Travel through Laos on its new semi-fast train

(CNN) — The train is just north of Vang Vieng when the sound of a woman crying echoes through 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’ve seen my mother.”

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

She flips between apps on her phone as her feet play a nervous drumbeat on the floor.

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

Cao Anning/Xinhua/Getty Images

That she seems a little excited isn’t surprising. In the days before the new train entered service in late 2021, the journey between Vientiane, where she is studying, and Luang Namtha, her home province in the far north of the country, was an epic affair of grueling proportions.

A bus ride over dizzying, rutted roads took at least 20 hours, even in perfect weather and traffic conditions. For the finale, she rode the last few miles on a motorized farm cart powered by an old-fashioned two-stroke engine.

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

This new slick train, however, changed all that. She still has to cover the last few miles on the rickety old cart, but most of the journey can now be done in less than four decadently air-conditioned hours.

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

A faster pace of movement

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 to major tourist destinations such as Vang Vieng – a karst-strewn playground famous for its adventure options – as well as Luang Prabang, the country’s charming former royal capital, and Luang Namtha, with its patchwork of minorities. of hill tribes and jungle clad mountains – perfect for trekking and ecotourism.

Vang Vieng is changing its reputation as a stopover on the backpacker circuit to rediscover its breathtaking scenery and adventure opportunities.

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

Indeed, the semi-rapid road now open between Vientiane, just across the Mekong from Thailand, and Boten, on the border with Yunnan province in China, is not only revolutionary for Laos: it is as advanced as any railway infrastructure seen in Southeast Asia so far.

The new China-Laos passenger and freight railway, served by an electric multiple unit (EMU) train, spans 1,035 kilometers (643 miles) and was designed to link Vientiane with capital Kunming and more major city in the Chinese province of Yunnan. It will eventually connect a total of 45 stations between the two countries, of which around 20 will provide passenger services.

The new train runs between Vientiane Station, pictured, and Boten, near the Chinese border.

The new train runs between Vientiane Station, pictured, and Boten, near the Chinese border.

Phoonsab Thevongsa/Reuters

Passengers cannot currently travel to Yunnan in China, as the latter is not yet open to international tourism. (Laos reopened in May 2022.)

For now, travelers can experience 422 kilometers of rugged, mountainous Laos landscapes as the train reaches speeds of up to 160 km/h (around 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 coming decades if all goes according to plan, is a crucial part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, China’s massive infrastructure development program launched in 2013 to expand Beijing’s influence.

Its financing came mainly from China – although Laos took in a good part of it: a financial outlay that seems increasingly precarious given its growing indebtedness.

The cost of the railway is said to have contributed to a $480 million rise in Laos’ debt to China’s Export-Import Bank, fueling fears of dependence on its giant northern neighbour.

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

Inside the Vientiane train station, for example, there are no street vendors – those traditional mainstays of Southeast Asian train travel. Just rows of seats, toilets, a few vending machines and a hot and cold water dispenser to refill bottles or cups of instant noodles.

Signs around stations feature Chinese and Lao scripts, but little information is available in English.

The train itself, which seats 720 people in first and second class carriages and travels between Vientiane and Boten twice a day, sports white, red and blue stripes, the colors of the Lao flag. But the obvious local influence stops there.

Overall, the train prioritizes function over form. There is no food cart or dining car service, which makes me grateful 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 leg room and space in the overhead racks for the heaviest suitcases or backpacks, and power outlets under the seats provide juice for phones and laptops.

The new railway is a crucial part of the Chinese initiative

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

Cao Anning/Xinhua/Getty Images

As the train heads north, we relax and watch the emerald green landscapes unfold outside the train window.

The day of my travels, the train is almost empty of foreign tourists: a consequence of the current low tourist numbers in Laos and the full rainy season.

But challenges have prevented the railway from starting with tourists. For now, tickets can only be purchased with cash within three days of travel (an online system is reportedly in the works).

To complicate matters further, you can only buy tickets at Laos-China stations – not so easy given that their location is quite far from the center of cities like Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Luang Namtha – or a small handful of ticket offices non-rail.

Despite these wrinkles, it seems inevitable that a mode of transportation that connects some of the country’s top attractions in record time will end up being a hit with travellers: all the more so when China finally opens its borders and visitors flock North.

Railway staff push a beverage cart into the new semi-fast train.

Railway staff push a beverage cart into the new semi-fast train.

Han Jialing/Xinhua/Getty Images

It is fair to wonder if the railway is a luxury that the Southeast Asian country cannot afford. But there is no doubt that it is a boon for many Laotians who have never had the chance to move so freely or quickly in their country.

“Before, I didn’t like going home to see my family,” Ying says as we approach Na Teuy station: the departure point for Luang Namtha town and its surrounding communities. “But now I hope to be able to see them at least twice a year.”

With that, she gets off the train. Outside the station, the campaign chariot waits in its dusty, smoke-spewing glory to take its party to the family village. Judging by the smile on his face, any residual anxiety about the long-awaited reunion seems to have disappeared.

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