Ex-casino town set for rail rebirth

Inside an abandoned casino in Boten in 2013. Source: Wikimedia

For five years, the remote town of Boten on the China-Laos border has lived in the shadow of its former affluence with bustling shops and restaurants overrun by weeds.

Nightclub signs peel and large hotels, blocked off with bicycle locks, decay as they are taken over by insects.

In the late 2000s, Boten was a casino boomtown in the forested border hills with Chinese casinos and gambling halls bringing in thousands of visitors from neighbouring Yunnan Province.

“When the casinos opened, there were many people visiting,” said Thong Arn, 54, a Lao businesswoman who owns one of the few remaining restaurants. “Now there are no more tourists, only the people working here.”

But Chinese investors have poured more than US$1.5 billion into a new development called the Beautiful Boten Specific Economic Zone, Laos’ state media reports.

There are plans for offices, factories, duty-free stores, tourism developments, an international bus station and a golf course. There is also due to be a station on the US$7 billion high-speed rail link between China’s Kunming and Vientiane, which broke ground in December.

The high-technology railway, due to be 70-per-cent funded by China and 30 per cent by Laos, is set to connect Laos by train to Thailand and Malaysia.

Vixay Homsombath, representing the Lao government, said the authorities had learned from Boten’s aborted gambling experiment where the Chinese firms were given too much control.

“At the time, we didn’t have experience,” the official said. “The old developers focused on the casinos, that was their first priority.” And the government had little idea about the risks.

In 2003, a Hong Kong-registered firm signed a 30-year lease with Vientiane for the 2.5-square-mile economic zone, Boten Golden City, and Chinese tourists and merchants poured over the border, drawn by visa-free access and gambling, which is illegal in China. Brothels, nightclubs, karaoke bars and a cabaret featuring Thai cross-dressing dancers opened.

The Lao customs officers were placed behind the town making Boten a virtual Chinese outpost, with its clocks set to Beijing time and the yuan dominant.

In 2010, it was reported that casinos were locking up visitors who were unable to pay their gambling debts.

Although Boten is in Laos, Beijing’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs ordered the casinos to close, tightened border controls and cut the town’s power supply.

The population of around 10,000 slumped to just 500.

But there are signs of renewal with an old casino converted into a gem emporium with chandeliers and marble floors and the cross-dressers cabaret is back.

In 2013, total Chinese investment in Laos exceeded US$5 billion, making China the largest foreign investor. Chinese traders have settled in Vientiane and in enclaves across the mountainous north.