There have been reports that a trans-Mekong bridge is to be built at the Chiang Khong – Huayxai border crossing in northern Thailand.
This bridge has been on the regional development agenda for some time. When I was living in Chiang Khong in 1994 it was a common topic of conversation and speculation. Somewhere among my notes I have a photo of a large election poster (which party?) promoting the virtures of a bridge across the Mekong.
The bridge will link the northern Thai road network with a road that cuts across north-western Laos: from Huayxai to Luang Namtha and then across the border (at Boten) into southern China. The road itself has also regularly featured in Greater Mekong Subregion development plans. When I was there in 1994 it was very much a “seasonal track”. There have been significant improvements in recent years, though the road is still far from serving as a smooth link between northern Thailand and southern China.
For those who are interested in some of the background to this road here are some extracts from my book, The Legend of the Golden Boat (1999)
[Pre-modern origins: pp. 30-32]
One of the main caravan routes between
Yunnan and northern Thailand passed through Louangnamtha and Viangphoukha to cross the Mekong at Chiang Khong. When the British explorer McLeod (1867: 29, 40-42) arrived in Chiang Mai in the early 1830s, he found that this caravan trail was the “road travelled by the Chinese caravans,” even though the Chinese merchants complained about the abandoned towns and sparse settlement along the road. The more lucrative route to the west of the Mekong – through Kengtung – was “closed … from the excessive jealousy of the Siamese towards the Burmans” (McLeod 1867: 29). In the 1890s, the caravan trail through Louangnamtha was still regionally important, and early French administrators noted the busy dry season passage of mule caravans along the route: “this was the thang-luong, that is to say the main route from Xiang Khong [Chiang Khong] to China, across Sipsong-panna” (Lefèvre-Pontalis 1902: 154). On the southward journey the Yunnanese muleteers carried silk, tea, salt, opium, furs, metal goods, hats and Chinese baubles to sell in the northern-Siamese markets and in villages along the route. The major cargo acquired on the return trip through Laos was raw cotton cultivated by Khmu, Lamet and Yao in scattered hill plots:
[UPDATE: here is a report (with a useful map) I received last month about the upgrading of the Burma-Laos border crossing at Muang Mom in Laos.
It is almost exclusively this product [cotton] that makes up the return cargo of the mule and horse caravans which come, each year, from Yunnan-Fou [Kunming], Tali [Dali], S’sémao [Simao]… (Reinach 1911: 299)
The Yunnanese would also pay “fabulous prices” for deer antlers (Bock 1884: 230), a product readily available in northern Laos, as were the gall bladders of bears, which were eagerly sought by Chinese pharmacists to the north (Izikowitz 1979: 315).
[Modern plans: pp. 79-80]
The route that has received the most attention is the one that is now least used. Following the path of the nineteenth century caravans, it runs from Houayxay to Louangnamtha and then across the border to Mengla. Despite some improvement in the 1960s and 1970s, the road is in very poor condition. In 1990, the Lao National Transport Study described it as a “seasonal track” only passable, with difficulty, in the dry season (SWECO 1990: 12.2). Truck drivers and traders in Houayxay told me that, until recently, the 194 kilometre trip to Louangnamtha involved up to two nights on the road. Improvements undertaken by the lignite miners at Viangphoukha have reduced the arduous trip to 14 hours, though delays caused by breakdowns and bogging are still common and in the wet season – and for two or three months afterwards – the trip is still impossible. During the period of my research the road carried only a trickle of supplies from Chiang Khong-Houayxay to the markets in Louangnamtha and Muangsing and a similarly small amount of transit trade between
Thailand and China. Figures provided by the Department of Transport in Houayxay for the 1994/1995 dry season indicate that less than one truck per day made the trip to Louangnamtha, with as few as five trips in November. Even during the dry season, many traders chose to travel to Louangnamtha via the longer but more reliable route through Pakbeng and Oudomxai and the heavily laden timber trucks from the mill at Louangnamtha travelled to the port at Pakbeng throughout the year.
Since early 1993, this muddy and little-used track has been on the agenda of ADB-sponsored discussions on regional development and, in September 1994, its upgrading was endorsed as one of the highest priority transport projects in the greater Mekong sub-region (BP 15 September 1994). The proposal put by consultants to the ADB was that the road be developed as the Lao link in a circular road running from Chiang Rai to
Kunming via both Laos and Burma (PADECO 1994: 25-27). Soon after, an ambitious plan for the Lao section was released by The Economic Quadrangle Joint Development Corporation (EQJDC), a joint venture of the Lao government and a northern Thai property development and construction firm. The EQJDC’s plan was for the road to operate as a toll-way, with revenue generated mainly by transit traffic. They estimated that up to 20,000 vehicles would use the road each year (BP/RT 4 September 1995). The EQJDC intended to develop a series of commercial, service and industrial zones in nine villages along the route. There were also plans for “four cargo stations, up to 20 service stations, tourist rest areas, two shopping centres, border duty-free shops, and up to 10 hotels and resorts” and the EQJDC was granted extensive rights to timber and minerals in a substantial strip of territory along either side of the road (BP/RT 4 September 1995; PADECO 1994: A114). Some work has been undertaken on the road but in late 1996, a spokesman told me that they are now concentrating only on building a number of bridges along the route and that the completion date for the road has slipped to 1999 or beyond. Press reports have indicated that that the EQJDC is having substantial difficulties raising sufficient capital from cautious Thai investors, a situation that is unlikely to improve following the economic turmoil in Thailand that broke out in late 1997 (BP/RT 30 January 1996; Business Day, September 13 1996; RT 23 July 1997).
During the late 1970s and early 1980s Muang Mom was an active border market. Thai traders would travel there twice each month to sell their wares to bypass the closed Thai-Lao border. I visited Muang Mom in 1994 and got a rather chilly reception, perhaps a result of the amphetamine factory that (I later found out) was operating there.
This report also refers to Burmese upgrading of the route to Xiang Kok. In the 1890s there were ambitious British plans to build a railway along this route, but sober heads in the Foreign Office scuttled them.]