Travel through Laos on their new semi-high speed train | Tech US News

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(CNN) – The train is just north of Vang Vieng when the sound of a woman crying echoes in the carriage.

“I’m sorry,” sobbed Ying, my seatmate on the trip north from Vientiane to Luang Namtha on Laos’ new semi-high-speed railway, tears streaming down her face.

“It’s been so long since I saw my mother.”

Ying has been restless since the train left the station in Laos’ capital, Vientiane.

Flip between apps on your phone while your feet tap out a jittery drum beat on the floor.

The new train features white, red and blue stripes, the colors of the Laos flag.

The new train features white, red and blue stripes, the colors of the Laos flag.

Cao Anning/Xinhua/Getty Images

That she looks a little excited is not surprising. In the days before this new train enters service at the end of 2021, the journey between Vientiane, where he studies, and Luang Namtha, his home province in the far north of the country, has been an epic affair of devastating proportions.

A bus trip on dizzying bumpy roads took at least 20 hours, even in perfect weather and traffic conditions. For the finale, he completed the last few kilometers in a motorized farm cart powered by an old two-stroke engine.

There are direct flights between Vientiane and Luang Namtha, but expensive tickets are a luxury for many citizens. As a result, he has only seen his family once in the past three years.

This new train, however, changed all that. You still have to travel the last few miles in the rickety old cart, but most of the journey can now be completed in less than four hours in decadent air conditioning.

“Before the train, it was difficult for me to visit my family,” says Ying, who is making the trip north with her sister and cousin. “I have rarely seen them because the roads are so bad and the journey is very long. Now I can make the journey easily.”

A faster pace of travel

Long considered a backwater in Southeast Asia, Laos is famous for its soporific atmosphere. So much so that the acronym for the country’s official title — Lao PDR — is often mangled from People’s Democratic Republic to Please Don’t Rush. But the new railway encourages a faster pace.

The train connects Vientiane with major visitor destinations such as Vang Vieng, a karst-filled playground famous for its adventure options, as well as Luang Prabang, the country’s charming former royal capital, and Luang Namtha, with its mosaic of ethnic minorities. hill tribes and jungle-clad mountains: perfect for hiking and ecotourism.

Vang Vieng is changing its reputation as a stop on the backpacker circuit to re-embrace its stunning scenery and adventure opportunities.

And it’s a potential boon for a tourism industry that desperately needs visitors in the wake of the pandemic.

In fact, the semi-high-speed route now open between Vientiane, just across the Mekong River from Thailand, and Boten, on the border with China’s Yunnan province, is not only revolutionary for Laos: it is as advanced as any railway infrastructure seen in china Southeast Asia so far.

The new China-Laos passenger and freight railway, served by an Electric Multiple Unit (EMU) train, stretches 1,035 kilometers (643 miles) and was designed to link Vientiane with Kunming, the capital and largest city of China’s Yunnan Province . It will eventually connect a total of 45 stations between the two countries, of which around 20 will provide passenger services.

The new train travels between Vientiane station, pictured, and Boten, near the Chinese border.

The new train travels between Vientiane station, pictured, and Boten, near the Chinese border.

Phoonsab Thevongsa/Reuters

Passengers are currently unable to travel to Yunnan in China, although the latter has not yet opened to international tourism. (Laos reopened in May 2022).

For now, travelers can experience 422 kilometers of Laos’ rugged and mountainous landscapes as the train reaches speeds of up to 160 km/h (about 100 mph) and passes through 75 tunnels and over 167 bridges and viaducts.

Part of China’s Belt and Road initiative

The new railway, which will eventually link Beijing with Bangkok and Singapore in the coming decades if all goes according to plan, is a crucial component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the vast infrastructure development program launched in 2013 to expand Beijing’s influence .

Funding for this came mainly from China, although Laos got a fair share – a financial outlay that looks increasingly precarious given its mounting debt situation.

The cost of the railway has reportedly contributed to a $480 million increase in Laos’ debt to the Export-Import Bank of China, fueling fears of dependence on its giant neighbor to the north.

Given its provenance, it’s no surprise that the railway has a Chinese feel to it. The stations are impressive, but austere affairs like those found in China.

Inside Vientiane station, for example, there are no street food vendors, those traditional mainstays of train travel in Southeast Asia. Just rows of seats, toilets, a couple of vending machines and a hot and cold water dispenser to fill bottles or bowls of instant noodles.

Signs around the stations feature Chinese and Laotian script, but little information is available in English.

The train itself, which has capacity for 720 people in first and second class carriages and runs the route between Vientiane and Boten twice a day, features white, red and blue stripes, the colors of the Lao flag. But the obvious local influence ends there.

In general, the train favors function over form. There is no food cart service or dining car, which makes me thankful for the emergency rations I picked up at a sandwich stand near my hotel in Vientiane.

But the seats are comfortable, there’s plenty of legroom and overhead rack space for heavier suitcases or backpacks, and power points under the seats provide juice for phones and laptops.

The new railway is a crucial component of China's Belt and Road Initiative, the vast infrastructure development program launched in 2013 to expand Beijing's influence.

The new railway is a crucial component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the vast infrastructure development program launched in 2013 to expand Beijing’s influence.

Cao Anning/Xinhua/Getty Images

As the train arrows north, we step back and watch the emerald green landscapes unfold outside the train window.

On the day of my travels, the train is virtually free of foreign tourists: a consequence of the current low influx of tourists in Laos and the fact that it is the height of the rainy season.

But challenges prevented the railway from starting to run with tourists. At the moment, tickets can only be bought in cash within three days of travel (an online system is in place).

Further complicating matters is the fact that you can only buy tickets at Laos-China railway stations — not so easy given their location is quite a distance from the center of cities like Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Luang Prabang Namtha — or a small handful of non-railway ticket offices.

Despite these wrinkles, it seems inevitable that a mode of transport that links some of the country’s top attractions in double-speed will end up being a hit with travelers – even more so when China finally opens its borders and visitors from the north come.

Railway staff push a drinks trolley along the new semi-high speed train.

Railway staff push a drinks trolley along the new semi-high speed train.

Han Jialing/Xinhua/Getty Images

It’s fair to wonder if rail is a luxury the Southeast Asian country can’t afford. But there is no doubt that it is a blessing for many Laotians who have never had the opportunity to move around their country so freely or quickly.

“I used to not travel home to see my family,” Ying says as we approach Na Teuy Station – the starting point for Luang Namtha town and surrounding communities. “But now I hope to be able to see them at least a couple of times a year.”

With that, get off the train. Outside the station, the country carriage waits in its dust-coated, smoke-spewing glory to take your group to the family village. Judging by the smile on his face, any residual anxiety about the long-awaited reunion seems to have vanished.

For Ying, the rare trips home have always been the destination rather than the journey, the latter something to be endured. But, for once, he seems to have enjoyed the ride.

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