Near the famed golden triangle where Laos, Thailand and Burma meet, a Chinese company plans to turn huge tracts of jungle and farmland once associated with the opium trade into a tourism magnet. The company, Kings Romans, says it is building a new economy, anchored in part by a glittering new casino.
The Chinese-run Kings Romans’ casino is one of the most noticeable and flashy features on the Lao side of the Mekong River’s Golden Triangle.
Kings Romans signed a 99-year lease with the Lao government to develop and run a special economic zone in a stretch of rural land spanning more than 100 square kilometers.
The plans are ambitious. “Here will be the airport. Here will be the industrial zone. Here will be a bridge to connect with Thailand and Burma. The whole project will be finished within the next 20 years," explains a staff member while pointing at a map.
For now, the future airport runway is still just a road.
But construction is brisk and workers are chopping down forests and flattening hills.
Hundreds of people displaced by the building have already been relocated, and given new houses in the recently opened Golden Triangle Village.
During a recent gathering for a funeral, new residents played cards, gambled and talked about life in the company-built village.
Ouy Kham says there are not enough trees, making it too hot to grow food. Her children now farm in Thailand to make money. “In the old village we had income but coming to this village we only spend money. We don’t know what to sell to earn a living. Living here we cannot grow anything. We try to grow vegetables but they are not healthy," she said.
As Kings Romans’ remakes the Golden Triangle’s skyline, there are new jobs for workers with the right skills.
Burmese laborer Khun Kyar Kan has been working in the special economic zone for three years. Even though the pay is better than back home, he says there are drawbacks. “In Burma I worked in farming. It was my own job and I could set my own working schedule… Here I am always worried about losing my job because I cannot find another job. There is only one company here," he said.
For now, trade ships and fishermen are the picture of life here on the Mekong River.
But Kings Romans is betting hundreds of millions of dollars that Asia’s growing wealthy will soon join them as a fixture of the scenic and notorious Golden Triangle.