Laos high speed rail brings buzz to border town in Thailand


The First Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge crosses the Mekong River to link Thailand's Nong Khai province with Laos' Vientiane prefecture. Laos can be seen on the opposite bank. - The Straits Times/ANN

NONG KHAI/VIENTIANE, Nov 28 (The Straits Times/ANN): The sky is a cloudless shade of cobalt when I catch my first glimpse of the Mekong River. Above its deceptively still waters stands the First Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge, which connects the Thai province of Nong Khai to the Laotian capital of Vientiane.

The two locales are linked by a rail shuttle that used to ferry 1,200 passengers daily. But the Covid-19 pandemic brought this service to a halt. The border was shut last year to curb transmissions, though freight was allowed through.

Thailand has now fully vaccinated more than half of its population and is working on reopening its borders to visitors. Laos still keeps foreign tourists out. It logged 1,504 new cases on Thursday (Nov 25), a number that has been steadily increasing in recent days.

Despite these restrictions, Laos is inaugurating its US$6 billion (S$8.2 billion) high-speed railway on Dec 3. Travelling over 400km from the Laotian town of Boten on the border with China to Vientiane, the trains will reach speeds of up to 160kmh.

News of the impending launch is creating a buzz among residents in Nong Khai.

Oui Kaewsanee, 58, who sells grilled meat at the Thai end of the border bridge, says: "I saw the high-speed train on television. It's right at our doorstep. I'm getting ready to go see it as soon as they open the border."

The pedestrian entrance to the First Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge here in Thailand's Nong Khai province is currently closed, but freight trucks can continue to travel to the other side in Laos. - The Strait Times/ANNThe pedestrian entrance to the First Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge here in Thailand's Nong Khai province is currently closed, but freight trucks can continue to travel to the other side in Laos. - The Strait Times/ANN

Thailand is building its own high-speed railway network, but the plan to link Bangkok to Nong Khai by bullet train has run into several delays.

Work on the first section from Bangkok to Nakhon Ratchasima province is expected to be completed by 2026.

Another high-speed project, linking Don Mueang, Suvarnabhumi and U-Tapao airports, is expected to be ready a year earlier, by 2025.

In lieu of a high-speed rail link on par with its Laotian neighbour, Thailand is trying to maximise the capacity of existing infrastructure.

One possible way is to use the rail shuttle line to carry more goods. Most products from Thailand are sent to Laos by truck rather than rail. Some of the few exceptions are rubber and malt for the making of Beerlao, the national brand.

Naga statues adorn the bank of the Mekong River in Nong Khai province. Laos can be seen across the river. - The Straits Times/ANNNaga statues adorn the bank of the Mekong River in Nong Khai province. Laos can be seen across the river. - The Straits Times/ANN

During one visit by The Straits Times on Nov 18, the Thai rail authorities were using locomotives to haul empty containers across the border bridge to test how much weight the tracks and other equipment could bear.

"Laos got their high-speed train before us. I am happy for them," Veera Charoenrang, the chief of Nong Khai railway station, told ST. "Chinese visitors and commodities will take a shorter time to arrive. Our three countries can have closer ties."

Nong Khai is known for its "Naga fireballs" - glowing balls that appear to emerge annually from the Mekong that some locals believe to be the breath of a mythical serpent.

"After the Covid-19 pandemic eases, the Chinese who arrive in Vientiane will surely come to Nong Khai," Sirima says.

"And they will not stop here, but travel to other areas. Nong Khai will be the gateway." - The Straits TimesANN

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