The facade of Vientiane Railway Station, the main and largest station in Laos. The name of the station is displayed in two languages, Lao and Chinese, while other information signs in the station and announcements on the train are in three languages, including English. 

“China-Laos Railway” refers to the route from Kunming in China to Vientiane and it is displayed on the train, while “Laos-China Railway” refers to the route in the Lao section only, starting from the capital city of Vientiane to the border town of Laos and China_Boten (The Boten-Vientiane railway). This only appears on local tickets in Laos, suggesting a competing claim over the railway.
Photos: Sayan Chuenudomsavad


Story: Radda Larpnun
Photos: Sayan Chuenudomsavad
The Photo Essay series: SDGs I The Depth of Field
FEBRUARY 21, 2023

Lao PDR is among 147 countries that have endorsed China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It has already seen the rapid development of a new railway, which is the core of its BRI cooperation with China. It is expected to bring prosperity to Laos and the Greater Mekong region, but the question remains whether the new railway would bring benefits to Laos and the region as it claims, after factoring in several influences, including unequal bargaining power

Cooperation between Lao PDR and China began at the end of 2016 when the Laos government signed a memorandum of understanding and 20 other documents with China to support the BRI. In May 2017, during the first Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, the master plan for developing the “One Belt One Road” between Laos and China was signed, identifying seven priority areas of cooperation, namely infrastructure, agriculture, capacity building, industrial park, culture and tourism, finance and banking, and product promotion.

The Laos-China Railway (LCR) is the top priority for BRI cooperation between the two countries. The Laos government sees the BRI as a strategy to overcome its geographical disadvantage by turning itself from a “land-locked” to a “land-linked” country.

The Laos-China Railway is the main part of the central route for BRI cooperation in the Southeast Asian region as well as for the Singapore-Kunming High-Speed Rail Link, also known as the Pan-Asia Railway Network. For this reason, the railway construction in Laos started even though construction of other parts in Thailand and Malaysia are still under negotiation. 

The 414km construction of the LCR, which began at the end of 2016, is one of the significant push efforts, while others, such as an investment of US$5.9 billion (35% of Laos’ GDP) in special economic zones had started and were completed in December 2021. 

The main construction of the project involved 961 areas that are related to 74 tunnels, 157 bridges, road construction, an electricity network and the construction of a drainage system. In addition, one of the two longest bridges (1,458.9 metres) on the Mekong River was completed in Luang Prabang province in northern Laos. Besides the railway, there is also investment in an expressway (railroad) from Vientiane in the central area to the Chinese border that is under implementation. 

The Export-Import Bank of China finances the infrastructure management project through a 35-year loan at 2.3 per cent interest. During the initial period of construction, the Laos government, holding 30 per cent of the total investment, borrowed US$310 million from a Chinese bank with the expectation that the remaining US$250 million would be financed through its national budget. In July 2019, China Development Bank provided a loan of US$300 million to the Bank of Lao PDR (Laos’ central bank) for a small and medium-sized enterprises promotion policy, highlighting yet another financial cooperation under BRI. China would mainly finance other BRI-related activities.

There are also reports of land, tax, and mining concessions being granted to China to fulfil debt obligations related to the project!

SDGs’ Touch along the Railway

The Lao government integrated the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into the 8th Five-Year of National Socio-Economic Development Plan (NSEDP) 2016-2020 and Sectoral Development Plans up to 2030 after the introduction of SDGs at the beginning of 2016. The goals will be aligned with the 9th and 10th NSEDPs (2021-2025, 2026-2030). 

The vision for 2030 cited that Laos will become an upper middle-income developing country following “a knowledge-based, green and sustainable socio-economic direction”. Therefore, seven priorities of the 10-year Strategy (2016-2025) include the strategies for continuing economic development in a high-quality, balanced, sustainable and green direction; meeting the criteria for graduation from the least developed countries by 2022 and implementation of the SDGs; and improving the enforcement of the rule of law, regional and international integration and connectivity and industrialization and modernization.

