(Picture above: The Royal Jinlun Hotel and Casino in the Boten Border Trade Area).
In Laos' Luang Namtha province beyond the salt works and an exuberantly-punctuated Cigarette Factory!, and just before Route 3 runs into China - a golden city is taking form.
It's a strange break from the otherwise lush and forested hills of Luang Namtha - all cleared land and concrete: a squat, sprawling plaza of Chinese restaurants, mobile shops and clothing stalls and the turreted, yellow brick building that rises up, from dirt, behind it. (Picture above: The sports betting centre in the Royal Jinlun.)
This is Boten Golden City.
The large building, despite its architectural embellishments, is neither gold nor particularly glamorous. It's a 271-room hotel that rates 3 stars and discounts its 600 RMB/night (2,700 baht) deluxe suites for parties greater than 8.
Boten Golden City's casino is actually a bunch of them; a group of 9 or so gaming operators that rent rooms, beyond the metal detectors, in the back of the Royal Jinlun Hotel.
The Royal Jinlun is the biggest building for miles and the seeming anchor of this half-finished city - since 2002, a "Border Trade Area" - that lies just 2 kilometres south of the Chinese-Lao border, and where, until a few years ago, Boten (the non-golden village) used to sit. (Picture right: Rubber growing outside Luang Namtha along Route 3).
That Boten, or at least its huts and their inhabitants, have been relocated 20 or so kilometres down the road; a move made simple by government decree and a 30-year deal struck with Chinese investors to develop the land.
Casinos built along borders of gambling-banning lands are not new or unusual in Southeast Asia, and like Poipet in Cambodia, or Burma's Golden Palaces, Boten Golden City was built with neighbours and not natives in mind (gambling is illegal in China; and for the Lao, in Laos too).
There are other casinos in Laos, too, in Vientiane and on its outskirts. Perhaps the grandest of them all is Danasvanh Nam Ngum Resort, a veritable pleasure palace 60 miles outside the capital that comes with 27 gaming tables, a health centre with "saloon services", an 18-hole golf course, and staff that is fluent in Tagalog (along with Chinese, Thai, Lao and English). Despite its capacity for Filipino tour groups, the casino is said to be biggest with the Chinese.
So too, with Boten. Though they get an occasional busload of Thai tourists from Chiang Rai, the casino's clientele is mostly Chinese. The staff is a mix of Chinese and Lao that have learned to speak Chinese. You can bet wagers are made in Chinese RMB.
I encountered several people in my travels, my Lao eco-resort owner among them, that believed the Golden City was not in Laos, but in China. I was told to take my passport; I'd be crossing borders.
Plans for the Boten Border Trade Area were first formalised in October 2002 when Laos' then-Prime Minister Boungnang Vorachith issued a decree to create a zone for the promotion of investment, trade and the creation of jobs.
According to the Laos Embassy's commercial attache in Bangkok, that first agreement has since been cancelled and altered slightly into a concession agreement with Chinese investors. Nonetheless, the plans for the 23-kilometre zone remain essentially the same.
These plans include 12 projects, four of which - basic infrastructure, warehouses, a telecommunications package, and the Royal Jinlun hotel-casino complex - have been completed. The eight others, which include a golf course, a 5-star resort, several cultural centres and a stock exchange, seem to promise the Golden City will rival the Danasvanh Nam Ngum for title of Laos' most remote and pleasurable pleasure palace.
Despite the scale and novelty of the Luang Namtha project, it has been barely publicised in Laos, and thus sometimes the source of wild rumour.
Steven Schipani, a Vientiane-based adviser to the Laos government on tourism who helps with eco-tourism efforts in Luang Namtha, had never seen the zone and said information about the place was scarce.
Meanwhile, Rik Ponne, a member of Unesco Bangkok's Culture Unit who works several projects in Luang Namtha, hadn't been to the Boten Trade Area either, but had read about it in the Vientiane Times . He had also heard rumours (and they are rumours) that it was an "enormous complex" of over 10,000 rooms.
