Spending most of their time in cargo boats among the Mekong’s currents, rocks and sandbars and in the remote valleys of northern Laos can prevent Lao traders from connecting to the outside world. Tourists who have been cruising along the secluded course of the Mekong would recognize this very well. The river route between the border town of Chiang Khong and the old capital of Luang Prabang may impress its visitors with its forested scenery, exotic ethnic communities and romantic riverine atmosphere, but for the long-distance traders, who regularly ply their boats for living, there may not be much pleasure in such remoteness.
For business people, connections to wider affairs are important both for their business and for their general knowledge. The Lao long-distance traders, prefer to stay connected with the outside, whether they are in their hometowns, in the villages they have to pass by, or at their destination point. Mobile phones are now a crucial means of making business connections between the mobile traders, the Lao retailers, and the Thai suppliers. Mobile phones are also essential in connecting the traders with their relatives and friends. Unfortunately, mobile phone coverage in Laos is limited especially in the mountain areas of the north. To date, the only point along the river route that has signal coverage is Pakbeng, a significant village in terms of tourism and trade located about halfway between Chiang Khong and Luang Prabang. Besides the town of Luang Prabang itself, another location that the traders can receive a phone signal is when they enter into Thai territory and almost reach the border towns of Houaysai and Chiang Khong. Of course, at that point they are connected with both Lao and Thai mobile networks and normally the Lao traders have both Lao and Thai mobile phone numbers. Traveling with traders during my field research I often found that traders get upset or annoyed from inaccessibility to phone connection even though they fully realized the limits of signal coverage.