Chiang Kok and the Lao Myanmar Bridge

Discussion in 'Laos Road Trip Reports' started by Jurgen, Nov 21, 2015.

  1. #1 Jurgen, Nov 21, 2015
    Last edited: May 15, 2016
    A trip from Muang Sing (Luang Namtha province, Northwest Laos) to the new Lao Myanmar Friendship Bridge, in Chiang Kok (Long district).

    This write-up was meant to be the last of a series about Muang Sing and the former Chiang Khaeng [1] principality. However, as the new “Lao Myanmar Friendship Bridge” is now topical, I anticipated the information about this itinerary.

    Route 17B, the eighty kilometers link to Long district, Chiang Kok [1] and to the Mekong bridge, starts as an intersection, in Nam Keo Luang village, just at Muang Sing's city entrance. It is an inviting paved road, but informed drivers know that this is deceiving, as the smooth ride is short lived.

    The road to Xieng Kok (Chiang Kok) at Muang Sing’s entrance intersection

    The Nam Keo Luang village temple of Tai Nuea ethnicity

    Passing several Tai Lue and Tai Nuea villages, and after only six kilometers, in Ban Namdai, the asphalt abruptly stops, making place to a rocky piece of trail.

    Ban Namdai Tai Lue temple

    Ban Namdai traditrional Tai Lue house

    Ban Namdai Tai Lue family

    In 2013, I explored the beginning of the dirt sector, but gave up rapidly, as my gear was not protected against the dust.

    On the dirt ... not for long (in 2013)

    Monsoon waters have washed the soft part of the original road covering away, and the hard stones have now the upper hand. Depending on the atmospheric conditions, the red earth, remaining between the rocks, takes consistencies ranging from slippery mud, during downpours, to clouds of dust in the dry season.

    The rocky trail’s beginning on Route 7B

    The shaky adventure is there to last for quite a while, and you need a strong motivation, or an excellent mount, to drive the return journey in a single day.

    Rocky trail on Route 7B

    Muddy road 7B in the rainy season

    For most of its itinerary, Route 7B follows the fertile valley of the Nam Ma river, a Mekong tributary.

    Nowadays, a canal, with under earth tunnels, is built to diverse some Nam Ma water back toward Muang Sing and China. It is not as impressive as the Romans aqueducts but, nevertheless, serves similar purpose.

    Nam Ma river and her valley

    At a variable distance of its bank, the road follows the Nam Ma River and her valley

    Nam Ma river and her valley

    Replacing former purple and carmine fields, banana plantation now undulate toward the horizon, reaching to the mountain feet without solution of continuity. This intensive monoculture, however, is not without ecological impact on the environment and on the social development. Irrigation, pesticides and market constraints take most of the business out of the locals hands, favoring large Chinese companies and their cultivation means [2].

    Banana fields reaching to the horizon

    The banana plantations reach to the feet of the mountains

    Banana bunches are sometimes wrapped in plastic for winter protection and to increase the bunch weight.

    Plastic protections - blue illuminations

    Transporting this huge banana crop toward Chinese markets requires thousands of lorries, which are busy carving out mud furrows, or, in the dry season, to spread a steady cloud of dust.

    All types of lorries carve their marks in the mud

    Green hills with tone-on-tone banana orchards

    Ubiquitous banana plantations

    “Watermelons, bars and trucks: dangerous intersection in Northwest Lao PDR” [2]. As a published research highlighted, in 2004 already, the new (dirt) road did not only increase commercial activities, it fundamentally impacted the riparian’s life and their exposure to all kind of traffics and diseases.

    Kids along the road

    Other crops are cultivated along Route 17B; large scale ventures are usually in Chinese hands, on leased land and under the control of Yunnan manpower; this is, for instance, the case for the problematic watermelons culture, who requires a particular expertise [2].

    Hevea rubber trees are now frequently seen, some have reached the eight years harvesting maturity, but others are still in their early youth.

    From time to time, workers or students are strolling along the road.

    Workers along the road

    Kids back from school

    Akha woman

    The trail also crosses hamlets of different ethnicities, the main population belonging, however, to the Akha ethnic group.

    Kids back from school

    Nam Bak hamlet, at "kilometer 26", provides a short respite with one kilometer of tarmac.

    Kids back from school

    A short piece of tarmac

    Ban Den Kan is located at "kilometer 30" from Muang Sing intersection.

