Laos’s Chinese Gamble
Image Credit: Tom Fawthrop

Laos’s Chinese Gamble


A large golden dome dominates the Laotian landscape on the other side of the Mekong River. From Chiang Saen, the ancient capital of the Lanna kingdom and now a Thai port, visitors board boats at a landing stage built by a Chinese trading company. Every 15 minutes, visitors are picked up by fast launches and whisked across the river.

Landing on the Laotian side, they’re ushered into a pompous domed edifice emblazoned with Chinese dragons on the stairway that houses the immigration arrival hall in the casino zone of Ton Pheung in Laos’ Bokeo Province. Welcome to the Golden Triangle’s glittering new gambling city, dubbed the new ‘Macau on the Mekong’.

Yet getting to stamp a 14-day free entry stamp into visitors’ passports is about the only remaining semblance of authority still exercised by the host Laotian government in this Chinese-run Special Economic Zone (SEZ).

Along the waterfront, high-powered boats disgorge Chinese businessmen, investors, gamblers and tourists. Some have made their way here not through the popular route via neighbouring Thailand, but directly from Yunnan Province in China, while others arrive by land along the vastly improved road from the Chinese border at Boten.

This may be Laos, but the 4-star hotel, restaurants, shops and the currency are all Chinese. In every direction there’s the buzz of ongoing construction in this 3000-hectare entertainment and trading zone. The resulting atmosphere jars with the country’s usual lazy charm, Buddhist culture, rich ethnic diversity and the communal village traditions of the province. Indeed it feels much more like a commercial enclave of China. But it’s an enclave that seems beyond the normal jurisdiction of its weak host state. In the words of one casino executive: ‘We have our own government inside the zone.’

A group of Chinese investors are trying to transform the Golden Triangle’s traditional image as a mecca of the international heroin trade to a ‘Macau on the Mekong’ by luring gamblers, tourists and traders. When the complex is completed at the end of next year, it will boast two golf courses, karaoke bars, massage parlours, swimming pools, hotels, a clinic and shopping centre. But it’s no accident that the first building in place is the casino. After all, gambling is illegal in both Thailand and China.

The first phase of construction, which includes a road to the nearest town of Ban Houei Xay, will cost between $200 million and $300 million. The total undertaking, meanwhile, is expected to cost about $2.25 billion dollars, with over 50 projects to be completed by 2020.

February 14, 2011 at 08:43

in the big picture is that China is a very greedy nation, nothing is enough for them, they take-in more than they should give-out when they have chance. another thing, there is not enough land in China for its people because of its fatted and saturated greedy (not enough) ideas. ” If the result is making Lao people unhappy, I don’t like this idea. I hate it !! ”

For those leaders, i’m sure that all Lao people, who live in Lao and other countries, have the respect for your decision making, so just a simple word: “we expect you to figure things out and give us the right choices, please, for today, tomorrow, and in the next 99 years !!!” Don’t you know that Laos is a peaceful country for a long long time? wrong decisions by their leaders, i’m afraid, may cause the country to step into a hot spot. so don’t you do it.

since it has already begun, for other Lao people nearby, hope you know that gambling isn’t always a good thing? if you smart, try to figure a way and take advantage out of this build up. don’t let they control you but you control them. By looking a positive image, things like these can be enjoyable and profitable to yourselves and Lao if you can don’t get lost in it and let it kill you.

as a Laotian and someone who doesn’t know much about the unsure problems of this decision by the Lao government, i honestly worry when i heard the news that some Laos people were unhappy. Bokeo Province is where i was born, and Ton Phueng is very close to where i live. i’ve seen that many people from my village are constantly visiting that casino place. Now, i deeply see a bad image of it. i hope things will change to the better for these areas of Lao in future.

I love my country okay?
I will hate things that make it goes downside…

January 22, 2011 at 18:18

“‘Ya Ba’ (the local term for amphetamines), which are manufactured in small laboratories just across the Mekong by USWA forces.”

What are USWA forces? The article doesn’t define the acronym.

January 4, 2011 at 14:46

there is no saint on this earth so i am not going to say which race or person is better than the other. i don’t want to fault the chinese, the american, etc.. since we are all human.
if i became a drug addict so i should be blaming the people who made drug? if i shot and kill someone with a gun so i will be blaming person who made a gun? to say that farmers who grew opium so that they can subsist in the harsh environment is the root cause of drug addiction in the world is a blame game. to say that the chinese built casino caused gambling addiction is a blame game. the blame however is for the lao people who allowed the chinese build a casino in their land. the blame is for lao leaders who are selfish, corrupted, and stupid. this is a no win-win situation.

January 4, 2011 at 14:15

what else is there to do? don’t they know how to say no to drug and gambling? that’s what i was taught growing up. if they loved their motherland more than dollars/yuans they could have said no. it does not matter who made an offer. laos is a country of six millions people. it is rich in resources per capita. i totally supporting them building dams for electricity to export. that and tourism should be able to provide basic need for its people if income is managed honestly. i really don’t care if the westerner also came with an offer to build casino. gambling is not a solution for a healthy society. it is the breeding ground for crimes and bad characters. now the chinese had built their casino palace on lao soil, it is like a cancer. this is a cancer that even their kids can not remove. that is why it is so sad.

February 7, 2014 at 16:55

Guys you are all right in your own view. I am from Singapore and I see the sad thing happening with two of the largest casinos in town and really we don’t need the rubbish. If you wish to see the damage that casino does to Singaporeans then come here. Thank you for hearing me out.

January 3, 2011 at 08:12


I don’t think Huang is making propaganda for China. Apparently, when some Chinese stand up against biased Western media reports, you people just allege it is Chinese propaganda. On the contrary, you are being brain washed by your own media.

