Where the Silk Roads meet the mighty Mekong

Where the Silk Roads meet the mighty Mekong

by Pepe Escobar (cross-posted with the Asia Times by special agreement with the author)


Sleepy, landlocked Laos is undergoing rapid changes as China builds connections to mainland Southeast Asia.

The small wooden boats slowly make their way down the brown waters of the Mekong at sunset. Flowing meditation – just enjoying the silence, watching the river flow. Then, suddenly, in the distance, an apparition – a row of cement Ts.

The under-construction bridge over the Mekong, part of the Kunming-Vientiane high-speed rail link to be completed in 2021, part of the Belt and Road’s China-Indochina Connectivity Corridor. Photo: Pepe Escobar

Like a high-tech divinity, the 21st century irrupts across the immemorial Mekong, which in Laos is appropriately named Mae Nam Khong or the Mother of Waters.

Welcome to the China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor, one of the key planks of the New Silk Roads, or Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The apparition on the Mekong is an under-construction bridge, part of the 420 km-long, US$6 billion worth high-speed railway connecting Kunming, in Yunnan province, to the Lao capital Vientiane and then, further on down the road, bound to unite mainland Southeast Asia all the way to Singapore.

Spiritual beginnings

It’s tempting to regard the bridge as a post-modern naga. In the inestimable The Enduring Sacred Landscape of the Naga, published by Mekong Press, Lao scholars Mayoury and Pheuiphanh Ngaosrivathana track the literally fantastic world of animated beings in the Mekong basin – totemized reptiles such as the serpent, or ngu, the salt-water crocodile (ngeuak) and supernatural beings such as the naga.

These tutelary spirits, controllers of water and rainfall, local proprietors of the soil and guardians of its fertility, wealth and welfare – these are the autochthonous spirits tamed by Buddhism collectively known as naga. Worship of the naga – in rituals, festivals, daily life – has shaped the lives and life cycles of Mekong populations for millennia.

The new naga will take the form of Made in China high-speed trains – for passengers of course, but mostly for cargo – crossing the Mekong back and forth and crucially bypassing the Maritime Silk Road along the South China Sea.

The numbers by the Lao Ministry of Public Works and Transport are impressive – the Kunming-Vientiane high-speed railway, started in 2016 and to be completed in 2021, features 72 tunnels, 170 bridges and will have trains speeding along at 160 km an hour.

The China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor is one of the six main BRI corridors identified back in March 2015. These are BRI’s land arteries – the backbone of an intricate, integrated continental landmass featuring multiple layers of transportation, telecom, energy infrastructure, financial, trade, political and economic projects and agreements. 

The Lao mini-boom

Northern Laos, a maze of mountains, jungles and a few rivers, for a long time was virtually isolated until the opening of borders with Vietnam and China led to immense economic and demographic transformations – with traditional rice-based agriculture giving way to speculative commercial agriculture.

Laos is landlocked between powerful neighbors China and Thailand.

A North-South economic corridor has been the favored strategy by both China and Thailand to develop commerce, tourism and investments in Laos. Mountain people minorities linked to Chinese culture such as the Chin Haw, Akha, Yao and Hmong, who speak Lao and know Lao culture, were cast as the perfect intermediaries and partners.

Especially in the BRI era, connections with China, both in the formal and informal economy, are now overtaking connections with Thailand. Vientiane – not exactly a transparent government – has encouraged Chinese investments of extremely dubious value in luxury hotels, malls and casinos in Special Economic Zones (SEZs) along the Chinese border.

At the same time, Chinese companies have been pouring billions of dollars into the productive development of these SEZs, as well as in dams, mines and rubber plantations.

Railway on track

There’s a sort of mini-boom now in the three northern Lao provinces of Luang Namtha, Oudomxay and Luang Prabang. More than 7,000 Lao people are working on the Kunming-Vientiane railway, most of them residents who live nearby.

But that still pales compared to the more than 40,000 Chinese working for six Chinese contractors, in six different segments, duly supervised by Huang Difu, chairman of the Laos-China Railway Company and general manager of China Railway International.

The railway will be 70% financed by Beijing, the remaining 30% for Vientiane – roughly $840 million – are supported by a low-interest Chinese loan of $500 million. A Lao bauxite mine plus three potash mines secure the Chinese loan.

