TRANSPORTATION IN LAOS: MOTORBIKES, NEW ROADS AND FRIENDSHIP BRIDGES

TRANSPORTATION IN LAOS

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 jumbos, which are like tuk tuks in Thailand. About 80 percent of them have been made at the D'Mes Industrial Corporation in Amnart Cahrown (near the Lao border in Thailand). Until fairly recently there were not many vehicles on the roads of Laos other than a few old Japanese and European cars, and a handful of Mercedes in Vientiane. See Thailand

In the past travelers were not allowed to venture outside of Vientiane without a government escort and when they did they had to deal with police checkpoints, documents checks, bandits, rouge soldiers, guerrillas (who sometimes set up road blocks on roads and robbed and shot people), mines and unexploded bombs . These days travelers can pretty much go where they want and the above concerns are not really an issue unless you travel well off the beaten path. But that is not to say travel in Laos is easy.

Most long distance traveling is done by plane, bus, river boat or hired vehicle. Few Laotian roads are paved and the ones that are usually only have one lane. Laos is currently receiving foreign aid to improve its roads and infrastructure, but it there is a lot of work to do and it will take time. All-weather roads linking Vientiane and western Laos to Vietnam and China are being built.

According to Lonely Planet: Long-distance public transport in Laos is either by bus or sawngthaew (literally ‘two rows’), which are converted pick-ups or trucks with benches down either side. Buses are more frequent and go further than ever before in Laos, and destinations that were all but inaccessible a few years ago now see regular services. Private operators have established services on some busier routes – particularly along Rte 13 and on international routes –offering faster and more-luxurious air-con buses, known as VIP buses, which are also pretty good value at about US$2 per 100 kilometers –about 1.5 times the normal bus price. That’s not to say local buses have disappeared completely. Far from it. You can still do the main routes by local bus, and on most journeys off Rte 13 you won’t have any option. If you can’t live without your air-con, it’s worth booking ahead. You’ll usually have to go to the bus station to do this, though increasingly guesthouses can book tickets for a small fee. [Source: Lonely Planet]

River travel is very important in Laos. The Mekong River system is the chief transportation route. See Mekong River.

Roadways: total: 39,568 kilometer, country comparison to the world: 90. Paved: 530 kilometer; unpaved: 39,038 kilometer (2007). Waterways: 4,600 kilometer (primarily on the Mekong River and its tributaries; 2,900 additional kilometer are intermittently navigable by craft drawing less than 0.5 m) (2012), country comparison to the world: 24. As a landlocked country, Laos possesses no ports or harbours on the sea, and the difficulty of navigation on the Mekong means that this is also not a significant transport route. [Source: CIA World Factbook, Wikipedia]

Martin Petty of Reuters wrote: “Urban Laos is modernizing fast. A $7 billion Chinese-led high-speed railway linking China with Thailand is planned and national carrier Lao Airlines expanded its fleet of eight propeller planes with the $91 million purchase of two Airbus A320 airliners. [Source: Martin Petty, Reuters, December 18, 2011 <<>>]

See Separate Article on AIR TRAVEL AND BOATS

Motorbikes and Scooters in Laos

J&C Expat Services reported: “Although not always as safe as a car, a scooter or motorbike is the fastest way to get from A to B in Vientiane. Relatively small in size, scooters and motorbikes can weave through traffic and zip to a destination in half the time it takes a car; perfect for a trip to the minimart or delivering something across town in a hurry. There are currently over 12 motorcycle assembly plants in the Lao PDR. Two are Japanese, one is Korean, and the rest are Chinese. With the entrance of Chinese manufacturers into the market, there have been more different types of bikes than ever to choose from and their cheap pricing has made them available to everyone. [Source: J&C Expat Services, July 16, 2012 <<>>]

There is a legal limit of 250 cc on the engine capacity for bikes allowed on Lao roads. Most larger motorbikes in Laos are imported and you may find anything from old Russian bikes to Harley Davidson clones for sale second-hand. Many expats enjoy riding trail bikes around town and off-road on weekends. These bikes are usually found advertised on minimart windows (or in the J&C forum). <<>>

