VIENTIANE – The sun has barely peeked beyond the horizon but there is already a snaking queue outside Vientiane railway station. The station has not yet opened for the day but some have been there for three hours – would-be passengers on the Laos-China Railway as well as brokers trying to score its coveted tickets.

The 422km network from northern to central Laos is a flagship project of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, connecting inland China with the markets of Thailand and further beyond in South-east Asia. It is run by a Laos-China joint venture, 70 per cent of which is owned by the China Railway Group and two other Chinese state-owned companies.