Thursday, September 12, 2013


'Friendship Bridge' crossing the Mekong River, from Laos to Thailand
“You! You –You –You !”

I hear this sharp and repetitious voice calling out to me from behind. Wondering what all the fuss is about, I turn to see a uniformed soldier quickly approaching. 

Uh – oh. 

Fortunately, he’s unarmed, but the look on his youthful face tells me that he means business. I realize now that I’ve somehow wandered into a restricted area. Oops.

I’m in the village of Tha Na Leng, a half hour from Vientiane. I hadn’t walked into a secret military base, or a government compound. The restricted area that I had walked into, was simply beneath a bridge. But this is not your average bridge. 

It’s not my fault really; there was no sign posted warning me not to enter this grassy area by the Mekong River. Well, I didn't see any ‘No Trespassing’ signs in English anyway. There was a hand written Laotian sign back at the gate where I entered, but that could have said ‘Joe’s Restaurant’ for all I knew. The gate was wide open, with no guards in sight.

Since this young soldier’s English is limited, he merely points back towards the gate. I get his meaning, and he escorts me back out to the road.  Having been turned away from my original vantage point, I walk go looking for another bridge view. I find a path through an overgrown lot, and soon I’m back at the Mekong's edge. Further upriver, my view of the bridge here is even better. 

Flapping in the wind above the bridge, is the flag of Laos. Flying above on the far side, is the flag of Thailand. This is the ‘Friendship Bridge’. Stretching far across the Mekong, this is the busiest and most important border crossing that connects these two Asian countries. 
Oops, sorry soldier, I didn't know I'm not supposed to be down here... 

The relationship that Laos has had with Thailand is a complicated one. On the one hand, Laotians remember that Thailand destroyed Vientiane in the 19th century, and dominated Laos for years afterwards. Laotians still distrust the Thais to this day. On the other hand, Thailand is the largest foreign investor in Laos, and one of its biggest trading partners. That’s easy to see here, simply by watching the freight trucks that drive back and forth across this bridge. 

As far as bridges go, the Friendship Bridge is impressive in both length and height. It’s not just that the Mekong is a half a mile wide here; beyond that the bridge stretches even further. Beginning over in Thailand, the bridge slopes upwards, enabling it to reach high over the mighty river. Though this is the rainy season and the river is high, the gap still leaves plenty of room beneath for large riverboats, though I don’t see any. When the bridge reaches the Laos side, it descends gradually onto a ramp leading to customs and immigration.

Built with the help of foreign donors, the Friendship Bridge opened in 1994, and it’s symbolic of the improving relations, and increasing trade between Laos and Thailand. Good relations increased further, and Laos entered ASEAN in 1997, bringing it into a more open relationship with it’s regional neighbors. 

As I look at the steel structure, I can make out four people high above crossing the bridge on foot from Nong Kai, the city on the Thai side. That’s a very long walk for a border crossing. From one immigration point to the other, the whole crossing is close to two miles. Crossing the Mekong here nowadays is a safe affair, but for Laotians it was not always so easy. Back in the days after the communist takeover in the 1970’s, crossing the Mekong from Laos to Thailand was very dangerous indeed. 

When Laos turned communist in 1975, this border with Thailand became a new cold war dividing line. On the Laotian side, the communists could not afford to build their own Berlin Wall like the East Germans did, so they relied on the natural border of the Mekong. This became part of what was called, 'The Bamboo Wall’. 

After the communist takeover, private businesses were closed, property was confiscated, and freedoms declined. Most Laotians with money or education fled the country. This included thousands of businessmen, landowners, teachers, and government workers. The iron fisted policies of the communism created a brain drain. A great deal of wealth left with these migrants, and the economy collapsed. In those years, 10% of all Laotians fled as refugees. With so many departing Laos, numerous refugee camps sprang up across the river in Thailand. Back in the late 70’s and 80’s, the refugee camp across from here in Nong Kai was one of the largest. Pathet Lao patrol boats cruised the Mekong, searching for refugees attempting to escape. Many made it safely across to Nong Kai, while others weren’t so lucky. 
Immigration arrivals and departures are processed here on the Laotian side. Shopping anyone??

I recall the words that a refugee named Truong said to me in America back in the 1980’s. “If you go to Laos,” he said bluntly, “they shoot you.” Truong was a Hmong refugee, resettled in America. He’d spent years in Nong Kai, after escaping across the Mekong. More than a few refugees had been shot, and died on the river as they attempted to escape the communists back in those difficult years.

Most Laotian refugees in Thailand have since found asylum in third countries. While most conflict ended, some refugee problems continue. In recent years small groups of Hmong have been forcibly returned to Laos against their will. There are still an undetermined number of refugees in Thailand today. Since Thailand already had its own Hmong minority before the war, exact numbers are difficult to tabulate. More than 100 Hmong are being held in a Nong Kai detention center, while a few thousand more still live in refugee camps. Other undocumented refugees are still in hiding in Thailand, living under the radar. 

Here at Friendship Bridge, Laotians heading over to live in Thailand these days are mainly economic migrants. With more prosperity in Thailand, plenty of poor Laotians move there to work, both legally and illegally. Crossing for these migrants is now peaceful and orderly, and the military and police presence is greatly reduced. Looking around, I don’t see any patrols, armed police are few, and even the soldier I encountered earlier was armed only with a radio. Most conflict today, is over smuggling. Some contraband is hidden in cargo crossing the Friendship Bridge. With such a long unguarded riverbank, other goods are brought across by boat. But this is not without hazards. There are still reports of Laotian militia firing at boats on the Mekong after dark. 

Across on the Thai side, I see an old abandoned riverboat beached on the riverbank. Except for that old boat, everything else on the Thai side looks newer, and far more prosperous than in Laos. Thai houses are larger, more modern, and more numerous. The difference in numbers isn’t surprising, since the population of Thailand is nearly 10 times that of Laos. 

Here on the Laotian side, is another imposing feature. Just upriver from me, enormous red and white power transmission towers rise high into the sky. You wouldn’t expect these in a country where many villages still don’t have electricity. These must be the tallest electrical towers in all of Laos. They reach from one side of the Mekong all the way across to the other. These lines provide one of the country’s top exports: hydroelectric power. Sent through these lines to power hungry Thailand, Laotian hydropower is fueling factories in the Thai northeast. These days, Laos is sending electric power to Nong Kai, rather than refugees. 

I’ll see more of the country’s controversial hydroelectric dams, and more on the plight of Hmong refugees, as I continue my journey north. 

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