Saturday, December 03, 2011

Lao Steampunk: A cue from Khmer rail?


Laos doesn't have a rail infrastructure the way Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam do, although new ventures are in the works recently to construct a rail system between China, Laos, and Thailand, with talks of connecting to Vietnam as well. The map above is from Radio Free Asia, who discuss the impacts of the modern plan on Lao citizens and the wariness of who exactly will benefit from such a railway.

According to the public version of the agreements from 2010, the railroad is to initially stretch from Xishuangbanna in China’s southern Yunnan province to the Thai border with Laos, connecting the Lao cities of Luang Namtha, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, and Vientiane.

There will ultimately be a rail link between Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, and Singapore. Later, links will connect Vientiane to Vietnam through Khammouane province.

From an alternate history perspective, how might things have developed if Laos had a rail infrastructure in the 1800s or early 1900s? How might it have been financed, and who would have been the lead builders? And, as with any construction and development project, who would be the losers, or displaced, and which families would see their fortunes rise or fall because of it? What would have been done to address crime and corruption, especially given the Golden Triangle issues of old.

If history then went on its conventional course, and Laos still became the most heavily bombed nation of the 20th century, we would see UXO covering over 30% of the countryside, and in an alternate history, likely more, in efforts to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In the course of the conflict and especially the bombing, the Lao rail system would likely be in shambles and in the aftermath likely very much resemble the situation in Cambodia.

In January, 2011, the Smithsonian Magazine ran an article, Catching the Bamboo Train describing the experience on the norries, makeshift vehicles for using the abandoned train tracks of Cambodia.

They're described as: "basically a breadbox-size motor on top of a bed-size bamboo platform on top of two independent sets of metal wheels—all held together by gravity. It’s built from bamboo, old tank parts and motors ripped from broken motorbikes, rice harvesters and tractors. To accelerate, the driver slides the motor backward, using a stick as a lever, to create enough tension in the rubber belt to rotate the rear axle. Though no two norries are identical, a failing part can be swapped with a replacement in a few seconds. Norries are technically illegal but nonetheless vital and, if you know where to look, ubiquitous."

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