Types of Motorbikes and Scooters in Laos

The Chinese brands such as Yincin, YinXieng, Hojin and Zongshen manufacture the cheapest scooters and these retail for around $500 USD. These come in various makes and models, some clearly imitations of better brands. Chinese bikes have little or no after-sales service and parts are not always genuine. These must be repaired at ordinary, side-of-the-road motorbike repair stalls. The middle ground are the the Korean bikes which are assembled in Laos at the Kolao assembly plant. These retail for around $800-1000 USD and come in various models including manual or automatic, with a full warranty. They are hardworking bikes and last a long time if well maintained. The Kolao and Kia Centre on T2 Road has trained professionals who can service your bike as often as you like. Parts are always genuine Kolao. [Source: J&C Expat Services, July 16, 2012 <<>>]

Japanese bikes are the top of the range. Right now the options are Suzuki with the Suzuki Smash model, and Honda with its Dream and Wave models and the ever popular Yamaha Fino. These are high quality bikes which should last a very long time. Both Suzuki and Honda have after-sales service centres which can repair any model using genuine parts. Suzuki and Honda bikes retail for anything up to $2000. Be aware, however, these scooters are the most valuable and most likely to be stolen. <<>>

There are also a few options for electric bikes available in Laos. The bestselling is a Chinese type which you’ll find for sale in and around the Chinese Market, or Nongduang Market on T2 Road. These will set you back roughly $500 USD and there is the choice of a 400watt or 800watt bike. There is a large battery in the ‘neck’ of the bike and this can be removed and charged. It takes around 5-6 hours for a full charge after which you can travel around 60-70 kilometer at a maximum speed of 50km/hr. Another option is an e-cycle, which is a type of electronic bicycle available from Sunlabob Renewable Energy. This is more or less an ordinary bicycle with an added battery. The charging time is 4 to 6 hours, depending on the state of exhaustion of the battery. Maximum speed is around 30 Km/hr and maximum driving distance on battery power is about 35Km. <<>>

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. ==

Trucks and Sangathaews in Laos

Trucks and sangathaews are often used by travelers to get around on tough roads in remote areas. Some are used specifically to carry passengers. Others are carrying something like bags of grain or empty bottles, and travelers have to sit on top of the whatever the cargo is. Most are dump-truck-size trucks with a flat open bed with a seven or eight foot wooden or metal fence around it, which passengers have to climb over to get in.

To catch a truck you generally wait on the side of the road like a hitchhiker and flag one down, or hang out at a filling station or restaurant frequented by truck drivers. Sometimes the trucks are few are far between and not all of them stop. The drivers usually charge about three-forth what a bus charges.

In southern Laos flat bed trucks mounted with a wooden carriage and seats in bus-like rows are used. In northern Laos trucks called thaeksii or sangthaew (literally ‘two rows’) are the workhorses of the transportation system. They have a pair of benches set up in the back, running along the sides. People sit on the benches. Cargo and bags are jammed between the passengers. Sometimes people hang on the outside. These vehicles can be very uncomfortable on long trips. They are usually caught at the same stops and stations as buses.

According to Lonely Planet: Sawngthaew usually service shorter routes within a given province. Most decent-sized villages have at least one sawngthaew , which will run to the provincial capital and back most days. Like local buses, they stop wherever you want but are generally slower given that the roads they ply are usually unpaved. And, given that everyone is sitting on-top-of/facing each other, they’re even more social than the bus. [Source: Lonely Planet]

The final type of transport is the lot doi saan (wooden bus). These big, rumbling trucks with wooden cabins built on the back with forward facing seats were once the mainstay of Lao transport. They can handle the worst road conditions and these days that’s where you’ll find them – on routes that are unpassable to anything else.

Pick Up Trucks are used to carry passengers in poor remote areas where no other forms of transportation are available. Some run regular routes at scheduled times, but most leave on a when full basis and pick up and drop off passengers along the road. Passengers sit in the back on uncomfortable benches lined up on the sides of the bed. Usually there is a compartment over the back to protect passengers from rain and wind. Pick-ups as a rule are very crowded, and uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous.

