Return of “Little Ghosts” Causes Drop in Traffic at Vientiane-Nongkhai Border

Lao Thai Border Lockdown

On the morning of Sunday 15 March, the Vientiane-Nongkhai border checkpoint was unusually quiet.

This amateur video clip taken by a Thai motorist shows atypically empty parking lots of the Thai side of the border, where cars are parked while their drivers line up to have their paperwork done.

Why Are Lao People Not Crossing Into Thailand?

Ever since the news broke regarding the return of the controversial Phi Noy to Thailand from South Korea, Lao people have been concerned about crossing the border. Phi Noy is a Lao/Thai word meaning “little ghosts,” which refers to undocumented Thai labor migrants who work illegally in South Korea.

It is estimated that up to 140,000 Thai nationals are working in South Korea but only 12,000 migrated to the latter with proper documents. The rest are considered Phi Noy, most of whom work in Korean factories and farms, where pay is higher than the average income in Thailand.

Most of the Phi Noy are from the Issan provinces, the poorer northeastern regions of Thailand, of which Nongkhai, Udon, and Khonkhaen are a part. These are the provinces where Lao people frequently travel to visit places like shopping malls, hypermarkets, hospitals, and schools.

“I heard that some of these undocumented workers who have returned home are from Udon Thani, so I’m not bringing my family to get a medical check-up there for the time being,” says one Lao businessman.

Since the sudden outbreak of COVID-19 in South Korea, many of these Thai labor migrants have returned to Thailand to avoid infection. Thai officials have announced that about 5,000 Thai nationals have signed up with the Korean government to return to Thailand, including 136 from the city of Daegu, the origin of the Korean outbreak.

Thai immigration police stated that some of the workers had already reached Thailand a few weeks ago. They added that strict safety measures have been enacted at two of Bangkok’s international airports to detect infection among the returnees from Korea.

An immigration police spokesperson said that Thai workers returning from Korea are seated separately from other passengers, and health officials would run a check on them when they land.

However, the Thai government said that it had no legal power to order thousands of these returning migrants into quarantine.

Lao Airlines and other Korean airlines have suspended flights to Korea.