Kunming-Vientiane is a stark example of how BRI projects usually face a maze of political and financial hurdles. The original design, from 2011, predates the New Silk Roads, which were launched in 2013. Much of the problems have to do with the toxic land for development equation – a situation not much different in Cambodia and Myanmar.

In Luang Prabang, I was told of countless cases of villagers forced to leave their homes and who are still waiting for fair compensation from Vientiane. In Laos there are a dizzying 242 different categories of compensation – spanning everything from mango trees five years of age or older, to hardwood and teak trees less than one year old, not to mention crucial land in main transportation hubs.

In fact, the former royal capital – a fragile jewel that must be preserved from the mass tourism hordes at all costs – receives more attention from the EU and Asean, not to mention Unesco, than from the bureaucrats in Vientiane.

All these worries at least disappear every single morning at the binthabat, or rice-collecting ritual, when rows of Buddhist monks are offered rice in their earthen bowls by rows of women on their knees. 

The Silk (jungle) road

In Global South terms, Laos is booming. In mainland Southeast Asia, the Chinese strategy is mostly focused on Laos and Thailand. Beijing expects that the lure of those cross-border SEZs is able to convince skeptical Vietnam and Myanmar of Chinese “flexibility.”

Much more than interest rates on Chinese loans – which in fact are small – the red alert on BRI-related projects in Laos concerns the environmental impact, and the fact that Laos is a poor, landlocked transit nation, it may be paying in the future a disproportionate social and environmental cost for projects that mainly benefit the Chinese economy. 

A sharp contrast is offered by Ock Pop Tok, or East meets West in Lao, an indigenous model of fair trade, sustainable business, socially conscious enterprise founded by a Lao and an Englishwoman in 2000, managed by women, and for the benefit of Lao women.

Ock Pop Tok started with five weavers and now links to more than 500 in villages across Laos. Textile production in Laos carries an immensely significant cultural value. Technical and esoteric knowledge has been transmitted from generation to generation in each village specific to a subgroup, a powerful sign of strong cultural identity. 

Silk has been cultivated in Laos for more than 1,000 years. Ock Pop Tok managed to assemble master weavers using techniques practiced by the Tai Kadai ethnic group since 800 BC, when they left Yunnan.

Everything, of course, is bio – natural dyes, handmade. I could not resist an absolutely stunning silk prayer flag weaved by Meng. Support for this added-value artisan knowledge translates into rural populations staying in their communities instead of betting on a usually troublesome urban exodus.

Ock Pop Tok also promotes Hmong artisans. Hmongs are animists who came from Tibet and Mongolia by the early 19th century. There are more than 49 ethnic groups in Laos. Westerners classify them by language – Mon, Khmer, Sino-Tibetan, Tai, Kadai – while in Laos they are recognized by where they live – on the plains, in plateaus or high in the mountains. 

It’s this extremely complex, fragile, social and environmental system that from 2021 will have to learn to coexist with the era of the high-speed naga. 

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  1. Fascinating. But it is more of the story of more and more, which is killing our planet and eventually us. BRI is essentially a huge capitalist enterprise, regardless what label you put on it. We are ill prepared for the crash of all this excess that is fast approaching. We have forgotten the value of less, and may pay the price of our extinction because of it.

    • The Green Apocalypse card is being played a lot in the media now. They sound like Fundamentalist preachers. The Anglo latest trick. Funny the Anglo did not care when they were running the oil and gas market…. Now it is Russia/Iran/OPEC/Sinopec and Gazprom that has total control of the fossil fuel markets, and all sanctions fail, suddenly the Anglo leadership becomes tree loving hippies!

      China’s current model is the best of both socialist and capitalist – heavily regulated profit-making enterprise, with big involvement of state owned organisations. Socialism alone leads to huge ineficiencies and corruption like the Brezhnev era of CCCP, while Capitalism alone leads to mass inequality, poverty and social divisions like USA and UK. So the Chinese have thousands of economists and social scientists who have intensely looked at whats happened good and bad before in history, like French Revolution, Yugoslavia etc and take the best parts of them to make sure China does not make the same mistakes. Thats what really frightens the USA now- with Huawei beating Apple and Russian space program beating NASA etc, the Eurasians are beating the USA at its own game.

      A single social-economic space from Berlin-Tehran-Beijing-Moskva- hear the sound of screeching in Washington and London. The Anglo Saxon world plan is dead. We were living like imperial subjects like the Hindu Indians under british rule and the Native Americans under Yankee rule. Lucky that we have leaders in China and Russia and their allies who are not afraid to take the hard option and challenge the empire.

