HA 013: Laos’ Golden City
The renaissance & reincarnation of Boten
A thick morning mist covers the empty buildings Laotian workers amble between on their way to construction sites as Chinese businessmen, waiting for noodle soups, frantically shout into their mobile phones. “In ten years, 300,000 people will live here, they are going to build a hospital and an international school,” claims Suk, a thirty-five-year-old Laotian restaurant owner who moved to Boten after COVID-19 rendered him jobless in March of 2020. Suk speaks perfect English and in a past life managed personnel in a notorious Luang Prabang hotel. He is learning Chinese, his daughter will soon go to school and his restaurant is packed every evening with Chinese and Lao construction workers.
Boten, a rural village home to only a few hundred inhabitants less than 20 years ago, is poised to become China’s economic foot-in-the-door to Laos and greater Southeast Asia.
Located in northern Laos’ Luang Namtha province, Boten lies on the border with China and since the 1990s has been the site of an official border crossing between the two countries. Dramatic development began when the area was designated a Specific Economic Zone (SEZ) in 2003, under which the Lao Government signed a thirty-year lease on 1,640 hectares of land with a Chinese developer who invested $500 million USD. An SEZ is a development model aimed at attracting foreign investments in a particular geographic area through beneficial policies and regulations. To make space for new development under the SEZ, the original village of Boten was relocated in its entirety to a site 20 kilometres away in a settlement called New Boten. The SEZ, named “Boten Golden City”, was focused on casinos and hotels, ran on Beijing time and attracted gamblers from China and Thailand (where gambling is prohibited).
In just a short time, however, the city developed a bad reputation due to high rates of violence, including murder, and suicides of individuals unable to pay off their debts. Backed by China, the Lao Government eventually decided to shut down the casinos in 2011. The city’s main investors fled and sent Boten through a few years of economic uncertainty and decay. Only with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and consequent construction of the Lao-China railway did money start flowing into Boten again.
The SEZ agreement was revised in 2012, designating Boten as a key site along the Lao China Economic Corridor. The city would be the first stop of the Lao-China Railway in Laos, the first-ever railway in the country, and an important logistic and economic hub. Following years of planning and negotiations, the town’s reconstruction began in 2016. The Hicheng Group, a Yunnan developer, presented a $10 billion USD, fifteen-year construction plan to transform the former “Golden City” into “Boten Beautiful Land Specific Zone.”
The developers estimate that some 300,000 people will live in Boten by 2035. The city is meant to be modern, futuristic and without casinos. High-rise apartments, luxurious hotels and shopping malls are being built in what will be the central business district. On the periphery, the Haicheng Group plans to partly reproduce the peaceful Lao village that Boten was before SEZ construction, hoping to attract Chinese tourists interested in experiencing authentic “Lao village life.”
It is past sundown and construction workers swig cans of Beer Lao at the foot of a thirty-story hotel after their shift while Laotian and Vietnamese waitresses fix their makeup outside glittering karaoke bars. In Boten, Suk’s restaurant is the exception — most businesses are owned and run by Chinese nationals. Many low-skilled Laotian labourers work in the industrial and service sectors, generally employed on construction sites or as housekeepers. “It is hard to deal with the Chinese,” says Suk. “They are often unpolite and they speak out loud.” “But we have to adapt,” he adds.