Buses in Laos

Buses can be comfortable and relatively efficient or infrequent, dangerous, crowded, and uncomfortable depending on the bus and route. Buses vary in quality from bus to bus and route to route, with the service often coinciding with the quality of the road. As a rule the buses traveling between major cities and towns are better than those servicing destinations in rural or mountainous areas. Lousy buses often break down. It is not unusual for a three hour bus ride to become a 10 hour nightmare after a flat tire or breakdown.

There are buses connecting all provinces throughout Laos with a bus hub in Vientiane for buses traveling from north to south and the other way. If you want to travel by bus, for example from Luang Prabang (in the north) to Pakse (in the south) you need to take a Luang Prabang-Vientiane bus (around 7 hours, cost 130,000kip), then take another bus from Vientiane to Pakse (around 10 hours, cost 150,000kip). There is no direct route. Luang Prabang is a bus hub for Northern provinces, and Pakse for southern provinces. [Source: Laos-Guide-999.com]

The buses used for long distance travel are usually nice and comfortable. There are also slow cheap buses, and these buses depart from the central bus station near the Morning Market. The nicer and more expensive ones (usually referred to as VIP buses) depart from the Southern bus station on road 13 south, and the Northern bus station on Sithong road around 7 kilometers north of Vientiane.

Make sure you choose your bus wisely, if possible, avoid local public buses. A trip on these ancient buses can take forever, they are slow, stop everywhere, are not comfortable, have no air-con (you can open window, but in the countryside the roads are dusty), and worst of all they often break down. The more comfortable, air-con buses (known as VIP) are operated by private companies.

Roads in Laos

The French built only a handful of roads. Most of the roads in Laos were built with Chinese and Vietnamese help. There are few paved roads in Laos. Even rural roads and dirt roads are few in number. All-weather roads linking Vientiane and western Laos to Vietnam and China are being built.

According to to the CIA World Factbook there are 39,568 kilometers of roadways of which 530 kilometers are paved and 39,038 kilometers are unpaved (2007). According to Wikipedia there are 21,716 kilometer of highway, of which 9,673.5 kilometer are paved, leaving 12,042.5 kilometer unpaved. Driving in Laos is on the right.

Laos opened a highway connection to Kunming in April 2008. Laos has constructed a new highway connecting Savannakhet to the Vietnamese border at Lao Bao, with funding coming from the Japanese government. This has greatly facilitated travelling across Laos. This highway can now be traversed in a few hours, while in 2002 the trip took over 9 hours along a very bumpy (and scenic) route. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Roads between the major cities are paved, but those in mountains, forests and rural areas are primarily dirt and gravel. There are no multiple lane American-style highways. Most roads on in Laos are dirt tracks. The network, however, has been greatly improved. The North-South route: Luang Prabang-Vientiane-Pakse- Champasak is now of good quality as is the national road connecting Boten and Houyxay. Presently very few road maps are available in Vientiane, Luang Prabang and some provincial capitals.

Most roads connecting main cities frequented by tourists are in reasonable condition. The busiest road in the state is Road 13 which begins at the Chinese border and goes deep into the South (to the Laos-Cambodia border). This is the main highway and most cross country travels happen on this road, but the busiest route is between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, then Vientiane to Pakse.

The Northern part of Laos is mostly mountainous. Although the main road (Road 13) leading to the north from Vientiane is sealed, a large part of it winds through hills. So… traveling by bus to the north can be hard for those with motion sickness, but that can be countered by the magnificent views. The Southern part of the country is flat, the road No.13 connecting Vientiane and the southern part of the country is sealed and in good condition. The cross country bus trip to the south is smoother and more comfortable.

However some roads connecting other provinces less traveled are not as good. Some roads are not paved and are bumpy, and in most Northern provinces the roads wind through hills, which makes trips range from less comfortable to tough. Some of mountain and rural roads are in poor condition, especially in the rainy season when they may become impassable. Distances in Laos are deceptive. Even on paved roads traffic is often slowed by potholes and slow trucks. A journey of a 100 miles through the mountains sometimes takes four or five hours. Mountain roads are often as narrow and passing areas are set up at curves to allow cars going in opposite directions to pass one another.