      We must make compulsory the education in Eurasian schools about the hundreds of massacres of the Anglo- Amritsar, Irish Famine, fire bombing of Germany civilians, Genocide of American Indians, burning alive of Vietnamese villages, intentional mass murder of Iraqi children, uranium bombing of Yugoslavia, support of Islamic beheading etc…..

      • “The Green Apocalypse card is being played a lot in the media now. ”

        the goal is to have the western populace willingly accept a lower living standard.
        and the msm promoting that swedish kid greta is to make it appear as it
        all this was grassroots based. Same as with the “go vegan” campaigns.

        but then again, better this then fermenting wars abroad.

        • the goal is to have the western populace willingly accept a lower living standard.

          It is also to blame Russia for that lower standard of living, and for all the environmental damage done over the last 200 years. Alaskan wildlife decimated? Oregon doesn’t have a forest any more? Russia’s fault!

        • The Green Apocalypse is real. To deny the collapse of the planet’s life-supporting systems is utterly misguided. The climate is rapidly destabilising. Biodiversity loss is at the level of a mass extinction event and accelerating. Insects are disappearing, tropical forests are being destroyed at a quickening rate, top-soil is vanishing, mined by industrial agriculture, pollution of every type is soaring, the oceans are choked with plastic, megafires and Noahite floods rage, kelp forests and coral reefs disappear in warming and acidifying oceans, montane glaciers retreat to nothingness, Arctic summer sea ice vanishes, the Antarctic ice-caps are melting at increasing rate-need I go on? There is NO ‘standard of living’ on a devastated planet.

        • Mulga Mumblebrain,

          you misunderstood me:
          i am not claiming the Green Apocalypse is fake,
          nor the opposite.

          All i am saying is the West is riding the GA wave
          to have their populace willingly accept a lower living standard.

          I surely dont have to explain that which you already know:
          Thanatopia doesnt care about the bees or trees or any life at all.
          All that matters is profit. The GA is the perfect excuse to keep
          the ill-gotten gains.

          • Yes, RATM, but fixing the ecological crises would lead to a HIGHER standard of living, where it counts, in moral, spiritual, social and emotional terms. To consider the standard of living only in the materialistic terms that the capitalists worship, is, in my opinion, a serious mistake. The capitalist system produces a lot of materialist ‘wealth’, then assures that it is distributed as unequally as possible. Just redistributing the planet’s wealth from the parasites and thieves to the ones who produced it would ease much pressure on the biosphere, for instance in driving the demographic transition to smaller families seen almost universally wherever poverty is reduced.

      • The Green Apocalypse card is being played by the controlled media and the politicians, because it is another phony reason for them to increase taxes and control. China is investing in infrastructure which benefits them and those who deal with China. That is why their star is rising while the declining empire spends its resources on waging war.

        • The ‘Green Apocalypse’ is not ‘a card’- it is a deck of cards. Climate destabilisation. Biodiversity loss in a sixth mass extinction event. Warming and acidifying oceans. Global dimming by aerosol pollution. Loss of topsoil. Loss of forests and mass tree death. Ubiquitous pollution of every type. Derangement of the hydrological, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and other cycles etc, etc, etc. To assert that these are ALL non-existent is very seriously misguided.

      • The planet’s living biospheres are maintained over the aeons by a number of natural systems, all working synergistically to preserve Life and its diversity. They are described by ecologists and systems analysts, and other specialists in various fields like hydrology, entomology, geography, pedology, phenology etc.
        It has been the firm consensus among these experts, for at least a decade or so, that nearly all these life-supporting systems, such as the hydrological cycle, the planetary climate, biodiversity, the acidic balance of the oceans, the ozone layer, the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, tropical forests, the aerosol loading of the atmosphere, and the balance of pollutants of all types, are either in collapse, on the point of collapse, or so deranged that they no longer properly serve their purposes. So to deny all these crises is surely severely misguided and self-destructive. Just open your eyes, and look about you.

