FROM the banks of the Mekong river in the smuggling-infested Golden Triangle, Sripanom Vichivorasarn can see the lights of London beckoning. Across the muddy stream that divides Burma, Thailand and Laos, and beyond the notorious Shan plateau, with its drug barons and tribal warlords, he dreams of a new Silk Road that will re-link the divided continents of Asia and Europe. ''We want a railway line that will go through Laos and Vietnam, on to China and then all the way to Europe, and beyond. It is time to end Indochina's isolation,'' said the Thai member of parliament. In China's southern capital of Kunming, on the other side of the Golden Triangle, provincial officials are also scheming of ways to push back the jungle frontiers that buffer the Chinese from their suspicious neighbours. After decades of muted hostility with Southeast Asia, Beijing is putting economic need above political expediency in the drive to end its long isolation within the region. This week Thailand's Foreign Minister, Mr Prasong Soonsiri, flew to Kunming for the first high-level talks aimed at making the mythical Asian Highway a reality. He returned with strong pledges of Chinese support, but cautioned that ''decades of mistrust cannot simply be washed away overnight''. The idea of creating a road or railway passage from Southeast Asia to China and on to the borders of Europe has been around for centuries, amid grand visions of recreating the great spice and silk routes that once traversed Asia. With the Pacific Rim touted as the world's zone of prosperity in the next century and Europe retreating into apparent isolationism, the scheme has gained a new sense of urgency. Political developments, notably China's diplomatic overtures to Southeast Asia and the peace settlement in Cambodia, have suddenly made it seem possible to bring half a dozen divergent nations together, including some of the most remote and seclusive regimes on Earth. Laos and Burma, which practise a policy of active discouragement when it comes to external relations, have given tentative support, as has Vietnam, which until recently was regarded as belligerent by most of Asia. If all agree, Thailand has offered to host talks within the next two or three months. Rail and road links currently being considered would run from northern Thailand through Burmese or Laotian territory in the Golden Triangle to Kunming and then on to Beijing and the former Soviet Asian republics. An alternative, or perhaps additional routing, would be through the Laotian town of Savannaket to Danang in Vietnam and northwards to China. At the Thai end, existing roads would be upgraded southwards to the Malaysian border, where Kuala Lumpur is already working on an expressway to Singapore. Thai officials believe the main stumbling block in any Asia-wide land link will be Burma, whose borders have historically been the most impenetrable in Indochina. With little hope of a thaw between New Delhi and Beijing, there are no plans to include India in the proposed highway. Instead, it would travel from Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai in Thailand to the Burmese town of Kentung, probably crossing into China at Namton or Wan Umkengnoi. Shan State, in the area close to the proposed roadway, is the preserve of opium king Khun Sa and several ethnic minority groups fighting the Rangoon military junta for varying degrees of independence. Thai Foreign Minister Mr Prasong argues that an Asia-wide link is ''an essential element for building greater trust and understanding within this family of Southeast Asia''. But the security concerns are heightened by a nest of historic rivalries between Indochina and its neighbours, and the removal of a psychological barrier akin to the Anglo-French Channel Tunnel, which will link Britain with mainland Europe for the first time. Indochina has been a convenient political obstacle since World War II, when the return of the French colonial administration sparked off four decades of guerilla war. For Southeast Asia, it has provided a natural defence against communist China, which conducted an underground insurgency in Malaysia, southern Thailand and Indonesia from the 50s until the late 70s. Beijing began to seek closer relations with its neighbours in 1988, when it restored diplomatic ties with Laos and stepped up military co-operation with Thailand. A report prepared by Dr Somkiat Osotsabha, an economist at Thailand's Chulalongkorn University, said China saw a Thai-Yunnan route as a passage to the sea from its landlocked southern provinces. It was thought to be eying three possible trading posts, at Haiphong in northern Vietnam, Mataban in Burma and Laem Chabang in eastern Thailand. Southeast Asian countries are already uneasy over apparent co-operation between China and Burma to upgrade Mataban and other Burmese ports, raising the prospects of visits by Chinese naval vessels. While opponents of an Asian Highway cite fears of Chinese expansionism, other states are wary of Thailand's intentions. Laos and Burma have both complained bitterly of cultural pollution from the flood of Thai consumer goods and mass media across their borders in the past three or four years. General Charan Kulavanij, head of Thailand's National Security Council (NSC), was moved to issue an extraordinary denial that Bangkok wanted to recreate a Suwannaphumi - Golden Land - vision of a greater Thai empire. The term refers to the former kingdom of the Mon, an ethnic minority who settled much of what is now central Thailand several thousand years ago and established rule over much of Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Malaya (now Malaysia). It became the basis of a World War II imperial plan drawn up by the puppet government in Bangkok with the consent of Tokyo to reclaim territories ceded by Thai rulers to colonial powers Britain and France, while at the same time extending Japanese influence. ''Our neighbours should not be mistakenly led to believe that Thailand wants to revive its World War ambitions. Our increasing inter-independence with our neighbours makes it impossible to be enemies with nearby countries,'' said General Charan. A western diplomat said the smaller countries like Laos and Burma were fearful that increased access through their territory would forge a Thai-Chinese strategic alliance - but knew they had little choice. ''They don't want to be totally dependent upon either country, but being caught in the middle, they can't do much about it. And they know they can't hide away forever,'' he said.