Within the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS), Thailand and Laos are already the best-connected. The neighbours already share 10 official border checkpoints including four ‘Friendship Bridges’ crossing the Mekong River. The four bridges have served a rising number of travellers going both ways.
Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge 1 is the oldest of all the border checkpoints over the Mekong River and remains today the most used by regional and international travellers. It was opened in 1994 following a grant from Australia and links the city of Nong Khai to the suburbs of Vientiane. The bridge is the only one to be opened to both land vehicles and rail services. Friendship Bridge 1 stretches over 1,170 meters and welcomed into Laos 1.22 million international travellers in 2015. It was also used by 1.49 million Laotians travelling outside the country.
It took over a decade to see a second bridge. Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge 2 was inaugurated in 2007. It links the Thai province of Mukdahan with the city of Savannakhet in Southern Laos. The bridge has a total length of 1,600m and is the second most used border checkpoint to and from Laos. In 2015 788,000 international travellers and 348,000 outbound Laotians traversed it.
Another bridge in Southern Laos was opened in 2011. Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge 3 links the province of Nakhon Pathom with Kammouane Province in the vicinity of Thakek. The bridge has a total length of 1,423 m and in 2015 served 122,000 inbound travellers into Laos while 495,000 Laotian crossed it to go to Thailand.
The latest bridge over the Mekong River is located in Chiang Rai province, linking Chiang Khong city with Houayxay (Bokeo Province). Opened at the end of 2013 with a length of 630 m, it is the least used bridge over the Mekong River. In 2015, only 7,300 travellers crossed from Laos into Thailand while 35,000 Laotians travelled from there into Thailand.
The success of the four bridges is translated into their rising use by international travellers visiting Laos. According to data from Laos National Tourism Administration, there were 1.49 million inbound visitors crossing the Friendship Bridges 1 and 2 in 2011; a year later, with the new Friendship Bridge 3, this number grew to 1.85 million. In 2014, the bridges served more than two million inbound visitors while last year, 2015, a record 2.14 million people crossed into Laos by bridge from Thailand.
This trend is seen as an encouraging sign for regional integration. At a recent meeting between the Thai and Lao Prime Ministers, there were discussions to build another three bridges between the countries. The Laos government proposed bridges linking Bolikhamsai to Bueng Kan, Salavan to Ubon Ratchathani, as well as Vientiane province to Loei provice.
Plans for the Friendship Bridge linking Bolikhamsai province and Thailand’s Bueng Kan province are the most advanced with the design already completed. The 1,350-m bridge will link highway 13 in central Laos to northeast Thailand at a cost of around US$85 million. Construction is slated to start by 2019. It now awaits confirmation for funding.
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