The Train to Boten…and Disappointment
The Train to Boten…and Disappointment
Intrepid traveler and Lao resident, Paul Burnett, headed to Boten to put his eye on its progress, stopping along the way to soak up the local culture. Travel with Paul on his trail to disappointment.
The great China-Laos Railway has opened up somewhat easier travel options travelling between Vientiane and China for both locals and visitors. And while there are clearly teething issues, I can see that these challenges are being met in rigid socialist fashion.
Sometimes the experience is like something from a soviet spy novel with staff standing to attention in their smart uniforms, and entertaining Chinglish being broadcast at stations and on the trains themselves. Nevertheless, the operation of transporting trainloads of folk along half the length of Laos seems to be working well.
This trip though is not a scenic train experience, as north of Vang Vieng the train spends much of its journey in tunnels. There are the occasional opportunities to glimpse - the magnificent karst, jungles, rice paddies and rivers - but these vistas are sparse.
I recently took the train from Luang Prabang northward. Initially I booked passage to Meuang Xai. Upon arrival I chose to stretch my legs and walk the two or so kilometres into town, past villagers working in rice paddies and through the outer villages until I arrived at the traffic lights (there is only one set in town), which signified my arrival in the CBD.
I was confronted by multi-coloured neon Chinese phone shops, Chinese restaurants, and Chinese hotels. A taste of the future for the rest of Laos I think. After being sent in the wrong direction by an English (but not Lao) speaking Chinaman, I finally decided to book an overpriced room in one of the horrible aforementioned Chinese hotels.
The next morning I decided to head in the opposite direction to my confused Chinaman’s suggestion, and there was paradise...the Tourist Information Centre. This office was mostly manned by students on some sort of traineeship waste-of-time and were all playing on their phones. I barely got a quick look.
Fortunately, there was a permanent employee who helped me with some of my enquiries. I'm told that my Lao language is good, but I'm not convinced. So, between his small English and my kindergarten Lao, we managed to communicate.
Shortly after my arrival, Mr Jai - who is the boss of the Department of Tourism, Culture, and I'm sure a few other headings - turned up. He, of course, spoke perfect English. Mr Jai was extremely helpful, and we are now best mates on WhatsApp.
Mr Jai told me that down the hill and across the bridge one returns to Laos, with Lao food, guesthouses, Lao saunas and smiling local people. He was right. A breath of fresh air following the fetid atmosphere at the traffic lights and surroundings.
That afternoon, I continued my adventure north and sat on the 'normal' train to Ban Na Tuey, the turn-off to Luang Namtha. The village was a 10-minute stroll from the station.
In my experience, anywhere that is the 'gateway' to somewhere else usually has not a great deal going for it. Na Tuey is no exception, where once again overpriced guesthouses dominated. Yes, more citizens of the celestial kingdom were around and seemed to be guarding most of the commercial outlets. I paid way too much for a bottle of Beer Lao, but then had a nice enough Khao Soi and reasonably priced beer in another happier establishment with partying Lao folk.
Waking early the next day I decided to walk to the edge of town and flag down a bus heading north to Boten. I also dusted off my hitch-hiking thumb and after a three km walk to north of Ban Tin Tok I was collected by a border customs officer Mr Ki from Savannakhet.
The road north can only be described as abysmal at best with potholes to get swallowed in and other sections that look like slabs of slipped rock strata. If this is part of the Belt and Road effort...OOOPs.
Mr Ki dropped me at the Boten railway station, which is about four to five km from Boten. There were no forms of transport available so I walked. There were hundreds of trucks lined up to cross the border. After a 20-minute hike along a very wide dirt road/truck parking station I came to a new wide concrete road leading to Boten.
In the distance, I could see the towering examples of Chinese architecture, some old and some under construction. The road was enveloped by a wasteland of garbage and building debris. One lone large tree had been spared, and was being utilised as a sleeping area by people dressed in radio-active personal protective equipment, who I think are trusted to drive the trucks over the border without contaminating anything.
I arrived in Boten. Derelict buildings with western fashion icons adorned the crumbling facades of buildings. Boten MK 1 had been a well publicised failure and the remnants of that debacle were rusting and crumbling into oblivion.
But in true Chinese enterprise a new Boten is rising phoenix-like from the rubble. Boten Mk 2 is coming. However, walking through the town mid-morning I couldn't escape the feeling that this was a ghost town. Tumbleweeds, John Wayne, Audey Murphey, Corporal Agarn from F Troop...I'm sure they are there.
Yes, there was the occasional cafe type place open, but there were very few people and all of them were offering unfriendly scowls at the falang in town. Most faces were of course Chinese, but even the Lao folk seemed to have been poisoned by this most toxic den of debauchery.
I couldn't find a cup of coffee to buy and nobody knew, or was willing to suggest where to get one. After ninety minutes of wandering the near empty streets, I decided to get out of Dodge and walk my way back to the train station to escape.
Boten. Yes I've been there. Maybe evening is livelier with casinos, brothels, massage and other nefarious activity thriving. I don't know...and I don't intend to find out.