- I traveled to Laos to experience the new Chinese railway.
- The one-hour journey revealed a landscape scorched by agriculture.
- The air was so poisonous that soot and ash fell from the sky.
Laos is one of the few remaining communist countries in the world. About two-thirds of Laotians still live in rural areas. But a shiny new Chinese-funded railway now runs through the countryside.
The Laos-China railway is the largest infrastructure project in Laos' history. it isa vast train network of 1000 kilometers or 621 mileswhich aims to connect Laos with Thailand and Kunming in southern China.
The railway is controversial. He was criticized forevicting more than 4,400 Laotian families from their homes in the countryside.Although it is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia,Laos took a $1.8 billion loan from China to build a railway. China paid the remaining 4.2 billion.
I flew to Laos from Singapore in early April to experience how the historic railway is being developed. It was the first time I traveled across by train since my tripChiang Mai to Bangkok by sleeper train in Thailand.
When I visited Laos, the entire line was not yet finished. I only managed to experience the Laotian part, which stretches from the capital Vientiane to the border town of Boten. The line opened for cross-border services on 13 April.
My journey began in Vientiane, the largest city in Laos, where the majority of the urban population lives.
Laos is popular among backpackers for its natural landscape of waterfalls, mountains and rivers. It is the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia. On TikTok, travelers share clips of its beautiful landscapes of clear skies and dense jungles. But when I first arrived at Wattay International Airport, I noticed a thick haze obscuring the view of dirt roads and clusters of tin-roofed houses.
That day in Vientiane, the PSI - or Pollution Standards Index, which stands for air quality - hovered around 230.National Environment Agency i Singaporeany reading greater than 200 is categorized as "very unhealthy". Turns out I visited at the wrong time - there were several active fires during the week I was in Laos. Vientiane is on the border with the northeastern province of Nong Khai in Thailand, just across the Mekong River. But that day the border town was hidden behind the fog.
The smell of smog was deeply embedded in almost everything – from the towels and sheets in my hotel room to my clothes and hair. There was no way to escape, but hundreds of locals were out in open-air markets, most of them not wearing masks.
Vang Vieng, about 80 miles north of Vientiane, was to be my final destination. I hoped to find country air there that might be cleaner than in the city.
A first-class train ticket to Vang Vieng was 200,000 Lao kip, or about $12.
While a first class ticket is only $12, I ended up paying about $7 more when I bookedonline putem 12Go, a travel agency based in Thailand. I overpaid a bit for my convenience, but if you have the time, it's worth going to the box office and buying tickets in person - although it's best to do so in advance as seats often sell out.
The railway is an expensive project - the construction cost 6 billion dollars. The high price could be seen in the splendid train station in Vientiane.
The train station in Vientiane looked like one of the most modern buildings in the whole city, reminiscent of an airport terminal. Ownership of the railway line is shared between three Chinese state-owned companies and the Lao government.
While most of the passengers were local residents, the Chinese influence was widespread as the signs around the station were in Chinese and Lao and notices were spoken in both languages. Some announcements were also published in English - but there were times when they were garbled and mistranslated.
"We love the railway line," a local who only wanted to be known as Sang told me. "Last time it took me six hours to go to Luang Prabang, now it's only two," he said, referring to the city north of Vientiane.
The train to Vang Vieng was on time. Passengers rushed to line up and board, but it was orderly - no one jumped the queues.
There seemed to be very few tourists riding the train that day, apart from a few backpackers. Most of the passengers were local people traveling between cities - some of them didn't have much with them except their backpacks.
The train was impressive. It looked shiny and new, and at every door were staff dressed in Laos-inspired uniforms.
The CR200J, constructed by state-owned rolling stock manufacturer CCRC, can travel up to 100 miles per hour. He is nicknamed "Hulk" due to his green design that resembles the Marvel superhero.
Inside the car, dozens of staff greeted the passengers, reminiscent of flight attendants on an airplane.
I got to the first class cabin in the first car of the train. It wasn't luxurious per se, but it was spacious and clean.
Last July,I rode one of the longest train rides in Thailand. My first class cabin was not very comfortable, considering that I had to travel for 13 hours. But here in Laos I was more comfortable than ever, thanks to the spacious plush seats - which made the short trip a breeze.
The seats in first class were much wider than in second class. The latter was also more private as there was limited space in the first carriage. Other than that, my seat was simple: it reclined, had a footrest and a folding table with a food tray – but I couldn't complain about the price.
According to online photos of CR200J cabins in China, some configurations also have sleeping cars with private cabins and bunks.
Each car was full of sinks and bathrooms.
