LOOK out Laos, the ugly American tourist is back. And this time, American money may prove more effective than its bombs. At the height of the Vietnam War, US planes flew non-stop over Nong Khai, a northern Thai town on the Laotian border, from their base in Udon Thani, Thailand. Planes still buzz the skies, but these days they are not instruments of war. Raids of destruction have been replaced by a frenzied construction boom that is transforming both shores of Southeast Asia's longest river, the Mekong. Looking across the Mekong from Nong Khai, you can see the tops of new hotels and apartment buildings in the Laotian capital of Vientiane. The development boom is spreading north. Sweat-streaked labourers on both shores of the river hoist concrete blocks for a huge bridge, the first across the Mekong. The aptly named Friendship Bridge will connect landlocked Laos to Thailand. More importantly, it will connect Laos to the rest of the world. Laos, for too long a recluse, missed the economic boom that swept the rest of Asia. But even as Laos emerges from isolation, its leaders fear growing prosperity in Thailand and nearby Vietnam could prove overwhelming for their economically backward nation. For this reason, Laos is taking tentative steps towards contact not only with the West, but its immediate Asian neighbours. The Friendship Bridge, being built with Australian grants and engineering assistance, will be the first major test on its path towards openness. In Thailand, businessmen and officials boast of the benefits for Laos of increased trade. However, private conversations about Laos' untapped natural resources and its cheap supply of labour, suggest they believe most benefits will flow south to Thailand,and directly into their pockets. The US$30 million (HK$232 million) bridge is not expected to open until April, but Laotian leaders are preparing for the worst. A Cambodian Government delegation made its first foreign visit to Vientiane in July. Leaders of both nations talked about the ominous shadow of Thai and Vietnamese influence. Laos and Cambodia - the smallest countries in the region - pledged a pact of mutual respect for each other's independence and vowed to explore new areas of trade. Yet neither Cambodia nor Laos can afford to ignore the economic muscle of Thailand. What's more, neither has escaped notice in China, where talk is increasing of a Southeast Asian rail and road network that would run through both countries. The Friendship Bridge, which engineers say is being built with an eye to the future, might turn out to be the first major connection in the network. Designed to replace rickety ferries that haul trucks and cars across the Mekong, the bridge might one day accommodate rail tracks. 'This could be part of the Asian highway that everyone is talking about,' said bridge engineer Bill Kelly. 'And we've left ample provision for the future. The bridge is designed for railway tracks, should that need arise.' Funding came from the Australian International Development Assistance Bureau. Representative Sam Zappia said it would be money well spent at a crucial time in the region's development. 'Thailand is growing fast, perhaps seven to eight per cent a year,' Mr Zappia said. 'That growth should spill into Laos, and the bridge is part of the path. It is also significant as a symbol of change, of openness. Laos is moving from the battlefield to the marketplace.' How prepared Laos might be for a massive increase in trade is anyone's guess. Figures for economic growth are almost impossible to come by in this staunchly communist state of four million people. A report in The Economist magazine estimated one of Laos' largest sources of foreign exchange was the relatively small fly-over fee paid by airlines on the Bangkok to Hong Kong route. The bridge could change that. For scores of workers it already has. Australians hold the engineering posts, but the remaining 95 per cent of the workers - between 100 and 150 on each side of the river - are Thai and Laotian. During one peak period, 500 locals were employed. The task is monumental. The Mekong runs 4,000 kilometres through China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Torrential monsoons create enormous swells. 'The river rises 12 metres every year, and there is regular flooding,' said Mr Kelly. Australia allocated funds for the bridge in 1989 and began feasibility studies in 1990. Six huge river piers were built during the Mekong's ebb in 1992. Concrete sections are being fabricated on the river banks and hoisted into position by a huge crane. The bridge will be almost 1,200 metres long. On the Laotian side, traffic will switch from the right to the left side of the road. The bridge will connect Nong Khai to Tha Naleng, a Laotian town about 20 kilometres from Vientiane. Mr Kelly conceded the terrain, slopes and swells of the Mekong made an 'unusual site location'. But he said the bridge would provide a much-needed service to the two nations. For locals, the bridge will herald more than increased trade. They are thinking not of imports and exports, but of tourism. 'Everyone is waiting for that bridge,' said Photong Sanpawichu, manager of the Holiday Inn Nong Khai. 'Laos is new, like Thailand 30 years ago. People want to go, but it's always been too difficult.' Thais can slip across the river easily with a three-day $95 border pass, but visa requirements for foreigners are infamously cumbersome and change constantly. The few foreigners allowed into Laos usually arrange their visas in Europe, Vietnam or Bangkok. Mr Photong, for one, would like to see more of that business remain along the Mekong. His hotel, an odd luxury oasis with terraced gardens running down to an otherwise deserted river beach, would be one obvious beneficiary. He expects spillover from Laotian tourism to double occupancy at his hotel once the bridge opens. Mr Photong harbours ambitions that many might see as strange. He is planning to bring water-skiing and jet-skiing to the Mekong. 'Why not? There is big potential. The Mekong is a famous river. People come to look. They should also be able to have have fun.' The key, he says, is cross-border tourism. 'Nong Khai would be the gateway,' he said. 'Laos only has two big hotels. Besides, we're the only hotel on the Mekong River. Tourists will come.' But where will they go? The region's infrastructure has not recovered from the Vietnam War and despite all the talk of a network of roads and railways linking Bangkok, Singapore, even Burma, with Beijing, the routes to be developed are still rutted dirt roads. Still, some tourists are coming. Nong Khai sees a steady flow of adventurers willing to brave buses through the jungle for the slim chance of crossing the Mekong for a day-trip to Laos. Few manage it. The rest remain in Nong Khai, a town that boasts, among many charming temples, what must be a unique collection of massive outdoor ornaments: cobras and hydras rise above an astonishing array of statues that locals call Sala Kaew Koo, or Wat Kheak. Kheak is Thai for Indian and refers to Hindu influences on the creations. Luangpoo Leu began assembling his collection 15 years ago. He has women on goats, monkeys, pigs and chickens. Visitors crawl through a concrete tube into the 'Circle of Life', where statues depict the human condition, from birth to death, and the mirth and misery in between. But none of this compares with a bizarre pop-art masterpiece known as the '100 dogs from hell'. The hounds carry knives, revolvers and machine-guns. They are riding cars, boats and motorcycles. Some play cards in a quiet corner, others read poetry and allhave sharp teeth and wild eyes. 'It looks like a nightmare,' commented one visiting writer. But it is a nightmare which is destined for a wider audience, and one which is likely to come sooner rather than later.