LUANG PRABANG, Laos -- Construction of a 414km railway line linking China to mainland Southeast Asia through Laos is underway in Phonesai village, about 30km north of Luang Prabang, the country's ancient former capital and modern-day tourism center. A workers' dormitory has been built under a banner in Laotian reading: "The People of Laos are Proud to Build the Railway with Friendship, Happiness, Security and Harmony." The glaring discrepancy here is that all the workers in the dormitory are Chinese.
Tunneling has begun on a nearby hill. Across the road, work has also commenced on a bridge spanning the Mekong River. Posters of Chinese-made high-speed trains and other projects festoon Highway No. 13, which leads to the Laos-China border. Down the road from Phonesai, at Donemai village, a market has been set up to cater to the Chinese work crews. Shopkeepers, many from Yunnan, southern China, speak Mandarin. Similar scenes are visible at Vang Vieng, a tourist site half-way between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, the capital.