    Red earth again

    “Kilometer 41” marks the middle of the itinerary toward the bridge; the worse part of the rocky surface ends about here. The road becomes smoother, albeit not always easier in the rainy season.

    Softer road cover - still muddy

    A (relatively) softer road

    Smoother road covering, flat mud

    The itinerary follows mostly the Nam Ma River and its valley; just before Long city, it jumps over another waterway, the Long River.

    Along the Nam Ma

    On and on, the red earth trail goes up and down hills, passing through scattered hamlets and along the ubiquitous banana orchards.

    Passing villages

    A small crowd

    A frail bridge over the Nam Ma River

    Nam Ma River

    Nam Ma river

    At “kilometer 45”, the surface is paved; it is the outskirt of Long city, which is reached at “kilometer 48”.

    Fields before the arrival to Long city

    Nowadays, this town is also the district’s capital, with some infrastructures to spend a night and a bustling, albeit small market. It should be visited in the early morning, as traders, from nearby villages, are quick to return home.

    Market in Long city

    Market in Long city

    Market in Long city

    Market saleswoman in Long town


    An Akha lady in Long market

    Back on the main road, the asphalt makes place again to red earth, at “kilometer 52” already. It is smoother, albeit sometimes more muddy or dusty, depending on the meteorological conditions.

    Ban Ta Home is at “kilometer 57”

    Compared to other crops, rice fields are rather scattered, and dry rice is still produced in the mountains.

    Rice fields along Route 17B

    Along Route 17B

    Rice fields along Route 17B

    Rice fields along Route 17B

    A hamlet along the road after Long city

    The rice crops are for local consumption while banana orchards bring cash from rental fees and provide employment possibilities, particularly in the harvest season, for residents, working for the large Chinese companies.

    Side road to the banana plantation

    At “kilometer 60”, the covering becomes gravel, the nicest possible surface, along this road, after the asphalted stretches. Some segments, however, are still muddy and potholed.

    The "nice" gravel road covering

    Relatively nice gravel surface

    Smooth road surface

    The itinerary is still following the Na Ma river along its curse toward the Mekong

    The Nam Ma river

    After another series of clay sectors, the pavement begins again at “kilometer 67”; this time, it will last through Chiang Kok and to the final destination, at “kilometer 82”, the new span over the Mekong River.

    Chiang Kok is a non descript dwelling, with a small bungalow style accommodation and a couple of simple “foe” (noodle soup) eateries.

    Chiang Kok town

    Chiang Kok town

    A new neighborhood called ‘Chiang Kok Mai’ features the Mekong pier.

    Chiang Kok Mai - the boat landing place

    The modest and muddy landing place, hardly deserves a “harbor” appellation. A slippery dirt and gravel access leads down to the rocky Mekong rim, where Akha women trail merchandise, between boats and lorries, like busy ants.

    Muddy trail to the Mekong pier

    Boat unloading operation

    Unloading, mostly by Akha women

    As the Akha women worker unloaded the boat's freight, a girl waited for the operation to be completed. She was due to board the barge, who can accept a couple of tourist passengers. The downstream trip to Chiang Saen takes four to five hours.

    Downstream Mekong view in Chiang Saen’s direction

    Twelve kilometers north from “Chiang Kok Mai”, the new bridge spans the river, completing or competing with the waterway transport. As the Mekong meanders along this stretch, it can not be spotted from this place.

    Upstream Mekong - toward the bridge

    After Chiang Kok, Route 17B is already totally asphalted. As for the remaining rocky part, linking to Muang Sing, pavement work is scheduled during the two next dry seasons. The whole itinerary, with the rehabilitation work on Route 17A, should be completed in the year 2020. These are “oral” information, to be taken with a grain of salt. Two “dry seasons” seem short to cover Route 17A with tarmac, and 2020 seems a long horizon, just to update the existing link to Luang Namtha and to Route 3.

    After Chiang Kok, the completed road to the bridge

    Apart from some completion work, the road to the bridge is ready to receive heavy traffic

    A bridge under construction

    For a glance and an overview of the new bridge, you have to enter Ban Huaykoum, a Lahu village, located before the span, on a hill.

    Ban Huaykoum

    Children playing in Hauaykoum

    View to the new bridge from Huaykoum

    The bridge viewed from Ban Huaykoum

    Around the hill from Huaykoum the road finally reaches the Lao “check point” entrance, a building fairly similar to the one controlling the other Mekong friendship bridges.

