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The CEO Story: Countdown to new train journeys in South East Asia

I recently travelled to Vang Vieng in Laos together with Thuy Tien, our Managing Director in Indochina and Virginie Kury, our General Manager in Laos. The purpose of the trip was to see what’s new in Vang Vieng and the region, as well as to inspect the new railway presently under construction.

As part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) new railway tracks are under construction from Boten, the northern most point at the Laos border with China to the Thai border south of Vientiane. The project, built entirely by the Chinese, is well under way and is scheduled for completion by 2021.

The new railway will not only revolutionise travel within Laos and the transport of goods but will also connect to China’s high-speed train network, making it possible for millions of Chinese to easily travel from China to Laos.

Part of the railway goes through stunning mountain scenery, with magnificent views in the northern stretch and also from Laos’
historical former capital of Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng. What today takes 6-7 hours over a mountain road will soon be a mere 1½ to 2 hours by train.

For tourism this will mean vast new possibilities to explore Laos in more comfort than ever before, the creation of new and shorter itineraries and the switch from domestic air travel to domestic rail travel. 2022 will be the year when all these will happen.

What this will also mean is a large influx of new travellers who will propel Laos from a niche destination to a large-scale destination. New infrastructure will have to be built to accommodate the increase in traveller numbers, and protectionist policies must be implemented to protect nature, the ecosystem and the culture of the local people.

The prime ministers of Thailand and Cambodia have just presided over the opening ceremony of two new train stations and rail tracks, which will enable cross border rail travel between both countries. Even though it is just a mere 1.3 kilometres between the stations of Ban Klong Luk in Thailand and Poi Pet in Cambodia this is a significant step, as rail travel between the two countries has been interrupted for the past 45 years. This short stretch will link Thailand’s rail network with that of Cambodia in the next couple of years. If your dream is to travel by train from Bangkok to Phnom Penh it is now one step closer to reality.

It is just a matter of time before China’s rail network running from the country through Laos connect to a (high-speed) rail network in Thailand, connecting Vientiane and Nong Khai. Newspapers in the region have reported widely on the politics of this undertaking, and I predict that in less than a decade it will be possible to travel by rail from Singapore to Beijing.

Vietnam has been connected to China’s regular train network for decades, with cross-border rail travel between the two countries popular with enthusiasts of this mode of transport. This is slow travel in the real sense of the word, as the trains run on regular tracks and carriages are of local quality but are air-conditioned. Additionally, the journey from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to Kunming in China is long but one that invites travellers to explore the local culture and the natural beauty of the region.

China’s BRI will have a significant impact on travel to and within South-east Asia. Many of our readers will be familiar with the Silk Road high-speed rail network in China that is already operational, and for which we offer several tours. The line will extend into neighbouring countries, such as Kyrgyzstan, and eventually connect Europe to China through the southern route. This is of massive geopolitical importance and will, in particular, change the way in transporting goods from Asia to Europe.

Asian Trails is already offering a vast number of rail journeys in many of our destinations in Asia. We will update you as and when we create new, exciting railway adventures through the region.

Stay tuned for more …