What the Chinese doing in border Laos is a Win-Win situation for both countries.
On one hand, it has help to discourage the farmers from growing opium by creating jobs opportunity all round. In actual fact, the Western countries also benefited indirectly when lesser heroin are being smuggled out of the country.

December 31, 2010 at 04:58

“Because the natives in Laos have been growing, producing, and smuggling opium and heroin since early-20th century. Much of the drugs eventually flow into China so China has an incentive in changing the economic situation in Laos.

Gambling is much better than drug production.”

If you read the history of drug use in SE Asia and throughout the world opium was largely seen as less harmful than alcohol. It’s been scapegoated because it’s a natural painkiller and medicine that the pharmaceutical industry can’t make any money off. Read the history of it in Peter Singer’s “Opium Culture”. In the future the people of Laos will be subjected to the same fate as people in the 3rd world suffering from painful illneses – having no option but to buy the pharmaceutical companies extortionate pain relief medicines.

December 30, 2010 at 19:27

Yes you are absolutely correct. Indirectly they ( China ) are also involved in Thailand.

The present so-called non corrupt government has struck more deals with China
after kicking out their so-called China man Thaksin from the country.

If you watched closely the crackdown in Thailand last year, you will see
the signs of a very close knit monitored, chinese style crackdown. Rumor had it this was also assisted by the chinese training the Thai in military exercises which were no more than a cover for civilian unrest crowd control.

Burma has already ceded monetary control as well as resource development
to China.

December 30, 2010 at 19:22

Your comment may be so, but what else were they to do with all these offers?
No one from the west who wanted the democracy, came to offer any better. If they had the Lao government was waiting with open arms. China is doing this around the globe, with no one giving them competition. If the west is to compete there
is no way with all the laws and regulations. You are going up against a modern
day Mob ( gangsters )with bottomless, bank accounts, and a government to back them. So whats the issue? It is that the western governments look the other way.

The sad part is once again the people of Laos, who fought communism are now
destined to be poor for another 100 years.

December 30, 2010 at 19:16

Forget the propaganda, Laos was open for business, the EU and the USA ( the west ) for too long looked the other way, had far too many conditions (strings attached) and blew the opportunity. Now remember the Chinese come with more strings but in a much more pleasant way. Whereas the US and the EU have foreign corrupt practices acts to contend with. China has zero.

If the west wanted to help the Laotian people, they needed to get on the horses and ride in. The Western embassies, stationed in Lao and Thailand, for far too long reported bad intel on Lao,which made the Chinese jump in with two feet.

If China was smart enough to capture Lao then so be it.

Just two years ago China was leasing all of Downtown Vientiene for a 99 year lease.
America with its carrot and sticks, Nobel peace prize president Obama and
Secretary of State Clinton, are no better for Southeast Asia than any other
democratic administration. They consistently send the wrong people to work the
region and give false hope to the people of the area.

December 30, 2010 at 13:03

eventually laos is going to be governed by the chinese gambling mafia who has their “own government”. it is so sad that laotian leaders are shortsighted and so corrupted that they technically pawning their country just for a handful of dollars (yuans).

December 29, 2010 at 10:58

At the moment, the dog is wagging its tail, but once the infrastructure has been completed, industry has been developed, schools and hospitals built and the people educated, I think that the tail will start to wag the dog.

December 29, 2010 at 10:51

Huang: Once again, you display a sad image of a brain-washed cadre of CCP propaganda.

December 28, 2010 at 09:37

Because the natives in Laos have been growing, producing, and smuggling opium and heroin since early-20th century. Much of the drugs eventually flow into China so China has an incentive in changing the economic situation in Laos.

Gambling is much better than drug production.

December 26, 2010 at 22:50

It seems to me that the Chinese are doing the same thing in Burma, Cambodia, and Vietnam as well. It is a pattern of expansionism.

December 26, 2010 at 15:15

Lao will be conqure by both vietnam and China. So where was the Patha Lao fought for, was it because of colonyzation or it is now the biggest colonyzation?

December 26, 2010 at 09:19

How is economic activities spilling across your own nation a “necessity”? You have one of the largest nations in the world, and your own enclave for gambling (Macau) but yet somehow you manage to sneak into a small neighboring country to develop a casino? A hotel? Restaurants? I never understood the reasoning to create something, that you can build in your home country, in another place, and go to it.

December 26, 2010 at 00:31

you are right, today all around the world medium picks on something that touches people mind so the intelligent will spread. but to my understanding, chinese and vietnamese in laos(my former native land) never attempt to rebuild the country or land where they intrude. simply, rob and deteriorate its prestine culture and value, turn into a monsterous image possess a evil which will be contagious all over the country.

December 26, 2010 at 00:09

Blah, blah, blah… These so-called “crooked journalists” wrote nothing that many who live in the region haven’t already known. Your calling them “crooked” actually meant they didn’t follow the official Chinese line, which in the real world is called propaganda.

Khong Siphandone
December 25, 2010 at 14:11

It’s Chinese all around in Laos… Rubber plantations, cement factories, gambling center, a new China Town, small Chinese shops around big cities, you name it… All point to Chinese…

December 25, 2010 at 09:37

China’s economic activities within China itself and spilling out around the neighboring nations is a reality and a necceessity and they will some times create negative sentiments. On its part,it is necceessary for China to minimize or prevent negative impacts to the local people and maximize efforts to improve the mutual understandings between China and neighboring nations. It is in the interest of Chinese investors to maintain trusting relations(fair and practical) with neighboring people so that Western journalists(spies or instigators)will fail in their efforts to draw an ugly picture when ever they write about Chinese investments in Asia or other regions. Chinese medias do not go around seeking or making up bad stories about others and this does not mean Chinese medias should continue to allow these crooked journalists to get away with their crimes.

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