    • with that I am in full agreement. capitalism is no solution but the problem. humans are to live in harmony with nature to max our chances of going on indefinitely. human rules, ideology etc., must be dictated by nature and the way survival can be achieved in nature

      there is room for trains and planes, technological advance etc. but it must be dictated by need and nature not profits. profits are the major problem in the piece. what are the capitalists going to do with all of it anyway, when they finally have it all..along with the all the nasty consequences of its accumulation

  2. Stunningly beautiful and interesting country, I’m hoping to still be around to take a (short) ride on that train. Thanks to Pepe for the always fascinating progress report.

    As to ecological disasters, they are already well underway and have been for some time:

    “The U.S. Air Force dropped more bombs on Laos, primarily the Plain of Jars, than it dropped during the whole of World War II. This included 262 million anti-personnel cluster bombs. An estimated 80 million of these did not explode and remain a deadly threat to the population.” —–and that’s just for starters.

    • I would like to publish that in small pamphlets and distribute it in all the good Christian churches
      in America. This is what Jesus wanted your sons to do to completely innocent people all over the world.
      God Bless America? and pigs can fly!

    • Chomsky long ago observed that the ‘failure rate’ of US anti-personnel bomblets could not be accidental, but must be a deliberate policy to keep on killing for decades. The bright colours of the bombs were also a lure to children. But, now, of course, Thanatopia has the ultimate Satanic weapon-depleted uranium that will go on killing, insidiously for millennia.

  3. i’ll post it here, but the recent attacks in srilanka were to
    ferment chaos in order to block the maritime part of the BRI

    Between 2015 and 2017, China has leased ownership over the following ports[8]:
    Gwadar, Pakistan: 40 years
    Kyaukpyu, Myanmar: 50 years
    Kuantan, Malaysia: 60 years
    Obock, Djibouti: 10 years
    Malacca Gateway: 99 Years
    Hambantota, Sri Lanka: 99 years
    Muara, Brunei: 60 years
    Feydhoo Finolhu, Maldives: 50 years

    taken from

    fck CIA – complete irrevocable a$$holes

    • Dear RATM,

      If this is correct then just exactly what does it mean.

      We know that the ISIS is a Israel/US mercenary detachment, and ISIS has claimed responsibility for the Shi Lankan attack in retaliation to the Christchurch mosque attacks. We also know that one of the Christchurch mosques was used to turn an Australian into a Muslim some years previously and then that ‘Australian Muslim’ travelled to the M.E. to fight with ISIS. Thus the ISIS relationship becomes far greater. What we don’t know is exactly how many so-called ISIS mercenaries have connections to that particular Christchurch mosque.

      Of course the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinta Arden the former Blairite trainee and good buddy of her recent visitors, Slick Willy and Hillary Clinton forgot about the previous ‘mass murder/terrorist attack in Aramoana back in 93 which was part of a number of ‘lone-nut gunmen’ mass murders in Australia, New Zealand and Scotland from 1987 to 1996, and attempted mass shootings in 2001-2 (East Melbourne Abortion Clinic and the Monash University shooting)

      But what is not so well known was the visit by Slick Willy to Australia on the 22nd-23rd November 1996, during the ‘sentencing hearing of Martin Bryant for the Port Arthur Massacre’ where ASIO lost 7 Intel agents , three in the Broad Arrow Café and the four in the BMW at the tollbooth, and when on his initial meeting with the Australian Prime Minister, Willy’s first words was to congratulate little Johnny for his unconstitutional firearm laws.

      Of course Jacinta Arden was not concerned to what lead to the Christchurch massacres, but rather immediately blamed the access of firearms for the massacre, and I guess we just shall not talk any more about ISIS in New Zealand.

      What was also noticeable in Australia last year was the presence of the former American general, cum CIA leader, David Petraeus, who warned of the dangers of ISIS in the Philippines. What was ignored was that the Philippines Muslim army, the Moro had been in Mindanao since prior to MacArthur, but it was also noticeable that it was only after the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte called President Obama “po tang ina mo’ which means ‘Son of a Whore’, that the Moro became ISIS, and of course Petraeus was always Obama’s lap dog.

      So the question can now be raised, “was General David Petraeus in Australia to organise the Christchurch massacres and then the retaliatory Sri Lankan bombings?”