Although the toilet was cleaner than the one in Thailand, it still smelled unpleasant. The bathroom was not designed with a shower, but for short trips it worked well.
As the train left the station, the view revealed litter, dirt and bald trees.
The view was a stark contrast to the glittering train station, including dark water in the canals and half-dead leaves.
The construction of the railway has led to the pollution of local waterways, making it difficult for residents to fish and swim in the water,according to a 2020 report by Radio Free Asia.
As the train drove deeper into the Laotian countryside, acres of crop fields could be seen against a backdrop of smog covering the jungle and sky.
There was no one—nothing—in the field of burnt crops, except for a passing truck.
About 63% of the population of Laos7.5 million people live in rural areas, many of whom work in agriculture. Industry accounted for around 17.2% of the country's gross domestic product last year,according to the Vientiane Times.
Some of the things grown in Laos include rice, coffee and at one point opium -which was only banned in 2006.
The village showed how most Laotians live - in houses surrounded by jungle.
Laos is far from densely populated, thenmany people live in remote villages, which consists of dozens of families, often from the same ethnic group. In Vientiane, however, many locals live in apartments, just like in other major cities in the region.
"In the countryside, a very limited number of local people speak English, but they will always try to share something with you: food, drinks, smiles or just time," Mathieu Thaeron, a Frenchman who has lived in Vang Vieng since 2012, told me .
According to a 2015 report by Laotian architect Xayaphone Vongvilay.houses in Laos are influenced by French colonial architecture.A typical home often consists of a multipurpose room on the lower level and a porch and bedrooms on the upper floor. These houses are often raised off the ground, although there are exceptions, like the one pictured above.
I saw the beautiful landscapes of Laos, where the edge of the jungle meandered into the Nam Lik, the river and the reservoir lake.
Like the railway, many highways in Laos were built and financed mainly by China. These highways are planned to stretch from Vientiane to Boten - mirroring the train's route - andit is expected to cost DKK 7.1 billion.
The Vientiane-Vang Vieng Expressway (pictured above) is owned by the state-owned Yunnan Construction Engineering Group,except for the Lao government's 5% share.
Although thousands of cars are expected to use the massive highway in the future, I saw only one car on the road that day.
As the train approached Vang Vieng, a darker side began to emerge – revealing the cause of the country's thick smog.
As the train began to approach Vang Vieng, the PSI was above 320, with active fires just 5 miles away, according to a reading from Swiss technology company IQAir's app.
Many farmers in Southeast Asia turn to agriculture as a way to grow their crops – and Laos is no exception. Amid acres of dense jungle were mounds of scorched earth (pictured above), remnants of wildfires that suffocated residents for years.
Only at the end of March,in Laos, around 9,600 hotspots indicating forest fires were recorded, Nikkei Asia reported, citing Thailand's Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency.
Black and gray soot remained after the forest fire. I saw a handful of farmers on the scorched earth surveying their surroundings.
"There was smog because the farmers burn their fields and rice paddies. When they burn the fields, the fire spreads to other places."an official from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment told Radio Free Asia.
After burning and cultivation, the land can no longer be used for crops.
The Lao government has not released official figures on how many people have been affected by the smog. But in neighboring Thailand,where downsizing is also a common phenomenon, more than 1.7 million people said they experienced problems such as respiratory problems and burning eyes, according to a report by Nikkei Asia.
After about an hour, the train arrived in Vang Vieng. But what I saw was reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic movie, with pale white ash covering everything from buildings to trees.
The city's beautiful cliffs were also obscured by thick smog. It was 104 Fahrenheit, which made the thick haze even more stifling. The heat was immense, even unbearable, and visibility was extremely poor. Black soot fell from the sky.
I left Vientiane to escape the smog, but instead just got closer to it - tracking on IQAir's app showed an active fire just 5.7 miles away.
"What happened this year was truly extraordinary; I've never experienced conditions this bad," Thaeron said.
I came to Laos expecting a perfect landscape of valleys and limestone cliffs, like the ones I've seen in dozens of TikToks. But the tropical landscape was more like a desert.
Growing up in Singapore, I had to live with varying degreeshaze almost every year. But this was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Many of the residents I saw didn't seem concerned, several of whom were still out in the open, without masks or protection from the smog.
Despite the bad weather, many Laotians remained resilient, still driving their tuk-tuks, exercising in the sun and serving guests at hotels. Smog has become such a part of their lives that they seem to go about their daily lives without a care.
But as a regioncontinues to steam in record-breaking heat waves,I wondered if it was only a matter of time before the smog became too much for even the most hardened locals.
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