    Lao side checkpoint building

    Lao side entrance to the check point

    The future Lao exist gate (departure)

    The bridge was inaugurated - but not yet opened - on May 9th 2015. With a start in February 2013, the project had a speedy realization; it was totally constructed by Laos and Myanmar countries, who shared the 26 million US dollar investment. Its length is 691 meters with a 758 meters access link from Lao immigration and another 610 meters to exit on the other side. In addition to two lanes, it has two sidewalks, which, however, can not be used be pedestrian or bicycles [5].

    I was told that the opening is scheduled sometimes in December 2015; for the time being, there are still administrative and physical hurdles to be ironed out on the Myanmar side.

    Lao Myanmar Friendship Bridge - perspective

    Lao Myanmar Friendship Bridge - perspective

    Lao Myanmar Friendship Bridge - perspective

    The island, downstream from the bridge, in a noman's land. Contrarily to the border delimitation in the middle Mekong, the Franco British agreement of 1896, the treaty splitting the Chiang Khaeng principality in two parts between the colonial powers, puts the frontier along the river's thalweg (the line connecting the lowest water points) [3].

    A downstream island

    Downstream island

    A view upstream, toward the north, shows a low water Mekong, already in October, and after a weak rainy season.

    Low water Mekong

    The settlement, on the bridge's western side (Myanmar) is Chiang Lap [1], a Tai Lue village; the new span actually links folks from the former Chiang Khaeng principality, people separated by the British Scott and the French Pavie in their struggle to control the big river. Nowadays, Chiang lap is in in Tachilek province, part of the Shan States.

    Myanmar checkpoint building

    While gazing toward the Myanmar mountain range, I reflected over the new bridge’s “raison d'être” and purpose. Was its construction a gesture from the former colonial powers to reunite what they had split? In the present days, this makes no political sense. Could the “Thai Tourist Authority” have sponsored it to open up the trapped “Golden Triangle” apex? Offering a “two days three countries” double Mekong bridges loop would be a tempting excursion, if individual travelers and vehicles were granted an easy passage through the Shan States. The bridge might also be a Chinese initiative, a middle way between Routes 3A and 3B; or could it be, as some commentators were quick to point out, just a “white elephant” [5]?

    Part of the answer is written on the bridge’s inauguration panel:

    “Lao – Myanmar Friendship Bridge is a Token of Friendship and Cooperation Between the Lao People’s Democratic Republic And The Republic of the Union of Myanmar – 9th May 2015”

    The bridge's inauguration plaque

    Official publications in newspapers and online, provide additional insight information. The link between Laos Route 17 and Myanmar Route 4 is meant to develop commercial and touristic traffic between the two countries, their neighbors and, globally, in the “Greater Mekong Subregion”. The bridge’s construction was actually proposed by Vietnam, at a regional cooperation conference (ACMECS), held in Yangon in October 2003 [5]; it would be part of a corridor between Haiphong Seaport, in Vietnam, and Myanmar's Kyauk Phyu Seaport, through Laos [5-2].

    Before these broad objectives can be realized, concerns are already raised about the acerbation of methamphetamine trafficking, encouraged by the new trail, in a region notorious for its clandestine laboratories [6].

    The positive endnote is that the bridge exists, and, even it is only a first step, it drives in the right direction, toward more cooperation and a broader opening of the region.

    One foot in Laos, one foot in Myanmar, my heart in Asia



    [1] Different transliteration methods, in texts, on maps or road boards, confuse readers; this is, however, unavoidable, as different Romanization choices, are used in various languages, countries and at different times. I follow Volker Grabowsky’s choice (in “Chronicles of Chiang Khang”. Silkworm Books):
    “In this translation the term chiang, meaning “fortified capital town”, is used. This is spelled according to Siamese pronunciation, wich is adopted in most literature. In the Tai languages of the North, such as Tai Yuan, Tai Khün and Tai Lü, the word is pronounced ciang, whereas the Lao pronounce is siang, sometimes romanised xiang.
    I also use Chiang Lap for the Myanmar side Lue village, often written Kenglap or Xieng Lap.

