Lao-China Railway feels ‘similar to when I rode the Shinkansen in Japan’

A passenger rides Laos’ new high-speed train from Vientiane to the Chinese border.
2021.12.12
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The interior of a second-class car on the Laos-China Railway during a trip Dec. 4, 2021. (RFA/Lao service photos)

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Local residents take photos as the Laos-China train arrives in Vangvieng district, Vientiane province.

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Children get excited when the fast running Laos-China train passes their village in Luang-Prabang province.

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Lao workers build a road to the Meung Xai station in Oudomxay province.

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A first-class passenger seat.

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LCR stands for Laos-China Railway.

One of the first Lao travelers on the new Laos-China high-speed railway shared his impressions with RFA’s Lao Service. The first railway to traverse Laos cuts the overland travel time from the capital Vientiane to the China border at Boten from 24 hours to just three-and-a-half hours. 

What follows is an edited recollection of the traveler’s experiences on board the $6 billion railway link, which is part of Beijing’s infrastructure masterplan, the Belt and Road Initiative. The traveler is not named to avoid trouble with Lao authorities.

I went to the station at 6 a.m. on the morning of December 4th and waited in line to buy the ticket for the first train leaving at 8 a.m. On the first day of passenger train operations, many people could not buy tickets before the train left. There was widespread disappointment as the passengers demanded the station start selling tickets earlier.

I was able to board the EMU CR200J train, a Chinese train officially called the “Lanxang Train,” which runs with the maximum speed of 160 km/h [100 mph].

Currently, only first-class and second-class seats are available, but they will roll out third-class seating later. First-class seats to Boten cost 529,000 kip or about U.S. $53, while second class costs 333,000 kip, equal to $33.

There is a sign in front of the ticketing window saying that all passengers must show their ID and proof that they are fully vaccinated for COVID-19. Although each station has three or four ticketing windows, they only opened one window.

The train leaves at 8 a.m. on the dot from Vientiane and arrives at Boten at 11:30. The same train leaves Boten at noon and is back in Vientiane at 3:44 p.m. It used to take me 24 hours to drive to Boten, 36 hours by bus. But the railway cuts the travel time to a mere three-and-a-half hours.

The train stops at only five stations right now: Vientiane, Phonehong Station in Vientiane province, Luang Prabang, Meuang Xai Station in Oudomxay province, and Boten on the Chinese border. The stations are done in a way that evokes traditional Lao architecture.

I was able to briefly step off the train at Meuang Xai Station and again at Boten. The people at both stations were very excited when we pulled up. So many people came to the station just to watch the train arrive and then depart.

When the train left the station, I could take in the view as city gave way to the countryside, and the beautiful nature of Laos greeted either side of the railway. The feeling was similar to when I rode the Shinkansen in Japan. The ride is very smooth and quiet.

Normally when I take the bus to Boten, many of the passengers get carsick and feel the urge to throw up. Instead, I felt calm, like I was sitting in an airplane, only without the turbulence. To top it all off, the toilets were totally clean, but it’s only the first day.

It was kind of funny that some of the villagers at the stations in Oudomxay and Luang-Prabang were asking if they could bring live chickens and piglets on the train with them. Of course, pets and livestock are not allowed, but this may change in the future. In the northern part of Laos that’s part of their custom. They give gifts of chickens and piglets when they visit their relatives in other provinces.

The train certainly makes it easier to travel to the north and saves a lot of time. This is a positive sign that domestic tourism will rebound once the COVID-19 situation passes. Transporting of goods will also be easier, faster and cheaper.

I also believe that the railway will be good for attracting business and investment. As the Chinese say, “Ancient civilization arrived on rivers, but modern civilization arrives on rails.”

One problem I found is that the beautiful views disappear when the train goes through tunnels, leaving people to experience a lot of darkness.

Some people are concerned though that Laos will be inundated with Chinese goods. They are even planning to sell Chinese snacks and drinks on the train.

Many people complain that the ticket price is too expensive for the average Lao citizen when compared to their monthly wage. They say that pricing seems to have been set for Chinese passengers and not for us.

Translated by RFA's Lao Service. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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