The progress of SDGs implementation under the BRI umbrella has been sluggish and might hinder potential connection of BRI to the SDGs, especially for Goal 8 (Decent work and economic growth) and Goal 9 (Industry, innovation and infrastructure). However, the Laos-China railway itself is transformative, turning Laos from a land-locked country into a land-linked hub, bringing countless local jobs and shortening travel within the country from days to hours.

In the past year, the operational railway infrastructure was almost nonexistent in Lao PDR. The only operational rail infrastructure was a 3.5 km extension running across the Friendship Bridge from Nongkhai in Thailand that connects east of Vientiane and is primarily used for tourism and freight purposes. However, this new high-speed rail link, which was completed on December 2, 2021, with a total distance of 414km helps connect China to Vientiane through Laung Namtha, Oudomxay, and Luang Prabang provinces. In addition, there are a few other rail links currently under consideration.

One rail link would connect Thailand and Vietnam across Savannakhet province in southern Laos while the second route would run from the Savannakhet line to Pakse in southern Laos. The third would run south along the Lao-Thai border from Vientiane to Thakhek and the last one would connect to another line from Thakhek to Vung Ang in Vietnam.

Since July 2019, the railway construction project has already employed 28,234 workers in total. After construction, around 6,180 new employees work for the railway service operation. Accordingly, new job creation by the railway project will attract domestic labours, raise the labour participation rate, and increase female participation in the labour market. The job opportunities for the female worker are mainly in the service sector, especially in transport, hotel, restaurant, wholesale and retail. This female labour force participation is linked with GDP growth and dynamics of the labour market change, affecting whole economic dynamics.

The railway’s launch was also perfectly synchronized with the finalization of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the world’s largest trade pact, that began to take effect last year. The RCEP pact is set to lift regional GDP by 0.86 per cent by 2035, a report by the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation stated in November 2021.

The World Bank estimated that the railway could potentially increase aggregate income in the land-locked country by up to 21 per cent over the long term, and Laos’ link to the broader BRI network could increase its GDP by up to 21 per cent as well.

According to the jointly building belt and road towards SDGs: Laos’ National Report in February 2021 cited the SDG progress and BRI in the country that there are some potential risks and opportunities of ongoing and planned activities of BRI on the achievement of SDGs. The stakes are mainly embedded in the social, environmental and dept sustainability areas, whereas the potential opportunities could primarily be in poverty, economic and capacity building.

The impact of BRI Infrastructure investment growth has boosted productivity growth (SDG 4, 8 and 17), which in turn leads to faster output growth, an increase in labour force participation (SDG 8) and a reduction in the poverty level (SDG 1 and 10). However, this positive impact is also accompanied by negative consequences, particularly regarding debt sustainability (SDG 17) and the environment (SDG 13).

ReadThe China-built railway cutting through Laos
Read:Boten: The Resurrection of the Ghost Town

Construction of the LCR started in 2016 and officially opened on December 3, 2021. Nowadays, freight trains run from Vientiane to Kunming, but the passenger trains still operate only from Vientiane to Boten due to the pandemic situation, as China’s border remains closed. 

However, locals hope they will soon be able to ride the passenger trains and be able to pass through the China-Laos Friendship Tunnel at the border, completing the Vientiane-Kunming route. 

More than 410,000 people have travelled by the LCR and 640,000 tonnes of goods have been transported across the border between Laos and China in the past six months.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

Boten, the Laos town on the border with China, where the train from China first enters Laos, has been declared a Special Economic Zone. Boten had virtually been abandoned as a ghost town for many years, but then it was revived as a tourist town and became a gateway to Laos for Chinese tourists. 
Consequently, there is an influx of workers from Laos, China and Myanmar in new cities. One side of the town is elegant, modern, and bright, hiding the poor living conditions of immigrant workers on the other side.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad
Chinese entrepreneurs decorated the town to celebrate the Chinese New Year recently. They monopolize almost all businesses in this Special Economic Zone, including casinos, luxury hotels, grocery stores, tiny shops, and construction workers. 
Almost nothing remains of the original small border town situated in the valley. The popular money here is the Chinese yuan.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

Boten town is being developed along with the construction of the LCR. There was a dispute over predominantly Chinese labourers being employed for the projects. The Lao government had to step in and request the use of more Lao workers. 

