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Laos

Heading south at speed: The China–Laos railway

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Heading south at speed: The China–Laos railway | The Thaiger

by Selina Ho, NUS

  • Laos is dependent on China to bankroll the US$7 billion project, raising concerns of being caught in a debt trap
  • The Kunming-Vientiane link will eventually connect with a railway line to Bangkok, and southward down the Malay peninsula to Singapore
  • The Laos section of the project is now half complete

Construction on the China–Laos railway began in December 2016 and involves six Chinese contractors from subsidiaries of the state-owned China Railway Group. Contractors now report that it’s half-finished and is on schedule to be completed by December 2021.

The 414 kilometre railway line stretches from Boten, on Laos’ northern border with China, to Vientiane, the Laos capital (map below). It will then connect with Thailand to Malaysia and Singapore as part of a pan-Asia railway that will eventually north-south from Kunming in Yunnan province all the way to Singapore.

The US$7 billion project is a showcase of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road Initiative” for rebuilding infrastructure along the ancient Silk Road from China to Africa and Europe.

The Laos government’s role is to leverage its section of the railway to transform Laos from a ‘landlocked’ to a ‘land-linked’ country. Laos’ one-party system has allowed the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, which has governed since 1975, to push ahead with the project. This is different from Thailand and Malaysia where opposition and countless ‘reports’ have slowed the progress southward.

The rapid progress in the China–Laos railway line has made it a poster child of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Heading south at speed: The China–Laos railway | News by The Thaiger

Construction of the railway has created more than 5000 jobs for the local people and ‘changed the lives of local villagers whose dreams have now come true”, according to Xinhua media in China.

But these upbeat reports from Chinese media gloss over the challenges in constructing the China–Laos section of the railway. Difficult terrain and geography mean that a total of 170 bridges and 72 tunnels have to be constructed through Laos’ mountainous terrain.

Then there’s the remnants of the Indochina War (Vietnam War) which left an enormous volume of unexploded ordnance. Construction companies have been forced to suspend construction temporarily to clear some of the unexploded ordnance.

Then there’s been opposition from affected villagers. In October 2016 they were prevented from speaking at public meetings held to promote the project, to oppose the railway. In January 2018, the Lao government revealed that a compensation law had been drafted for compulsory acquisitions related to all Laos infrastructure projects.

The Laos government, based in Vientiane, has also been facing difficulties in coming up with its share of capital for the project. In March 2018, the Deputy Minister of Public Works and Transport had to urgently request approval of a budget of 510 billion kip (1.8 billion Thai baht or US$60 million) for Laos’ 2018 contribution to the project.

In the long run, the line through Laos will have to connect with the Nong Khai–Bangkok high-speed railway in Thailand to make economic sense. But there are plenty more challenges ahead.

The planned extension of the railway line between Laos and Thailand at Thanaleng Station, 20 kilometres east of Vientiane was supposed to begin in late 2010 but was scrapped by the Lao authorities because they wanted to study in detail how the existing 1 metre gauge Laos–Thailand track could be joined to the 1.435 metre standard gauge China–Laos line. The extension only resumed in 2017, a delay of six years.

SOURCE: East Asia Forum | SCMP

Heading south at speed: The China–Laos railway | News by The Thaiger

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Laos

Thailand’s high-speed railway will carry first passengers in 2023

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Thailand’s high-speed railway will carry first passengers in 2023 | The Thaiger

The first section of the 873 kilometre high-speed railway running between Thailand and China should be operating by 2023.

Thailand will now pay for the total cost of the 179 billion baht first section of the high speed rail line, but China is providing the design and will provide the train and carriages. The first 252 kilometre leg, from Bangkok to Nakhon Ratchasima, in the north east, is set to carry its first passengers in 2023.

The project is part of China’s planned network of high speed rail links across south east Asia that will eventually connect Kunming in south western China with Singapore. The second section of the line will connect Nakhon Ratchasima to Nong Khai on the Laos border, through Laos and then to China.

The acting Governor State Railway of Thailand announced yesterday that the contracts are currently being finalised and will be signed before the end of the year. The project was delayed in 2016 when Thailand rejected Chinese financing citing high interest rates in the original contracts.

Contracts are also being finalised for the proposed high speed rail links between Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang airports in Bangkok, and U-Tapao near Pattaya.

The trains will run at speeds up to 250 kph.

Thailand's high-speed railway will carry first passengers in 2023 | News by The Thaiger

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Cambodia

Top 10 prettiest towns in Asia

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Top 10 prettiest towns in Asia | The Thaiger

Tropical nights, curious mountain silhouettes, sprawling rice paddies and pungent cuisine. And some snow-topped mountains as well. The Thaiger has selected the Top Ten of these camera-worthy towns. Southern Asia is a concoction of the ancient, very modern, traditional and enigmatic.

Amongst the islands, megacities and spectacular scenery there are also some very pretty towns that deserve your days pottering around and investigating. Some of them you would have never heard of. Here’s our Top Ten, in no particular oder…

Old Phuket Town, Thailand

Most tourists head for the beaches, but the southern Thai island of Phuket offers a lot, lot more these days up and down the west coast and across to the island’s east coast as well, not just Patong.