Roads to change
The geography of the trade area is strategic. Besides being just barely over China's border, Boten is also a pit stop along Route 3, the recently constructed highway, which will ultimately link Thailand to Laos to China and no doubt, become a well-travelled trade route.
The 1,850-kilometre road, which was inaugurated on March 31, is part of the Asian Development Bank's North-South Corridor Project and a rare stretch of paved road in a province where a fair number of people still cook by roadside fire.
The highway, which had just a few unfinished dirt stretches when I visited mid-February, has cut travel time through Laos considerably (2 days to a speedy 5 or 6 hours) and shifted, at least physically, the dynamics of village life.
I passed through many places where it seems life has not quite caught up with the infrastructure running past it. At many points the road was just a few steps out a hut's front door, and Route 3 seemed for some less a major roadway than a novelly paved place to conduct village business and recreation. More than once did my bus have to honk, brake, or swerve for kids at play or people sitting cross-legged in the road.
Concerns about the future social impacts of Route 3, which include the region's increased vulnerability to Aids and the trafficking of humans and wildlife, have been wide-ranging and well-documented.
Ponne says that while there are certainly risks in such development, "it is not necessarily a bad thing.
"Obviously there will be major impacts on traditional life when you go into a remote area and bring in lots of outsiders. Many things need to be taken into account, but it can bring many positive trade opportunities and tourism, in addition to threats." (Picture left: Despite the vast change going on around it, work at the salt works near the edge of the Boten Golden City remains the same).
Trade between Laos and China has, of course, been going on for years. But the Boten project is just one in a number of recent deals that many say signifies a shift in Chinese economic strategy and the way the nation deals with its neighbours.
Between 2004 and 2006, China's foreign investment figures increased by more than 70% per year. A fair bit of this largesse has been directed at lesser developed countries along the Mekong River like Laos, and much of it towards ventures in mining, hydropower, rubber and the other resources that fast-industrialising China is running out of.
Schipani says that while there is a new copper mine in Luang Namtha, most Chinese investment in the province has revolved around rubber, corn and cassava production, and is managed through a variety of arrangements which include smallholder agreements and concessions.
The Chinese government refers to this economic strategy as "zou chu qu" or "going out," and in the 2007 fiscal year, China eclipsed Thailand as Laos' leading foreign investor.
The inroads of its influence run far deeper than Boten; red lanterns and Chinese signage start appearing regularly as far south as Oudomxai, about halfway through the 10-hour trip from Luang Prabang to Luang Namtha.
China's "zou chu qu" in Laos is sometimes cast as a nefarious and single-sided development (terms like "Chinese invasion" and "Chinese take-over" are sometimes used, most recently in a deal with the Chinese that involved Vientiane marshland and a large sports complex). While there certainly may be some unscrupulous business in it, this is also an Olympic year to make that case.
Schipani discounts much of this rhetoric. "Policy is that the country is open for investment from anywhere. Most in Luang Namtha happens to be Chinese because of geography and business networks, but in other parts of the country you see investment by the Thais or Vietnam.
"Like anything, there are mixed feelings. Some people are happy about the help, others have fears that these investors are more business savvy."
Like Ponne, Schipani believes this influx of investment and infrastructure could mean either good or bad things for northern Laos, depending on how such deals are managed.
"The door to the country is really open right now. The impacts and what this brings in the future will really depend on how well Laos can manage the change and negotiate these contracts. There is certainly lots of opportunity, it just needs to be planned carefully," says Schipani.
He notes that the government's commitment to conserve environment and culture, and the local people's ability to keep tenure over ancestral lands, while gaining technical and financial assistance, is particularly important.
Foreign investment also very much figures into Laos' poverty reduction plans, and its goal to shake Least Developed Country status by 2020. (Picture above: A stall at Luang Namtha city's Chinese market).
