Chinese take a gamble on the pleasures of sin city

A playground for businessmen is thriving on land leased from the Laos government. Edward Loxton reports from Kapok City

It may be well down river from the People's Republic, but the red flag of China flies prominently among other national standards at a jetty on the Thai bank of the Mekong River. Visitors check out with Thai immigration officials, before being ferried upstream in a sleek speedboat to a world of ostentatious casinos and half-built hotels.

Welcome to the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone, a Chinese-leased playground on the Mekong River border between Laos and Thailand – or Kapok City, named after the tree that provided the area's main source of income before the Chinese moved in.

The 25,000 acre site – larger than China's famous gambling playground Macau and billed as a new city destined to be the throbbing heart of the fabled Golden Triangle region – was leased by the Laotian government to a Chinese business group, KingsRomans.

They are only a few years into that 99-year lease, and new buildings are springing up fast.

When complete, developers claim the site will be home to 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, supermarkets, restaurants and bars.

Right now, most of the people who visit the area are Chinese who brave the day's road journey along a mountainous route from the Sino-Laotian border at Boten to spend a weekend in what Thais on their side of the Mekong are dubbing "sin city".

"With time, we hope to attract more visitors from Thailand and also Western tourists," Ebahim Abbas, president of the main casino in Kapok City, told The Independent.

The formalities of entering Kapok City from Thailand are as streamlined as the courtesy speedboat provided by the KingsRomans Group for the brief river crossing. A Thai exit permit costs the equivalent of £10 – well worth parting with for the pleasure of the exhilarating ride across the Mekong.

A wide staircase leads from a waterfront pier 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.

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 casinos, tax-free shopping and, for male visitors, cheap, barrack-like brothels.

Although slated to become the second largest city in Laos with a projected population of 200,000, bigger even than the world heritage city Luang Prabang, Kapok City appears on no maps. It is virtually self-governing, with its own security forces patrolling wide roads bearing such names as 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 main casino – a vast, vulgar building reminiscent of the excesses of Las Vegas – is the first construction to be completed in Kapok City. A huge golden crown and a golden cupola sit atop the palatial building, whose main entrance is flanked by a dozen statues of Greek and Roman deities.

A huge statue of Zeus welcomes punters into an entrance hall where glittering chandeliers hang between soaring Corinthian pillars and walls covered with oversized reproductions of European Renaissance masterpieces. The 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 the equivalent of £15 pounds while an enormous Chinese buffet at the casino can be enjoyed for just £2.

Two Laotian villages, complete with their temples, were relocated to make room for Kapok 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 main casino alone employs 2,000 people to keep the gaming tables staffed and the roulette wheels spinning around the clock. The staff includes croupiers from Sino-Burmese border towns, where the once-thriving casinos have suffered from an official Beijing clamp- down. Kapok City is presumably far enough from China to escape official attention from Beijing.

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 blackjack tables. Is she happy working at Kapok City? The young woman smiles weakly and signals with her hand "so so".

Mr 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 homesick 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 sprung up to cater for gamblers who have struck it rich at the gaming tables. Outside the reach of most official law enforcement, there is little protection for the women working in the sex trade here.

Even hotels have plugged into the sex trade, and unaccompanied male visitors staying at bourgeois "boutique" establishments are asked when checking in: "Would you require the company of a young woman during your stay?" The equivalent of £40 is charged for two hours of "service" from a Thai sex worker, while young Chinese women command a higher rate – £50. Hotel rooms have bedside packets of condoms and sex aids. The television – showing only Chinese programmes – offers hardcore porn.

Male visitors who resist the reception desk offerings return to their rooms after an evening on the town to find that explicit "calling cards" have been slipped under their doors in their absence.

"The Chinese are persistent, in everything," said a visiting Thai businessman. "They have to be, to take out a 99-year lease on this place."

Suggested Topics
News
John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
News
i100

Other places that have held independence referendums
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur
film

It scooped up an unprecedented 11 Academy Awards when it was first remade in 1959

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
News
news

Arts and Entertainment
Blossoming love: Colin Firth as Stanley and Emma Stone as Sophie, in 'Magic in the Moonlight'
film

Actors star in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
newsThe 'extremely dangerous' attempt to avoid being impounded has been heavily criticised
News
peopleThe Times of India said actress should treat it as a 'compliment'
Arts and Entertainment
Maxine Peake plays Hamlet at Manchester's Royal Exchange
theatreReview: Maxine Peake brings emotional ferocity to Shakespeare's starring part
News
news

Watch this commuter wage a one-man war against the Circle Line
Property
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
lifeShould we feel guilty about keeping cats inside?
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

Travel
travel

...and the perfect time to visit them

Sport
Jonas Gutierrez (r) competes with Yaya Toure (l)
football

Newcastle winger reveals he has testicular cancer - and is losing his trademark long hair as a result

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Birmingham: SEN Teacher required with immediate...

Maths Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Reading: Maths Teacher required for a College i...

Year 1 Teacher required in Haverhill

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Teacher required for ...

Lecturer - Construction

Negotiable: Randstad Education Reading: Construction Lecturer needed for a Col...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week