Las Vegas China’s business-related inroads into the Mekong region bordering Thailand have advanced dramatically with the first-phase construction of a Chinese-run tax-free city on the Laotian bank of the river, just a 10-minute speed boat ride from the Thai side.
The red flag of the People’s Republic of China flies prominently among other national standards at a jetty on the Thai bank of the river, where visitors check out with Thai immigration officials before being ferried upstream in a sleek speedboat provided by the Chinese conglomerate financing the construction of Kapok City.
The formalities of leaving Thailand and entering Kapok City are as streamlined as the speedboat.
A Thai exit permit costs 500 Baht—well worth parting with for the pleasure of the exhilarating ride across the Mekong.
A wide staircase leads from the waterfront on the Laotian side to a spanking new Laotian immigration building, sporting an ostentatious golden dome. Gold is the predominant colour and theme of this extraordinary development, the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone, Kapok City.
The 10,000 hectare site—larger than China’s most famous gambling playground, Macau—was leased by the Laotian government to a shadowy Chinese conglomerate, KingsRomans (sic), for a period of 99 years.
When completed, Kapok City—named after the tree that provides Laos with a profitable export crop—will have two casinos, a dozen or more hotels, an international airport, up to six golf courses, holiday residences and a network of services that will include shopping malls and supermarkets.
Most of the tourists who visit the area are Chinese, who brave the day’s road journey from the Yunnan border. “But, with time, we hope to attract more visitors from Thailand, and also Western tourists,” Casino President E. Abbas told Guidelines.
Entry formalities are relatively uncomplicated. Thai immigration officials manning a KingsRoman Group office on the Thai bank of the Mekong, between Chiang Saen and the Golden Triangle, provide a temporary exit form. A KingsRoman Group speedboat then ferries visitors across the river, to a Laotian immigration office, a gleaming new building with a golden cupola and approached by a regal staircase leading from the group’s private pier.
Visitors hand in their passports and Thai exit forms to the Laotian officials, who return them unstamped on departure. Entry formalities take a few minutes—opening the doors to the pleasures and enticements of Kapok City, which include the inevitable casino.
Although destined to become the second largest city in Laos, bigger even than Luang Prabang, Kapok City appears on no maps. It is virtually self-governing, with its own security forces patrolling wide avenues, bearing names like Park Avenue, where even the cruising limousines are Kapok City registered vehicles.
Chinese is the official language, which can make life difficult for visitors, who find hotel room instructions written only in Mandarin. Chinese Yuan are the preferred currency, although Thai Baht are accepted. There are no banks or ATMs, while credit cards are carefully screened before payment is accepted.
The casino—a vast, vulgar building reminiscent of the excesses of Las Vegas—was the first construction to be completed in Kapok City. A huge golden crown sits atop the palatial building, whose main entrance is flanked by a dozen statues of Greek and Roman deities.
A huge statue of Zeus, father of all ancient Greek deities, welcomes punters into an entrance hall where glittering chandeliers hang between soaring Corinthian pillars and walls covered with over sized reproductions of European Renaissance masterpieces.
Surrounding land is piled high with building materials, sand, bricks and concrete drainage pipes. There’s a sense that nobody is in a hurry to complete the job—after all, the Chinese own the place for the next 90-plus years.
The tax-free status of the new city keeps prices down—a room in a comfortable hotel costs 750 Baht, while an enormous Chinese buffet at the casino can be enjoyed for just 100 Baht.
Two Laotian villages, complete with their temples, were relocated to make room for the new city. The Laotian farmers who once grew rice, beans and garlic on the alluvial Mekong soil were replaced by a small army of construction workers needed to create Kapok City.
The casino alone employs 2,000 staff to keep the gaming tables staffed and the roulette wheels spinning around the clock. The staff includes croupiers from Sino-Burmese border towns where casinos have suffered from an official Beijing clampdown on Chinese citizens crossing the frontier to gamble.
Some of the casino workers have been flown in from Russia’s Far East to boost the numbers of qualified staff needed to maintain the 24-7 routine.. Olga, from Vladivostock, is one of the Russians employed to work the roulette and Black Jack tables.
Is she happy working at Kapok City? The attractive young women smiles weakly and signals with her hand “”So so.”
Casino President E. Abbas, a Malaysian-born Australian citizen, admits it’s difficult keeping foreign staff happy in a city that’s still a construction site.. “They get home sick very easily,” he says.
Wandering the deserted streets at night, it’s easy to understand the Russian woman’s unhappiness. Apart from the casino and one or two of the livelier restaurants, there’s not a lot to do in Kapok City. Single men in search of sex head for the primitive brothels that have inevitably sprung up to cater for gamblers who have struck it rich at the gaming tables.
Yet despite its tawdry image and bleak, half-finished appearance, Kapok City is worth a visit. The opportunity of adding China to the list of countries visited during a day trip to the Golden Triangle should be irresistible.
writes about Thailand, Burma, Laos and Vietnam for a number of regional publications from his base in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand, and about Burma for Irrawaddy, the Burmese exile magazine that aims to bring about regime change there. His second book, The Orchid Cafe, a humorous look at life in a remote Thai village, is to be published in mid-2007