In the settlement area of migrant workers in the town of Boten, labourers live in poor conditions, and their standard of living is quite low. 

Seen in the photo are children of labourers who live in the garbage dump and also use it as their playground.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

Lao workers warm themselves near a fire on a cold winter morning. They have come from Luang Prabang to work as housekeepers for various Chinese businesses.
Instead of settling for low salaries working for the government, most Laotians have turned to work in the tourism sector, hotels, resorts and restaurants as well as the new Chinese business along the railway line.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad
The rent of a worker’s room is 400 yuan a month, which is shared by four to save money. Working for a Chinese business, they can earn about 100 yuan a day, more than twice what they would earn working for a Lao employer. Most of them work at construction sites, involved in dangerous high-rise buildings. But the lure of better wages is bringing more and more migrant workers to the area, in the hope of a better future.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad
A view of the temporary housing of migrant labourers behind the luxury hotels, casinos and entertainment venues, which target wealthy Chinese tourists who drive through the checkpoint or take the train across the border.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad
Every day, local people from the new Boten village, which is about 10 km away, come to Boten (Boten Special Economic Zone) — from where they moved out about 10 years ago — to sell farm produce, vegetables, and fruits to the Chinese. 
They said they had no problem with the relocation in the past. Despite a long-distance journey to the SEZ today, they are still OK with it because they can come to sell farm products to Chinese businessmen and tourists.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad
Before the railway was completed, Boten was one of the major road junctions in northern Laos. Large cargo trucks from China, Laos, and Thailand stopped for transshipments. Normally, it would take more than 10 days to ship the cargo from Kunming to Vientiane. The new railway line has shortened the transportation time to 26 hours.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

A Chinese tourist performs Tai Chi to relax himself while waiting for a train to depart from Boten to Vientiane. 

The LCR makes trips from China to Laos more convenient, more accessible, and faster. As Laos has been a popular destination among Chinese, tourism experts predict that more and more Chinese tourists will visit and travel by the LCR.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

Na Teuy is a small town close to Boten but has never been a major destination. Since the emergence of the LCR railway station, the sleepy town has developed into a new junction town. Backpackers use it as a connecting point when travelling from Thailand via Huay Sai to Na Toei. Then they take a train to travel to Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng or Vientiane. The new railway comes with new business and opportunities, but the benefits for Laos are still questionable.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

Passenger trains are divided into Express and Ordinary. Express trains travel at 160 km/hr, and stop only at the main stations. The price is higher but because it takes less time to travel, it is popular among tourists and businessmen. 

In comparison, ordinary trains stop at every station and are slower, but they are popular among locals. There are 32 stations on the route. Currently, 21 stations have been opened, of which 10 are passenger stations, and the rest are for loading and unloading goods.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

The idea of time has completely changed for the Lao people. In this photo, an old lady travels in just over an hour by ordinary train from Luang Prabang to Muang Xai, to visit her relatives, which usually took 4-5 hours by road. 
Another young boy is going to visit his brother, who works in Huay Xai on the Lao-Thailand border. Instead of spending 12 hours travelling by road, he can get off the train at Na Toei, and then take a bus to Huay Xai, spending only 5 hours.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad
The train fare is only slightly higher than the bus fare, enabling locals to use the service. So, villagers from remote areas can top-up a little money to buy train tickets, saving time that was wasted on the road route. 
There is concern among some locals that the ticket price is expensive for them.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad
Train service has made travel options more convenient. After the COVID-19 situation has passed, Laos is welcoming many more tourists from around the world. As tourism is one of the most important sources of income for the country, the Lao government believes that the LCR will be a critical factor in helping increase revenue from the tourism sector.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad
A former high-school teacher in Luang Prabang — the top tourist destination in Laos — has switched to working in the tourism service sector, driving a rental van to take tourists around the country. 
After the railway was completed and opened for service, he has adapted to driving passengers between Luang Prabang railway station and the city centre, a distance of about 12km. He can make more money and no longer works far from home and family. The arrival of the railway has helped create lots of new businesses and opportunities in Laos.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad
Along the 414km railway line, there are 11 dedicated loading and unloading stations. The Vientiane Times reported that in 2021, Laos’ export of agricultural products rose to US$900 million, 80% of which was exported to China. 
The railway line has facilitated quicker dispatch of goods to China. However, there is a school of thought that the increased export of agricultural products, such as rubber and bananas from Laos, were actually Chinese investments made years ago and the railway has been built to carry them back.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

