The China-Laos railway - will it benefit or burden Laos?

The Boten-Vientiane railway is due to be completed by the end of 2021. It will forever transform travel in Laos, opening it to new markets. It may also burden the country with insurmountable debt.

Out of all the proposed railways of Southeast Asia, the Boten-Vientiane railway in Laos is the one I’m most looking forward to. Actually, if I had to pick I might say the Trans-Sulawesi railway would be my dream railway, but that may never happen in even the youngest of my readers lifetime.

The Boten-Vientiane railway though is happening now, and if all goes to plan it will open at the end of 2021.

The China-Laos railway (as it’s also known as) will travel from China, through Laos, and onwards to Thailand. It will pass through such mountainous terrain that over half of the railway is by bridge and tunnel. This will be such a scenic ride that it’s guaranteed to end up on “great train journeys of the world” travel listicles.

[View from the railway work site near Luang Prabang (from my visit in 2018).]

Building such a railway takes a tonne of money, and Laos has had to borrow to help fund this project. Of the estimated $6.28 billion cost, Laos is funding 30% while China is covering the rest with loans.

This week’s article is a guide for the China-Laos railway project. This is a fact sheet, where I’ve just posted the bare facts along with the archive of news reports.

Mixed in with these news reports are plenty of editorial articles that are speculating on how the railway will either benefit or burden Laos.

As a news curator I notice how each news outlet reports this story. I have listed news articles that go back as far as 2010, and from these articles you can discern a pattern of how the news is presented.

I’ve posted many links from Xinhua, which is the official state-run press agency of the People's Republic of China. They are useful for matter-of-fact construction updates (“company x finished boring tunnel y in z province”). The editorial articles though ratchet up the glory of the CCP so high that you can almost hear the national anthem of the People's Republic of China in the background.

Articles from Tokyo-based The Nikkei never miss an opportunity to cast doubt on the project and the motives of the PRC, questioning Laos ability to pay the loans, and what might happen if they don’t.

Radio Free Asia (which is blocked in Vietnam so I have to use a VPN) report on the environmental and societal issues (construction pollution, land compensation, and unpaid workers).

Lao news sites are generally positive, though they also bring up the issue of not enough Laotians working on the project.

Most of the non-Chinese news sites run with the theme of Laos being overrun with Chinese tourists, though none of those sites mention being overrun by Thai tourists. Kunming and Bangkok will have equal access to this Laos railway. From Kunming it’s 1,011 km to Luang Prabang by road, while from Bangkok to Luang Prabang it’s 863 km.

The railway is running on a single track, so that is going to limit the amount of train services. Both passenger and cargo trains will need to be timed to pass each other at passing loops. This limitation will cap the amount of trains using the line and the amount of passengers arriving every day. For this reason I don’t think there will be an overwhelming amount of tourists. available passenger seats in Laos will also be taken by domestic travellers, so that is also a consideration.

With such reporting it’s hard to tell if it’s just a general anti Chinese tourist sentiment, or if there is genuine concern of Beijing ensnaring Laos in a debt trap.

Other countries in Southeast Asia that are considering China-funded railways will be looking on with interest at what happens if Laos defaults on its loans.

In terms of tourism, I am looking forward to seeing if it opens up travel in Laos beyond Vientiane, Vang Vieng, and Luang Prabang. They are just 3 of the planned 20 stations. Perhaps there is a lonely town on this line that is about to become a new tourist destination once it has a railway service.

The international trains will most likely run express to those main cities, but there will be the “stopping all stations” services that run in between. Will there be a “Lao Railway” that runs domestic services, or will it also be Chinese?

In the long term I will be curious to see what other railways are built because of this line. With the Boten-Vientiane line complete it then makes other lines more feasible. From Vientiane the line could be extended further south to Savannakhet, where it could join the future East-West Economic Corridor line.

In the news links below there is an article about a proposed new line from Bangkok to Chiang Rai and Chiang Khong (on the Laos border). If that gets completed then China may consider building the missing link from Chiang Khong to Boten, connecting China to Northern Thailand (this has been proposed before).

For me as a traveller, I am looking forward to the day when I turn up at the new Bang Sue Grand station in Bangkok to get a train to Luang Prabang.

If the travel world is back to normal by the end of 2021 and the railway is finished, then I will be in Laos to travel the length of the Boten-Vientiane railway.

Latest posts at Living In Asia

The Boten - Vientiane railway (also known as the China-Laos railway) is a new railway that will connect Kunming in China to Vientiane in Laos. From Boten on the China/Laos border the railway will travel 414 km through Laos to the capital of Vientiane.

Southeast Asia Railways

“The cabinet will be asked this month to approve two new train route extensions in the North and Northeast worth a combined 153 billion baht.

The routes in question are: Den Chai-Chiang Rai-Chiang Khong in the upper North and the Ban Phai-Mukdahan-Nakhon Phanom in the upper Northeast.”

Other News



“With the former Phnom Penh home of visionary Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann on the market, its potential sale to private investors provides few guarantees over its preservation as a Cambodian cultural artefact and heritage site.”



“Efforts to restore the city’s rivers weigh heavily on poor riverside residents, who are being forcibly moved.”


“A new destination for workers and students who once went west.”


“The first piece of track on Kunming-Vientiane railway was laid in April as part of China's Belt and Road Initiative. But with the project steaming ahead, does Laos stand to actually see any benefits from the project, or is it merely in Beijing's interest?”


“Facility targets Japanese companies looking for fast access to Southeast Asia.”


“Extreme heat often hovers over Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. But each time Shahzad Qureshi transforms a barren patch of land into a dense, urban forest, he helps his city adapt to extreme urban heat.”




“The 101-billion-baht extension of the high-speed train system linking Suvarnabhumi, Don Mueang and U-Tapao airports may not be worth investing in, the State Railway of Thailand has said, citing findings from a market sounding exercise in a feasibility study on the proposed extension.”

The 3-airport rail link of Bangkok saga continues, though the most recent report is more optimistic.

I was on my way to Si Racha in March this year, then 2020 fully unleashed itself upon the world. I was at Bangsaen Beach, about 15km north of Si Racha when I abandoned my travel plans for the year. My trip was to include the cities of the east coast of the Bay of Bangkok, following the path of the aforementioned proposed high-speed railway.

This article about Si Racha and the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) is full of buzzwords that reads like a press release, but if the city ends up looking like this image then sign me up for this “smart city”.

There is a “ghost tower” in Saigon that has been abandoned since 2012. Whenever I think about what an embarrassment to the city skyline it is, I think of the ghost tower of Bangkok that has been abandoned since 1997.

I posted this last week, but Cult of Mac is making a big call about the new Bangkok Apple store.


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