The historic old quarter of Old Phuket Town, located in the central east coast of the island, is lined with Sino-Portugeuse colonial shophouses, built during the island’s tin-mining boom of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Twenty years ago you couldn’t give them away. Now the old shop-houses are hot property and getting spruced up and re-used for a new generation of tourists and culture vultures. There are plenty of hip shops, cafés, restaurants, bars, art galleries and book shops. The area is also filled with Chinese temples, crumbling mansions and cultural museums.

Check out the weekly Sunday night ‘Lard Yai’ market along Thalang road for some local market vibes in amongst some local ephemera, astonishing Thai street food, some local performers and a few bargains. Kicks off around 4pm. If it rains during the island’s wet season (May to November), you’ll get wet but it’s always around 30 degrees C and you can duck undercover anywhere around the Old Town’s sidewalks.

Top 10 prettiest towns in Asia | News by The Thaiger

Galle, Sri Lanka

On the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka is the walled town of Galle, an important trade port for centuries.

The UNESCO-listed fortress has been through three bouts of colonial rule – the Portuguese from 1505-1658, the Dutch from 1658-1796 and the British from 1796-1948. These days, many of the old merchant houses are renovated into museums, boutique hotels, shops, restaurants and bars.

The dining scene has grown in breadth and popularity, with fresh seafood, excellent Sri Lankan curries and egg hoppers (dome-like pancakes).

There’s also plenty to see as you walk off all that food. The Dutch Reformed Church, Sudharmalaya Temple, Galle Clock Tower, Galle Lighthouse, Meeran Mosque and the old Spice Warehouse.

Then head down the southern coastline to enjoy the surf, diving, whale-watching or just laying around Unawatuna Beach.

Top 10 prettiest towns in Asia | News by The Thaiger

City of Vigan, Philippines

Experience a rich history of Spanish colonial-era architecture in the city of Vigan. It lies on the west coast of Luzon island in northwestern Philippines. Vigan was established by the Spanish in 1572. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage City.

Conquistador Juan de Salcedo developed a modern grid plan for the city, and Spanish architects designed beautiful churches, grand mansions and schools with unique windows and dark timber interiors.

Most of the colonial buildings are situated around the Plaza Salcedo, including the St Paul’s Cathedral. This beautiful Baroque structure was first built in 1641 and then restored after several earthquakes and fires.

Top 10 prettiest towns in Asia | News by The Thaiger

Hoi An, Vietnam

Located on the central coast of Vietnam, about 40 minutes drive south of Da Nang, Hoi An’s Old Town has an international reputation as a haven for photographers, architecture lovers and lovers of food. Added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1999, the town was a former French colonial trading port that has been a commercially vital town for Vietnam since the 16th century. It’s now more important to Vietnam as a commercially vital tourist magnet.

The rambling narrow streets of Hoi An feature rows and rows of charming mustard coloured old trading houses. Many are now trendy restaurants, bars, design boutiques, coffee shops and tailors. Seemingly with a production designer preparing the town as a set for a ‘colonial asian’ movie, lush foliage spills from the rooftops and silk lanterns light up the town at night. It’s right out of a picture book.

Top 10 prettiest towns in Asia | News by The Thaiger

George Town, Malaysia

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, the sprawling historic quarter of George Town on Penang island showcases its many cultural influences over the centuries. You’ll also find some similarity with Phuket’s Old Town, just 600 kilometres north, but with a broader cuisine and more colonial influence.

George Town’s colourful heritage traces back 500 years when the former British colony was a prominent hub of trade on the Malacca Strait, enabling cultural exchange between Malay, Chinese, Indian and European residents. The town still resinates with influences from all of these cultures.

There is an eclectic mix of pastel-hued shophouses, Chinese mansions, churches and temples, colonial buildings, food and fortresses.

George Town deserves its reputation as the “food capital of Malaysia” and remains one of the best food cities in Asia – from street food to hawker centres, chintzy local restaurants to fully renovated mansions serving up high end fusion cuisine. Like the architecture, the local cuisine captures George Town’s multicultural history.

If you’re heading to George Town, take your appetite.

Top 10 prettiest towns in Asia | News by The Thaiger

Luang Prabang, Laos

The former capital of Laos on the banks of the Mekong River, is the picturesque Luang Prabang, home to temples and dramatic natural scenery.

It’s either one of Southeast Asia’s most spiritual places or an emerging party town for the backpacker set, or both. Either way Luang Prabang makes a dramatic first impression.

The town is hugged by mountains as it rests at the bottom of a valley in central Laos. The location was the first kingdom in Laos from the 14th to 16th centuries, Luang Prabang was long a strategic location along the famed Silk Route. Since then the French have also had their time as colonial overlords which has resulted in a fusion of European and Laotian architecture creating a distinct townscape.

Although Vientiane, on the Thai border, is now the capital, Luang Prabang, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, continues to be the country’s cultural and artistic capital.

