PHNOM PENH – With horror images showing fields of plastic rubbish bobbing on turquoise seas around the world, one could be forgiven for welcoming the sight of one of the world’s great rivers turning a fresh blue. However the azure hue seen in recent weeks along stretches of the Mekong is stirring concerns that dozens of hydroelectric dams, the biggest of which are in China, are interrupting the river’s natural flow and blocking sediment that should be carried to farmland downriver that helps feed 60 million people. Earlier this month the Mekong River Commission, a regional intergovernmental body, put the colour change down to “extremely low flow, slow drop in the river sediments,” after warning last month that the Mekong region could face serious drought over the turn of the year.
VIENTIANE — The capital of Laos is a low-rise, low-key city, especially when compared with the hulking high-rises and bustling streets of better known Southeast Asian cities such as Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. But Vientiane is fast shedding its sedate reputation amid a building boom ahead of a series of international summits that will bring U.S. President Barack Obama, China’s President Xi Jinping and a host of other world leaders to the city in 2016. Construction cranes tower over the city’s two- and three-storey shophouses and hotels — the din of diggers and drills drowning out the once quiet capital’s increasingly dense traffic. “So many shopping malls now — around 20 going up all around the city,” said Pouthong Sengchanh, standing over a model of the Vientiane New World project — a mix of shops, restaurants and offices newly stretching along the city’s Mekong riverfront.
KUALA LUMPUR — Laos, as the incoming chair of the 2016 Association of Southeast Asian Nations, has urged member states to agree on a region-wide regime for Special Economic Zones, which have proliferated in recent years. “We think that a framework for Special Economic Zones would be good to set up because we see that in each ASEAN member state, we develop different economic zones,” Laos Minister of Industry and Commerce Khemmani Pholsena told a business forum in Kuala Lumpur during the recent ASEAN summit. Whether Laos can persuade other governments in the region to sign up for a level SEZ playing field is questionable — despite the signing of the ASEAN community in Kuala Lumpur on Nov. 22, just hours before Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak ceded the chairmanship of ASEAN to Laos Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong. “SEZs in Malaysia and the industrial estates in the eastern seaboard of Thailand are much more advanced than SEZs in CLMV [an abbreviation for Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam]. Therefore, to create a common set of rules might be difficult,” said Vanthana Nolintha.
VIENTIANE — Every Wednesday, Sengphachan Phommaxay wakes at 4 a.m. and heads across town to the That Luang market in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. There she meets a truckload of papaya, onions and pumpkins dispatched that morning from her family’s 32 acre farm, which sits 20 miles outside Vientiane in green, sun-dappled countryside close to the Mekong River. As the sun comes up and orange-clad monks plod barefoot around the funereal Vientiane streets seeking alms, the 23-year-old business student gets in some hands-on practice for life after graduation — selling the family’s produce at Vientiane’s main organic market. “10,000 kip for one kilo,” or $1.25 for just over two pounds, says Ms. Sengphachan, a student at the Lao American College, when asked how much the papaya costs.
LUANG PRABANG — Although Laos will soon to join the World Trade Organization, in economic terms it remains very much Southeast Asia’s forgotten country, a landlocked backpacker magnet of unexploded ordnance and winding roads, nicely topped off by stunning jungle, river and mountain vistas. Lying between China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma and Thailand, Communist-ruled Laos has worked off what economists like to call “a low base,” with the country’s economy averaging 7-8 percent gross domestic product growth, built on hydropower development – which has raised the hackles of international environmentalists – and a mining boom. The ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) started opening slowly to the outside world in the late 1980s, around the same time as neighboring Vietnam’s doi moi or renovation reforms got underway, in which a similar one-party Communist regime slowly liberalized parts of its economy. But despite the parallel paths, Vietnam’s much bigger economy – though recently struggling with slowing growth, graft scandals and inflation – is much more diversified than that of Laos. One of the world’s poorest countries, Laos’ annual per capita gross domestic product by purchasing power parity is just US$2,700 per year, ranking it 177th in the world and well below Vietnam’s US$3,400.
VIENTIANE – It should have been one of those rite-of-passage days for any teenager. On their way to school to collect exam results, *Phongsavath and two friends noticed an unusual-looking round steel object in the grass nearby. “We picked it up and passed it among us, wondering what it was and looking close,” he recalls, a wry half-smile belying the horror story to come. “I tried to open it,” he says, laughing at what in retrospect he says was his childish curiosity. “We looked at it, we passed it around. I tried to open it, but then It blew up”, he says, losing his hold on his white cane as he speaks. “Now as you see, I have no hands”.