    [2]Watermelons, bars and trucks: dangerous intersection in Northwest Lao PDR
    An ethnographic study of social change and health vulnerability along the road through Muang Sing and Muang Long.
    Chris Lyttleton, Paul Cohen, Houmphanph Rattanavong, Bouakham Thongkhamhane
    Copyright 2004 by the Institute for Cultural Research of Laos and Macquarie University
    Supported by Rockfeller Foundation and Macquare University
    Pdf document

    [3] Internet links for Muang Long and Chiang Kok:
    Muang Long travel guide.
    Xieng Kok travel guide.
    Long Region Map: Ban Bo — Wan Hkung | Laos Google Satellite Maps
    Things to do in Muang Sing, Laos

    [4] For another « Mekong borderline » story, see my trip report :
    « A popular Mekong cruise: Houai Xai to Luang Prabang »
    A popular Mekong cruise: Houai Xai to Luang Prabang

    The French text of the 1896 “Franco-British 1896 Declaration” (called Courcell-Salisbury) is published, for instance, in the enclosures of:
    "Le Laos et le Protectorat Français"
    Par le Capitaine Gosselin
    Perrin Et Cie, Paris 1900

    [5] Internet links for the “Laos Myanmar Friendship bridge”:

    Myanmar, Laos open first friendship bridge - Xinhua |
    New Laos – Myanmar Friendship Bridge | Laos Asia Reveal Tour
    Lao PDR and Myanmar open bridge : TTR Weekly
    Laos, Myanmar open first friendship bridge - Thai PBS English News
    The Lao PDR Trade Portal - Display Site
    Laos-Myanmar Friendship Bridge Opens Vietnam

    [5-2] Myanmar

    [6] Drug concerns:

    Attached Files:

  2. Great report Jurgen..

    Just rode around there 2 days ago.

    Sad indeed to see the Chinese invasion that is taking place.

    They are all the way up in to the Green Triangle with Rubber and Banana plantations.


  3. Nice article on the influx of Chinese people and banana plantations in northern provinces: Chinese Migration Riles Northern Province

    "We wear masks, but we all have headaches and itchy eyes. My son stopped eating as he feels like vomiting all the time," said Sith, a worker from Xayabouri province, seated in his hut in a workers' camp in the middle of a banana plantation in the Ton Pheung district of Bokeo province. A stroll inside the plantation provided an insight into the problem: Pesticides are liberally sprayed by workers without any protection gear. The toxic stench became unbearable after a few minutes.
  4. Very interesting and informative report Jurgen, with beautiful photography, hope to catch up with you one day.
  5. Super pics & info yet again Jurgen .  Brilliant research.

    Funny how it goes eh, but going on your photos the Muang Sing - Xieng Kok road hardly seems to have improved since I first went down there in May 2004. I would have thought there would have been significant improvement but it does not look like it.

    Some pics of the road in 2004.


    GTR-IMG_2318. The road in good condition Muang Sing - Xieng Kok 2004

    GTR-IMG_2346. Beautiful green countryside Muang Sing - Xieng Kok 2004

    GTR-IMG_2349. The stony road Muang Sing - Xieng Kok 2004

    What may have changed is you probably don't see so many topless Akha women as in 2004


    Beautiful Muang Sing 2004 - before he Chinese onslaught

    GTR-IMG_2392. Muang Sing 2004

    Thanks again Jurgen. I look forward eagerly to your Muang Sing & Tai Lue story

    When that bridge & border crossing becomes full international aren't we going to be lucky doing 4-5 day loops from Chiang Mai - Myanmar - Laos - Chiang Mai. Yeehar ...bring it on. The Chiang Mai - Tachilek - Muang Sing loop. What a beauty.

    Attached Files:

  6. Thank you David for adding spectacular and historic pictures to this report. As for the pavement quality, since your 2004 trip, it has probably deteriorated, with the increased lorries traffic and few places where I could spot improvements. We should, however, see a progress, in the two next years, if the road can really be asphalted in this time span.

    The Akha population is still the main ethnicity in the region, working hard, particularly the women, in banana orchards on land rented to Chinese companies. It is safe that they not only wear a bra, but they should also put gas masks on, against pesticide swallowing. Their forbidden habit to indulge in some poppy products was probably safer than the current environment.

    There are still remote places where life in Akha villages goes on like always, for this, one has to take near impassable mountains roads, toward Chiang Khaeng. Unfortunately I have not yet been able to visit that region but its remoteness keeps it pristine.

