July 08, 2016

The Rise, Fall and Possible Renewal of a Town in Laos on China’s Border

By:  Sebastian Strangio, The New York Times, July 6, 2016

Photo Credit:  Gilles Sabrie, The New York Times

BOTEN, Laos — For five years, this remote town on the China-Laos border has lived in the shadow of more prosperous times.

On the main street, weeds grow where bustling shops and restaurants once stood. Old nightclub signs blister and peel in the tropical climate. Around town, abandoned multistory hotels loom like decaying sentinels, colonized by armies of jungle insects.

About a half-dozen years ago, Boten was a casino boomtown, a pinprick of neon amid thickly forested hills. Its gold-rush economy revolved around the Chinese casinos and gambling halls, which drew in thousands of visitors a month from across the border in Yunnan Province.

A commercial street at night in Boten, with only one business left over from the glory days. Credit Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times

“When the casinos opened, there were many people visiting,” said Thong Arn, 54, a Lao businesswoman whose restaurant is one of the few remaining on a strip of shuttered shop fronts with faded Chinese signs. “Now there are no more tourists, only the people working here.”

But Boten’s luck may be about to turn once again. Chinese investors have poured more than $1.5 billion into a new development called the Beautiful Boten Specific Economic Zone, according to Laotian state media.

A glossy prospectus details plans for offices, factories, duty-free shops, tourism developments, an international bus station and a golf course. The development also includes a station for the planned $7 billion high-speed railway linking the Chinese city of Kunming and the Laotian capital, Vientiane, an ambitious project that broke ground in December.

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