It always amuses me to read about “friendship” bridges, the ones that tie Thailand and Laos. The two peoples are natural constituents, sharing a similar language, culture and geography. The two Thai-Lao bridges, at Nong Khai-Vientiane and Mukdahan-Savannakhet, are symbols of their ties.
A third one is under construction (Artist's sketch, right). The first was finished in 1994. The next was in 2006 and third, based on news last weekend from the Lao government, is three or four months ahead of schedule. The bridge linking Nakhon Phanom province, Thailand, on the west bank of the Mekong, and Tha Khek, Khammouan province, Laos, according to project coordinator Xaysana Fasavath, will be finished roughly the end of summer 2011. It’s 30 per cent completed overall. Immigration facilities are also being built.
A fourth is about to get underway in March. It will link Chiang Rai province, Thailand, with Bokeo province, Laos.
That’s three major bridges linking the two countries in the span of about 8 to 10 years. The third was begun in May 2009 and will be finished in 2011. I’m guessing No. 4 will be finished in 2012, a similar two years and handful of months. What’s the rush?
Laos, with such a small population of a bit over 6 million and a few agricultural and metals exports, couldn’t afford a couple of planks across a creek. But it never seems to be short of infrastructure cash for such things as highways, railways, bridges and hydroelectric projects. Funny that, but they all seem to connect China and Vietnam, with the south, namely Thailand.
And this just in, Thailand is supplying more than $300,000 for a design study for a rail link inside the Lao border, running the roughly 17 km from Tha Na Lang to Vientiane, the Lao capital. (A Thai-Lao overnight train from Bangkok runs to Nong Khai, where you go through Thai departure immigration, get back on and cross the Lao border to Tha Na Lang for Lao arrival check-in. You guessed it: no further rail line into the city, but it looks like there will be. Thailand is covering 30% of the funding and offering a low-interest loan for the rest, according to DPA, the German news agency. By the way, March 5 is the first anniversary of the Thai-Lao train.)
If you marry up this little generous gift to the Lao PDR with the announcement by Thai PM Abhisit that it recently signed various memorandums of understanding with Lao for its future electricity production (from controversial Nam Thuen Dam 2), well, you get the obvious. That’s small scale.
China is playing big and for the long-term. If you were a big exporting country with a big bottleneck on your southern border, namely Lao, plus the Mekong, you might try to do something about it. I wouldn’t be surprised if a fair hunk of Chinese money is being spent and will be spent on clearing the bottle neck. (Japan has put a lot of money in these bridges, too -- all over SEA, in fact.)
With three new bridges and one old one connecting arterial routes through Chiang Rai (future), Nong Kahi, Nakhon Phanom and Mukdahan, south- and northbound traffic some day will increase. The region, at first, could serve as a thoroughfare, with possible subsidiary industries and maybe even factories setting up.
Suddenly, my amusement turns serious. It wouldn’t surprise me that China is manipulating everything in its favour. But I guess the Southeast Asian nations will ultimately benefit. I hope the Isaan people will benefit, too.
As always, I’m just talking into my bowl of noodles.
- Pretty good travel report on the rail link and wonders of Isaan from The Guardian.
- PM Abhisit speaks during laying of cornerstone for third bridge, mentioning the rail link and several memorandums of understanding regarding the purchase of future electricity from Laos.
- Nam Thuen Dam 2 project problems at International Rivers website
- Thailand offers rail aid to Laos.
- The happy website for Nam Thuen Dam 2.
- Laos seeks China aid for huge transportation projects
- Thai government’s release announcing the third bridge.