Some roads have pavement sections that run only a few miles and then deteriorate unto pothole, washboard ripples, dirt and rocks. Maps are often unreliable. Sometimes well-defined roads on maps disappear into dried creek beds. Most of the paved roads are in the cities and main towns.

National Route 13 is now paved all the way from Vientiane to Luang Prabang and from Vientiane to Savannakhet. It is more or less completely paved between Luang Prabang and Luang Nam Tham. As of 2003 about the section between Luang Nam Tha and the Chinese was about half paved and lots of construction crew were bust trying complete the rest. Thise section was completed in 2008. The roads from Pakse to Salavan and Pakse to the Cambodian border are also paved.

National Route 9 running from Savannakhet in Laos to Dan Nang on the coast of Vietnam is being improved with Japanese money. A bridge between Savannakhet in Laos and Mukdahan in Thailand over the Mekong River built with Japanese money was recently completed. With its completion, transportation between Bangkok and the South China Sea has been greatly improved and is helping speed up development in northeastern Thailand, central Laos and central Vietnam, all poor regions of their respective countries.

Friendship Bridges Between Thailand and Laos

Laos is connected across the Mekong to Thailand by First and Second Thai-Lao Friendship Bridges. Vientiane is linked to Udon Thani using the First Friendship Bridge. The Third Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge began construction in March 2009 linking Nakhon Phanom province in northeastern Thailand and Khammouan province in Laos. It was completed on November 11, 2011. The Fourth Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge was completed in December 2012 linking Kunming to Bokeo, Laos and Chiang Rai. It will reduce the travel time to 5 hours. This is a cooperation between Thailand, China and Laos.

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.” \~\

East-West Economic Corridor

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.” ||||

See East-West Economic Corridor Southeast Asia

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. <=>

Traffic Safety and Road Conditions in Laos

The traffic situation in Vientiane is considered light when compared to the capitals of the surrounding countries, but 2011 recorded a significant increase in vehicle congestion over previous years. Visitors should be extremely alert to traffic patterns and unexpected movements by motorcycle drivers. Traffic laws and driving habits throughout Laos fail to achieve Western standards. Death and injury attributed to motorcycle and passenger vehicle accidents are commonplace throughout Laos. The seriousness of this is exacerbated by the unavailability of quality health care. [Source: Overseas Security Advisory Council]

The number of road accidents and fatalities in Laos has risen sharply in the last decade as the number of motor vehicles has increased. U.S. citizens involved in traffic accidents have been barred from leaving Laos before paying compensation for property damage or injuries, regardless of who was at fault. A driver involved in a traffic accident should remain at the scene and attempt to contact the police or wait for them to arrive to prepare an accident report. If renting a car or motorcycle, contact the rental company and its insurance agent. If there is major damage, injury, or death, contact the Consular Section or the Duty Officer at the U.S. Embassy. When renting a car, motorcycle, or bicycle, do not give your original U.S. passport to the owner of the vehicle as surety against loss, theft, or damage to the vehicle. [Source: U.S. State Department *=*]

Traffic in Laos is chaotic, and road conditions are very rough. Few roads have lane markings. Where lane markings, road signs, and stoplights do exist, they are widely ignored. Many drivers are unlicensed, inexperienced, and uninsured. Driving under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs is not uncommon, and penalties for such offenses may not be enforced. Theoretically, traffic moves on the right, but vehicles use all parts of the road. Motorcyclists pay little or no heed to cars. Motorcycles carry as many as five people, greatly impeding the drivers' ability to react to traffic. The evening hours are particularly dangerous. Road construction sites are poorly marked, appear with no advance warning, and can be difficult to see at night. Roads are poorly lit, many vehicles have no operating lights, few bicycles have reflectors, and trucks without reflectors commonly park on unlit roads. *=*

Public transportation is unreliable and is limited after sunset. Automobile taxis or cars for hire are available at the airport, the Friendship Bridge, most major hotels, and near the Morning Market in Vientiane. The most common form of public transport is a three-wheeled, open-sided taxi called "tuk-tuks.” Tuk-tuks and taxis are frequently in poor repair, and drivers generally speak little or no English. Inter-city transport is provided by buses, vans, pickups, and trucks, any of which may also be in poor repair. *=*

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, 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 May 2014

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