The Vientiane Railway Station, the largest station, 14km north of central Vientiane, will be a remarkable landmark for high-speed rail connections. The proposed Bangkok-Nong Khai railway route, possibly connecting to Malaysia and Singapore, is the most ambitious BRI project. 

However, the difference between the China-Laos standard gauge railway and Thailand’s one-meter gauge still needs to be resolved to help connect the route further south.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

It is quite a challenge booking train tickets, as there is no online system yet. Reservations can be made only three days in advance. Also, the location of stations far from the city adds to the inconvenience. 
This has led to the rise of a new ticket-booking business in Vientiane. A ticket provider will line up daily to book tickets from 4 am to 5am and charge an additional up to about 50,000 kip (100 baht).
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad
The passenger train from Boten stops at Vientiane Railway Station, but the freight trains continue to South Vientiane Station, a vital cargo terminal. In the future, it will connect to Nong Khai train station in Thailand.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad
The Thanaleng Dry Port in the Thanaleng area is a large-scale project that hopes to reap the benefits from the LCR.
There has been criticism that Laos has gained only a few benefits from the LCR. So, Laos has built this Vientiane logistics park and manages it. Laos expects it to become an important port connecting China, Thailand, and Singapore, as the location is directly opposite Thailand’s Nong Khai train station.
Inside the Vientiane logistics park, there are two types of rails, standard gauge and meter gauge, to switch to unload the cargo. There has been speculation that a new railway bridge will be built to support the high-speed trains from Nong Khai.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

The construction of Vientiane logistics park Phase 2 is being expedited to accommodate warehouses, oil depots and other utilities.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

A photo shows a Chinese traditional parade to celebrate the New Year in front of the Vientiane Chinese Association building. It’s not just tourists, even business people are flocking to Laos following the government’s promotion. Being a landlocked country, Laos’ economy is highly dependent on foreign money. China has long been a close friend who has helped Laos. 
The LCR represents the growing relationship between the two, though there has been criticism of Laos being blanketed by widespread Chinese influence. The development of the country is essential: employment opportunities, economic growth, industrial innovation and infrastructure, but there’s a price to pay. Will Laos become another Sri Lanka? It’s a question that nobody wants to ask.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

The Nong Khai – Thanaleng railway is a short-distance route connecting Thailand’s Nong Khai province with Thanaleng in Laos. The train makes only two trips a day, and the railway station in Laos is far from Vientiane.

Thailand had built this railway but has not developed it further in spite of the completion of the LCR. This has raised questions about Thailand’s commitment to developing connectivity with its neighbours; whether it’s lagging behind and losing an opportunity to also reap the benefits. But there are always factors to weigh. Thorough consideration, sound development, benefits and losses, social and environmental impacts, and others; all will always have to be juggled when it comes to “sustainable development”.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth)
Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure)
Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation

Since being conceived in 1992 during the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, “sustainable development” has become a buzzword that has helped guide development around the world. The goals have followed a steady trajectory of increased emphasis — from the Millennium DevelopmBRI’s Laos-China Railway: A new dawn for Greater Mekong?ent Goals (MDGs) in 2000 to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, strengthening the world’s new development paradigm. At the heart of the SDGs addressed by the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development are 17 key goals that call for action by all countries to end poverty and other deprivations. These must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth — all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests, according to the UN. The only challenge is: how to translate all those goals into a strong commitment and action. To flesh out the ideas so that people can understand them easily and therefore take action, Bangkok Tribune has come up with a new project: “SDGs I The Depth of Field”, using its signature style of photojournalism — storytelling through photo essays — to interpret and translate the ideas and challenges behind the goals into powerful visual stories told through the lenses of noted photographers.