A Short History of Boten, Laos: Treading Through Peaks and Valleys

Boten was born in 2003, and suffered through a
troubled childhood. Now, it is “finding itself”, and looks set to mature as a
major Southeast Asia commercial hub.

Before 2000, the Tai Lue ethnic group farmed the land in what is now Boten, just across from the Chinese border in northern Laos. However, all that changed in 2003, when a Hong Kong-registered developer signed a 30-year lease with the Lao government for the 21-sqm site. They compensated and relocated the Tai Lue, and began work on the Special Economic Zone under the banner, “Boten Golden City”.  


The plan called for a tourism destination with resorts, apartments, a golf course, lakes, ecotourism activities, and duty free shopping. Developers also saw potential in Boten as a trade hub that could transition Laos from a landlocked to land-linked country. The location fell in line with China’s Belt and Road Initiative to connect the country to Thai and Singaporean ports.


However, once the construction dust settles, a reality far from a green resort town appeared. Chinese visitors would cross the border with no need for a visa, to face a gambling bonanza. Pastel colored hotels and casinos formed a horseshoe around aisle after aisle of duty-free shops selling cigarettes, liquor, and dubious brand name products, and even haircuts, shoe shines, and fresh fish. Stiletto-heeled prostitutes roamed the endless rows of goods. Then the news got even worse.


With gambling comes loan sharks, and the money lenders played by a simple rule: pay or die. By 2010, articles emerged in the Chinese press about casino debtors being held hostage until their families could pay. Forbes Asia reported that dead bodies of gamers in debt had been dumped in a river. Enough was enough, and in stepped the Chinese government.


In March 2011, China cut electricity and telecom service to Boten, though the city sits in Laos. They shut down casinos in May, and put a halt to visa-less border crossings. Boten folded like a house of cards. Shops and restaurants closed. Hotel rooms stood empty. A destination that had once welcomed 10,000 visitors a day went quiet. Nothing but tumbleweed rolled down the duty-free alleys.


It didn’t take Laos long to learn from their mistakes. In April 2012, the Lao government inked an agreement with the Yunnan Hai Cheng Industrial Group and the Hong Kong Fuk Hing Travel Entertainment Group, who had also invested in the first go around. They presented the new development as “Beautiful Boten”, and according to Lao media, Chinese investors are sinking more than $1.5 billion into the project.


With the new deal came new rules, and topping the Lao government’s chart is “No Gambling”. They also switched Boten’s status from a Special Economic Zone to a Specific Economic Zone. This gives Luang Namtha authorities more control over social and security issues. The investors are fine with this, Lao officials told the media. They added that the investors want to transform Beautiful Boten into a tourism destination showcasing the Tai Lue culture, alongside a commercial hub.


A visual rendition presents 3D details of Beautiful Boten. It shows blocks with 18-story towers with hotels, offices, and duty-free shops in the Central Business District. Tourism attractions, a golf course, international bus station, and factories sit on the perimeter.


Construction is now in full swing, with several of the high-rises already topped off, and interior finishing underway. As one Boten tenant said, “The idea is to create a city where 300,000 people can live,” but Boten is pinning its hopes on its strategic train station along the $7-billion Kunming, China-Vientiane high-speed railway.


Work on the 414-km electric railway kicked off in late 2016, and is on time for completion by December 2021. In Laos, the mega-project includes 198 km of tunnels and 62 km of bridges, and runs from the Boten border gate to Oudomxay, Luang Prabang, and Vang Vieng, before the Vientiane terminal. The train can reach speeds of 160 km per hour, cutting days off the truck routes while offering passengers a fast, inexpensive and scenic way to move around Laos.


Much of Beautiful Boten will be ready to open when the railway is completed, and a new era will begin in the life of this maturing destination. Chinese investors and the Lao government are optimistic about the future of Boten, as this time the plan is more strategic and not based on a roll of the dice.