cities in Thailand and neighbouring countries, and may buy six more. Nok Air chief executive Patee Sarasin said the airline's strategy is to use 33-seater planes to penetrate small towns and stimulate air travel, and then to increase frequency or use bigger aircraft as demand rises. "There are so many airports in Thailand that are underutilised and so many towns that are underdeveloped in terms of the flying experience," Patee said.

Poutissou of Bombardier said his company is also aiming at a slightly larger aircraft class with its C Series of planes that can seat up to 150 passengers, competing directly with popular single-aisle planes made by Boeing and Airbus. The Airbus A320 and Boeing B737 -- currently favoured by Asia's major budget carriers -- can seat between 126 and 200 passengers. Poutissou said regional jets and single-aisle planes can complement each other, and he expects airlines to have a combination of both.

Boeing and Airbus are watching their smaller challengers. "They are moving up into that part of the market (single aisle) in order to compete directly with us," said Randy Tinseth, vice president for marketing at Boeing. Tinseth said Boeing and Airbus must assume that one of the smaller aircraft manufacturers, including some from China, will become successful. "It's not a question of whether they will be successful, but when," he said. John Leahy, Airbus chief operating officer, said he was not "overly concerned" about the upcoming competition. But he added: "If you ask: Will Airbus and Boeing be under threat in the next 10 years? The answer is no. And 20 years? The answer is probably yes."

Southeast Asia’s Overcrowded Airports

Harry Suhartono of Reuters wrote:“It's a scene repeated endlessly at most of Southeast Asia's main airports - planes forced to circle overhead or idle on the tarmac and travellers stuck in serpentine queues at immigration desks, security checkpoints and baggage carousels. And it's likely to get worse in capitals like Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Bangkok and Manila in years to come as overcrowded airports and outdated infrastructure are twinned with a huge spike in the number of aircraft in the region. [Source: Harry Suhartono, Reuters, March 26, 2012]

Jakarta's Soekarno-Hatta International Airport now serves more than 51 million passengers a year, more than twice its design capacity when it was built in the mid-1980s. Bangkok's main Suvarnabhumi Airport is often beset by two-hour immigration queues and is running over capacity less than six years after it opened, which led Thailand's government to encourage low-cost carriers to move to the old Don Muang Airport to help ease congestion.

Passengers can wait for hours at Kuala Lumpur's overcrowded budget terminal, the hub for AirAsia. After clearing immigration lines that can be at least 50 people long, the walk to the plane at the tarmac can be hundreds of metres with only a strip of corrugated steel overhead as cover against the elements. With pressure from AirAsia and scenes of chaotic check-ins, government-linked operator Malaysia Airports (MAHB.KL) is rushing to complete another budget terminal that is due to be up and running by April 2013.

A number of airports in Southeast Asia are expanding but some industry watchers say the efforts may not be enough to keep up with additional capacity and demand. Projected construction costs have nearly doubled to 3.9 billion ringgit as the planned capacity of the new airport has been expanded to 45 million passengers a year from an initial plan of 30 million.

Standard & Poor's analyst Shukor Yusof said Indonesia and the Philippines are among the laggards in developing facilities for airlines, while Singapore and Malaysia tend to move ahead. "Malaysia has done a fairly good job in managing and operating various airports," he said. "Indonesia certainly lacks the infrastructure to meet the increase in capacity with its domestic carriers expanding and acquiring new aircraft."

Southeast Asia’s Overcrowded Airports Causes Problems for Airlines

Harry Suhartono of Reuters wrote: Southeast Asian carriers have ordered $47 billion worth of aircraft for the coming decade but the deals could be under threat because of the inability of airports to keep pace. That could be a blow to manufacturers like Boeing (BA.N) and Airbus (EAD.PA). "You can buy as many aircraft as you like but if the infrastructure does not keep up then you are going to see a degraded service that may prevent you from executing plans to grow the airline," Andrew Herdman, director general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines, told Reuters. [Source: Harry Suhartono, Reuters, March 26, 2012]

The number of low-cost carriers LCC.L and their routes have expanded rapidly in Southeast Asia over the last 10 years. Analysts and industry executives see more growth ahead due to a lack of reliable alternatives and strong economic growth. "Ten years ago, the airports in this region would probably not have foreseen that LCC demand could be as strong as it is today," Chin Yau Seng, chief executive officer of Singapore-based budget carrier Tiger Airways (TAHL.SI), told Reuters. The problem could force low-cost carriers such as Malaysia's AirAsia Bhd (AIRA.KL) and Indonesia's privately held Lion Air - the world's biggest buyers of passenger jets - to delay or even cancel some orders from Airbus and Boeing.

Airport congestion makes it tougher for carriers to keep their on-time performance and pushes up operating costs as planes waste fuel waiting to take off or land. "If this problem persists for the long run, airlines in general will have to take into account all the additional costs that they have to incur and pass them on to customers," Edward Sirait, a director at Lion Air, told Reuters. "If customers cannot accept those additional costs then airlines, whoever they are, will have to rethink their investment decisions and spending."

Lion recently firmed up an order for 230 Boeing 737s worth $22.4 billion, eclipsing the record for the world's biggest commercial aircraft deal set by AirAsia when it signed up to buy 200 Airbus A320neo jets for $18 billion. Despite the growth and big orders, Southeast Asia remains a market that has been under served by carriers.

Con Korfiatis, vice president of Garuda Indonesia's (GIAA.JK) budget carrier Citilink, said only 300 single-aisle jets serve the country's population of 230 million, compared with 3,000 in the United States, which has 310 million people. Boeing sees Asia-Pacific carriers as the biggest buyers of planes over the 20-year period to 2030 as they are expected to acquire 11,450 passenger jets valued at $1.5 trillion - more than a third of global demand.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2014

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