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Destination Laos

Laidback Laos, No More

Land-locked Laos may no longer be as sleepy or laidback, which has been the key attraction to western tourists. Laos will soon be connected to the outside world for the first time by rail when a new link opens across the Mekong river to neighbouring Thailand.

The $6 million rail-link project first broke ground in 2007, and the line was originally due to open in 2008. The first train is now scheduled to leave Nong Khai in Thailand on March 5, 2009. Its destination and only stop, Tha na Lang in Laos, is just 15 minutes away across 3.5km stretch of track which runs over the Mekong river, via the Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge.

Tha Na Lang, a brand-new railway station, is just few minutes outside the Laos capital of Vientiane. There is not much in the way of a village or town or anything else here.

But the advent of the railway age will change Tha Na Lang as it will become the preferred jump-off point for visitors to Vientiane, roughly 20 miles away. Imagine fleets of three-wheeled tuk-tuks, mini-buses swarming the small station, vying for tourists heading towards the Laos capital.

Unlike Nong Khai, on the Thai side of the Friendship Bridge, Tha Na Lang may not become a well-established travellers’ hub. There are plans to extend the line into Vientiane but, given the difficulties in opening this tiny stretch of track, that could be many years off yet.

What is certain is that travellers will for the first time be able to take the train from the Thai capital to the Laos capital – almost.

The capital is booming. Driven by rising foreign investment, steady flow of foreign aid workers and a more urbane youth, change is coming as quickly as in any city in Asean.

Soon the ‘hustle’ and ‘bustle’ will set in as Vientiane sheds its image as one of the most relaxed capital on earth.

Vientiane, translated as ‘Sandalwood City’, is actually pronounced Wiang Chan (Wiang means ‘city’ or ‘place with walls’ in Lao; Chan means sandalwood). It was the French who transliterated the capital’s name into English.

Vientiane was controlled by Burmese, Siamese, Vietnamese and Khmer at different point of time. In the 14th century Lan Xang kingdom was established by the Khmer. Originally it was centered in Muang Sawa but the capital was moved to Vientiane in the 16th century. It was named the capital in the late 19th and early 20th century when the country became a French protectorate.

The combination of tree-lined boulevards and dozens of temples lends an air of timelessness, while the kaleidoscopic architectural styles reflect it’s historic influences, from classic Lao through Thai, Chinese, French, US and Soviet.

That, unfortunately won’t last very long. Laos is opening itself to the world, and the capital Vientiane is where the tug-of-war between a communist past and a capitalist future is being played out.

The Lao National Museum still has displays glorifying the victory over capitalist foreign imperialists, but across the road another slick restaurant opens in what is becoming one of the best-value dining cities on earth. The contrasts are fascinating.

Laotians in the capital Vientianne will be accessing high-speed Internet and receive video calls via their mobile phones as early as October, even earlier than Thais, their fellow Asean neighbours across the border thanks to Lao Telecom which is set to introduce the 3G mobile phone network.

Just outside the capital, a Vietnamese developer is planning a one-billion-dollar hotel and golf resort in what would be the country’s largest ever foreign investment. Vietnam is the largest foreign investor in Laos with 146 projects worth 1.5 billion dollars.

In the first 11 months of 2008, Vietnamese companies invested in 52 projects in Laos with total registered capital of $450 million dollars - more than half of it for hydro-power plants and about one third for tree plantations.

Amidst all the change and fast infrastructure development, Vientiane still has it other attractions. The 6400 Buddhas at Wat Si Saket, the religious art of Haw Pha Kaeo, and the lotus-inspired lines of Laos’gilded national symbol, Pha That Luang, speak of the historical importance of the city. Patuxai and the surreal Xieng Khuan (Buddha Park) may remain as appealing to visitors as ever.

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