In recent years, the country has made strides toward this. Since 2001, the country's economy has grown by 6 or 7% per year and poverty levels have fallen from 46% to 31% since 1992.
Two hours south of Boten in Luang Namtha city, for example, there are signs of the prosperity that has come with eco-tourism and the recent, not completely uncontroversial rubber boom.
One can find internet and electricity; sturdy two-storey homes and, for items as miscellaneous as toy trucks and coonskin hats, a sizeable outpost of Chinese goods.
An airport is in the works and the place is now relatively accessible, via Route 3. At the time my visit the airport was far from functional: in fact, one of the days, an end of its unpaved airstrip was festooned with a crepe-paper, Tunnel of Love-like display, doubling as wedding reception venue.
Whether that same prosperity will reach the Golden City remains to be seen, but for now, the casino is built, and it's open for business.
(Picture above: The Luang Namtha airport, currently under development. Here, it hosts a wedding reception).
Into the casino
As I learned, the men with wands are diligent about confiscating the obvious (cameras) and the non-obvious (reading materials), and pointing you to the wall of small metal storage lockers.
The room feels sealed and unventilated; like neither night nor day; and maybe a bit like prison, with this wall-mounted metal; the austere white walls; and the hard-to-shake sense that this room hasn't been flushed with fresh air, maybe ever.
Breaking workers play their part (only slightly diminished by bowties and attire that is movie usherish) by looking bored and slumping against the wall the way so many movies imagine prison inmates cling to chainlink fence.
But this is all the better to get you into the gambling dens, which turn out to be less like prison than the guts of an overheating pinball machine - all smoke, florescent light and the frenetic ringing of bells which are apparently meaningful in the game of Baccarat.
In all nine of the Golden City's gambling rooms, they play Baccarat and only Baccarat. Though operators initially offered other games when they opened over a year ago, they soon ceded to their customers' single-minded tastes for the game.
There is also sports-betting centre before you pass the metal and reading material checkpoint. The centre, which is run by a Lao casino operator who used to work in Vientiane, is by far the most glamorous looking space (higher quality faux wood?) in the whole hotel-casino complex, and maybe in all the Golden City, though the day I visited, neither the betting options, nor the wall of flat screen TVs seemed to be drawing customers. I imagine this had something to do with the complexity of it all: on just one of the centre's "live football match coupons," anong many, many other things, I could have bet who would win the Olympiakos-Chelsea football match or which team would be the first to score or whether the "total corners" would be under, over, or exactly 10.
Instead the 500 or so customers had surrounded select tables inside playing, but not looking particularly enlivened by their games of Baccarat (lethargy brought on by the smoke or the sense - no clocks! no windows! - that you have stepped outside time, perhaps.)
Despite being run by a variety of operators, the rooms are essentially the same. They all ring maddeningly with bells.
I settled in the centre one, which like the others, seemed overstaffed and overdressed. A few from the bloated ranks of the room's waitstaff moved about the room with cardboard cups of ramen (soon to be slurped up by one of the players straight off the table) and Coca Cola hoisted over one shoulder, but most crowded around tables, looking on.
I, too, picked one of the busiest tables, where Somxai, a nice young man in a red vest and bowtie was presiding.
Though he spoke to the players in Chinese, he is Lao. He came to Boten a year or so ago when he was moved from a casino in Vientiane, where he had worked and been trained.
He says he mostly sees gamblers coming across the border from Yunnan, some of whom will, in a trip to the Golden City, blow through 1 or 2 million RMB.
They are not the only losers though.
There was also, briefly, another casino in Boten. It was smaller, and operated across the road from the Royal Jinlun, in a warehouse-like space behind what appears to be large garages, but are actually the worker's dormitories.
The day I visited it was empty. Like games other than Baccarat in Boten, the casino had quickly folded.
This is the first part in a series about the opening of Route 3.
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