  4. Tollef Ås / 丘不如/Qiū Bù'rú on April 26, 2019  ·  at 11:24 am EST/EDT

    Thanks for a memory reinforcement from comrade Escobar on a topic on railrowed news that is nacessary and relevant and in need of getteing to be steadily remined about here in NW Europe.I was Chinese language instructor for Norwegian engineers invited to initiate major hydroelectric and communication projects in Yúnnán province during the early Dèng years, but was amazed that they did nort grab all the obvious invitations from their Chinese contacts to search for even creater and more profitable project contracts afterwards. Only many years later did I understand Norway’s (and Sweden’s Skansa’s) US Texas-Colorado-Washington D.C.’s puppet masters never would allow them to acceed to more involvement and profits — nor build any closer to the Golden Triangle!,
    But I somewhat miss his (Pepe’s)further musings on how Kambodia and VietNam play into all of this-this.

    • I’m very much in favour of the Thanatopolis DC thugs’ policy of blocking Chinese involvement in 5G telecommunications in the glorious West. It ensures that the Five Eyes and other stooges will be left far behind as China becomes the global technological power-house. You can be sure that Holy Israel will ignore any US request to join the boycott. Nasty, racist, fascistic, hyper-belligerent, but not that stupid.

  5. Tollef Ås / 丘不如/Qiū Bù'rú on April 26, 2019  ·  at 11:51 am EST/EDT

    Thanks for a memory reinforcement from comrade Escobar on a topic on railroadwed news that is necessary and relevant and in need of getting to be steadily reminded about here in NW Europe. I was Chinese language instructor for Norwegian engineers invited to initiate major hydroelectric and communication projects in Yúnnán province during the early Dèng years, but was amazed that they did not grab all the obvious invitations from their Chinese contacts to search for even creater and more profitable project contracts afterwards. Only many years later did I understand Norway’s (and Sweden’s Skansa’s) US Texas-Colorado-Washington D.C.’s puppet masters never would allow them to acceed to more involvement and profits — nor build any closer to the Golden Triangle!,
    But I somewhat miss his (Pepe’s)further musings on how Kambodia and VietNam play into all of this-this.

  6. Actually, the developing world is a hornet’s nest, a cockroach nest, you better be ready to lose trillions like the Americans. China itself is the biggest hornets nest. They think they know all the tricks but it’s obvious they can’t control the cats. Unless you do it the American way, like parking your destroyer on their coast. The ultimate conclusion is China has to protect all of Eurasia for their trade. It’s nuts, why would China want to be a factory workers of the world, export to who, poor Afghans, Kazakhs, Georgians, whaat? Export to poor Africans because Africa is so great. Wow. Chinese are dreaming.

    • they are all capitalist with visions of sugar plums. but sugar rots the teeth and shortens the life span. its a collective human suicide project..BRI bigger and worse ultimately that American imperialism replete with parked destroyers on coastal waterways to cow the natives
      it would have been better had China remained nationalist/socialist, developed China! make it impregnable and work with the rest of the world to end imperialism and develop and protect collective independence and culture..on the principle of living harmoniously in nature to facilitate human long term survival
      Chinese capitalism and its imperialism no matter how BRI it is shaped and sold is human disaster un-raveling as it goes

      • You need to become more au fait with China’s efforts to create an ‘ecological civilization’. They have been working to that end for decades, and with sympathetic foreigners and Westerners. The Chinese leadership, being technocrats, engineers and the like, promoted on merit, not their ability to attract funds from Jewish billionaires, understand that the global ecology is under huge threat. You will see an ever increasing number of projects designed to protect the biosphere, as China’s economy is planned centrally and rationally, not by a plethora of hyper-avaricious capitalist parasites who will do ANYTHING, no matter how destructive, to make money.

  7. Bela matéria Pepe Escobar, pela primeira vez te vejo apontando as contradições dos projetos das “novas rotas da seda”, até então só lia vc escrever maravilhas a respeito e o quanto tudo é jogo de ganha-ganha, por favor siga nessa toada; O pessoal do Br247 tá te traduzindo tri mal aqui no Brasil, gostava de ler teus textos traduzidos pela Vila Vodú ou Vila Mandinga no Blog do Alok, abraço.

    Google translation,MOD:
    Beautiful matter Pepe Escobar, for the first time I see you pointing out the contradictions of the projects of the “new silk routes”, until then I only read you write wonders about it and how much it is a win-win game, please follow this toada; The staff of Br247 is translating you badly here in Brazil, I would like to read your texts translated by Vila Vodú or Vila Mandinga on Alok’s blog, hug.

    • “for the first time I see you pointing out the contradictions of the projects of the “new silk routes”–i also am glad to see Pepe realizes the destructive potential for BRI.