torsdag 24. juni 2021

The one-time casino boom town on the Laos-China border is on the rise again, powered by billions in Chinese investment.

A thick morning mist covers the empty buildings as Lao workers lazily walk towards construction sites and Chinese businessmen, waiting for noodle soup, frantically shout into their mobile phone. “In ten years, 300,000 people will live here, they are going to build a hospital and an international school,” says Suk, 35, a Lao restaurant owner who moved to Boten after COVID-19 made him jobless in March 2020. Suk speaks perfect English and used to manage personnel in a hotel in Luang Prabang. He is learning Chinese, his daughter will soon go to school, and his restaurant is packed every evening with Chinese and Lao construction workers. Boten, a rural village counting a few hundred inhabitants less than twenty years ago, is shaping up as China’s gateway to Laos and Southeast Asia.

Located in Luang Namtha province, in the far north of Laos, Boten lies on the border with China and since the 1990s has been an official border crossing between the two countries. Dramatic development began in 2003, when the area was designated a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) and the Lao government signed a 30-year lease on 1,640 hectares of land with a Chinese developer who invested $500 million. To leave space for the SEZ, the whole village of Boten was relocated twenty kilometers away in a settlement area called New Boten. The SEZ, which focused on casinos and hotels, was named Boten Golden City, which ran on Beijing time and sought to attract gamblers from China and Thailand.