    As Bryan has done a lot of dirt riding in that region recently, we might soon see some interesting additional information and pictures
  7. Fantastic report, Jürgen, thanks a lot for this. One question remains which you might have overheard; does the bridge open coming Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015 co-inciding with the 40th anniversary of the Pathet Lao running the country?
    Thanks again, reading your reports are just second to being there myself ;-)
  8. Thank you for your comment Peter, unfortunately, I do not have much more clues that what I wrote in the text.

    At the bridge, I was lucky to meet a very kind border police man, who accompanied me to the span, which was not accesible without an escort. I also got a couple of information from him, notably that the bridge should be opened sometimes in December. However, as our discussion was in Lao-Thai, I am not sure that I got all the details about the roadblock in Myanmar right; are they physical (road infrastructure) or administrative?

    Anyway, as all the millennium’s auspicious dates were allocated to the other Mekong bridges, a Pathet Lao anniversary would have made sense (on one side of the river at least); on the Myanmar side the November elections are probably a bigger concern.
  9. Peter/Jurgen,

    The delay in opening the bridge is administrative. This is what the Vientiane Times indicated in September this year:

    Laos-Myanmar bridge awaits juristic acts

    Laos-Myanmar Friendship Bridge in Luang Namtha province in the northern parts of the country has yet to become an official international border as the juristic acts between the two countries have not been completed.
  10. The bridge is still not open internationally because they can't agree on the border!

    Border issue delays Myanmar-Lao bridge trade

    A newly built Myanmar-Lao friendship bridge remains closed while authorities on both sides struggle to agree on where the border demarcation should lie.

    The presidents of Myanmar and Laos opened the bridge, which connects Shan state’s Tachilek district to Long district in the Lao province of Luang Namtha, in May last year to boost commerce between the two nations and allow more direct trade with Thailand, Vietnam and China.

    The bridge is symbolic because it will be the first time in recent years that the two countries have been connected by an official border trading point and Myint Oo, chair of the Tachilek Border Trade Chamber of Commerce, told the Myanmar Times that Myanmar officials are eagerly awaiting the start of trade.

    But there have been delays in surveying and agreeing on the border line, and despite the bridge’s completion last year it is still not open to commerce, he said.

    Shan state chief minister Linn Htut has been presented with the case for allowing trade flows across the bridge to begin as soon as possible, he added.

    But the authority to agree on the border line lies with the Myanmar government, and a final agreement is likely to require a memorandum of understanding between the two countries.

    While authorities on both sides struggle to agree on where the border demarcation should lie.

    The presidents of Myanmar and Laos opened the bridge, which connects Shan state’s Tachilek district to Long district in the Lao province of Luang Namtha, in May last year to boost commerce between the two nations and allow more direct trade with Thailand, Vietnam and China.

    The bridge is symbolic because it will be the first time in recent years that the two countries have been connected by an official border trading point and Myint Oo, chair of the Tachilek Border Trade Chamber of Commerce, told the Myanmar Times that Myanmar officials are eagerly awaiting the start of trade.

    But there have been delays in surveying and agreeing on the border line, and despite the bridge’s completion last year it is still not open to commerce, he said.

    Shan state chief minister Linn Htut has been presented with the case for allowing trade flows across the bridge to begin as soon as possible, he added.

    But the authority to agree on the border line lies with the Myanmar government, and a final agreement is likely to require a memorandum of understanding between the two countries.

    While the immediate benefit of an open bridge would be greater trade with Laos, the bridge would also help join Myanmar with Vietnam, by creating a road link connecting the Kyaukphyu deepsea port and special economic zone in Myanmar’s Rakhine state with the Haiphong seaport in Vietnam. The zone is due to be developed by a consortium of Chinese companies, though progress has been slow.

    Trade with China would also be simplified if the bridge was to open. At present, Chinese imports to Myanmar come through the Mong La border point, in a largely lawless city in a region controlled by the United Wa State Army and an affiliated group.

    Imports and exports across this border point are hit with an additional tax, which Chinese importers are willing to pay but Myanmar exporters are not.

    Instead, Myanmar exporters wanting to reach China transport their goods to the Khlong Toey port in Bangkok, where they are then shipped out of the Gulf of Thailand and across the South China Sea to their final destination.

    If trade can pass over the friendship bridge this opens up a new overland route to China for Myanmar exporters.

    “If they want to re-export Thai-made products or export Myanmar minerals, they can load them on trucks trucks on their way to China after passing over the [friendship] bridge,” said Myint Oo.

    Source: Myanmar Times. 7th July 2016.

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