In addition to the graceful architecture, Luang Prabang is also home to beautiful natural attractions including the Kuang Si Waterfalls and Phousi Mountain. There are also more than 30 Buddhist temples, the Royal Palace Museum, night markets, river boat rides and biking tours.

Top 10 prettiest towns in Asia | News by The Thaiger

Kampot, Cambodia

Think Cambodia and you automatically think ‘Angkor Wat’, but Cambodian travellers are falling in love with the southern charms of Kampot.

The serene coastal town, on the southern coast along the Gulf of Thailand, is getting a reputation as one of the prettiest small towns in the region. Think colourful French colonial shophouses, tidy pedestrian-friendly streets, river activities and a feast for the cameras. You can spend your days kayaking, mountain trekking, biking, river cruises, paddle-boarding, or you could take a day trip through the countryside’s lush paddy fields, cave temples and waterfalls.

Kampot has a growing foodie reputation as a culinary playground with everything from traditional Khmer cuisine to vegan delights. The town still has a bit of a ‘rough’ reputation but is well worth a visit and certainly deserves its place amongst the top ten prettiest towns in Asia.

Top 10 prettiest towns in Asia | News by The Thaiger

Kota Gede, Indonesia

Among the oldest parts of Yogyakarta in central Java, Kota Gede is known for its silver industry, cute laneways and photogenic architecture.

The location’s history goes back to the 15th century, when Yogjakarta was the seat of the Mataram Sultanate, the last kingdom before the Dutch colonised Java island. Wealthy merchants built palatial homes in the Kalang style, a mix of Dutch structural elements, traditional Javanese layouts and local craftsmanship.

Travellers in the 21st century can now walk along Jalan Kemasan and browse through boutiques, art galleries and silver workshops showcasing the famous jewellery and elaborate tableware. For a little history, travellers can also venture out to Yogyakarta’s most famous UNESCO-listed landmarks – the Prambanan Temple and the eighth-century Borobudur Temple.

Top 10 prettiest towns in Asia | News by The Thaiger

Mawlynnong, India

In amongst one of the world’s most chaotic and messy countries, lies Mawlynnong, located in the East Khasi Hills of northeastern India, which has been named the “Cleanest Village in Asia”. Go figure!

The village lives up to its reputation thanks to the Khasi community who call the town ‘home’ and take great pride in keeping the village pristine. The town is famous for its meticulously pruned gardens.

There’s a popular 85 foot high tree house called Sky View constructed of bamboo that overlooks the jungle canopies all the way across the plains of Bangladesh to the south. There’s also the Mawlynnong Waterfall, while a living tree root bridge creating a scene from Game of Thrones or an Indiana Jones movie.

Top 10 prettiest towns in Asia | News by The Thaiger

Ghandruk, Nepal

Ghandruk is a mountain village at the foothills of the Himalayas in central Nepal. The village is more than 2,000 metres above sea level, the highest in our Top Ten list.

The village is about a five-hour hike from Pokhara, a pretty lakeside city in central Nepal that acts as the starting point for the popular Annapurna Circuit (and also worthy of a visit for a few days).

You’ll find traditional tea houses, a mountain-top temple, horseback riding and the local customs of the Gurung people who live here.

Members of this Nepalese community have served in the British Army’s Gurkha regiments during many conflicts and you should make time to visit the Old Gurung Museum which provides lots of fascinating historical insights.

And the village has quite a spectacular backdrop with Mounts Annapurna, Machhapuchhre and Himalchuli looming large as you look over your shoulder.

Top 10 prettiest towns in Asia | News by The Thaiger

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ASEAN

Thailand plans to become electricity-hub for region

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Thailand plans to become electricity-hub for region | The Thaiger

“Thailand’s push for regional energy trading could be a step to increasing security of supply and system resiliency, particularly as falling costs and higher government targets increase the volume of variable renewable energy generation in the ASEAN region.” – Caroline Chua, Bloomberg Finance analyst covering Southeast Asian power markets.

Thailand aims to be the power-trading hub as it jump-starts plans to create a south east Asian electricity “super-grid”.

According to Bloomberg, Thailand is set to triple the amount of electricity from Laos that it then resells to Malaysia, while encouraging infrastructure upgrades stretching from Cambodia to Myanmar necessary for cross-border power trading. Laos has been building new hydro-electric dams in the past decade and branding itself as the ‘battery of south east asia’.

The director general of Thailand’s energy policy and planning office, Wattanapong Kurovat, says the moves are part of Energy Minister’s efforts to simplify Thailand’s power system, making it cheaper and more efficient.

The plans would involve Thailand buying more electricity for the national grid from neighbouring Laos, which is generating more than it needs from dams along the Mekong River and its tributaries. Thailand would then surplus power in its own grid to sell on to Malaysia, Myanmar and Cambodia.

Thailand already has existing grid interconnection with Laos and Malaysia. Since 2018, Malaysia has been buying 100 megawatts from Laos, passing through Thailand, and is looking to increase the volume to 300 megawatts. Border towns in Cambodia and Myanmar have also been buying small amounts of electricity from Thailand. Read the rest of the story at Bloomberg.

SOURCE: Bloomberg

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