The Mekong River bridge between Mukdahan and Savannakhet is now open.

Old bridge in Luang Phrabang

Infrastructure is one thing, but smoothing the regulatory way to regional integration is a very long road, despite more than a decade of Greater Mekong Subregion hype. A Bangkok Post report from 17 December highlights some of the practical difficulties to be resolved:

While the bridge makes land transport between Thailand, Laos and Vietnam technically possible, some legal problems remain. Songsak Phaecharoen, acting director-general of the Highways Department, said Thailand and Laos have yet to agree on bilateral entry fees and traffic rules for different types of vehicles to cross the bridge. Laos has yet to agree with Vietnam on how to regulate traffic between the countries. However, negotiations between Thailand and Laos are making better progress than those between Laos and Vietnam. Vehicles run on the left in Thailand and on the right in Laos and Vietnam. Laos is not so concerned about the difference because its traffic is light. On the contrary, Vietnam, with heavy traffic, finds the issue more worrying. At present, Vietnam won’t let traffic from Thailand through Laos to enter its roads at random. For road safety, authorities still want traffic to enter in convoys escorted by road patrol cars. Mr Songsak said Thai and Lao authorities were settling the regulatory details, which would hopefully be completed in time for the signing of a memorandum of understanding by the Thai and Lao prime ministers when Lao Prime Minister Bouasone Bouphavanh visits Thailand today, just before the bridge opening on Wednesday. So far, informal agreement has been reached on some points. For example, Thailand and Laos possess their respective sides of the bridge. The part they own is on each side of the bridge’s apex, where plaques are attached. Both sides will form a committee to take charge of protection and maintenance of the bridge. Vehicles will drive on the right while on the bridge and the traffic changeover will take place on the Thai side. Highways Department sources said Thailand proposes entry fees equal to those at the first Thai-Lao bridge that links Nong Khai province and Vientiane. There, entry fees range from 20 baht for cars up to 300 baht for anything over 10 wheels.