Went to Don Sao island, which is now part of the casino complex for the first time in 16 years. Oh how it has changed. It used to be just a small dusty island (or muddy during the rainy season) with vendors selling merchandise such as Thai and Chinese snacks, t-shirts, key-chains, postcards and liquor from a bunch of shacks arranged in a circle.
Don Sao is now connected to the mainland by a bridge and has a concrete road and boat pier, with shops selling merchandise sold by merchants mostly from Myanmar, with a few Laotians and possibly Thais thrown in. They accept Baht, Kip and Yuan for purchases, though most merchants seem to prefer Baht. Tons of tourists from western countries, China, Taiwan, Thailand and other places arriving by boat from the Thai side crowd the shops surrounding the boat pier every day. There is a KFC about to open, not sure if it's a genuine one or fake? Either way, it will become the first KFC to open in Laos - a rather strange location for it, why not open one in the capital Vientiane first? I hardly think foreigners coming on a one or two hour boat trip from Chiang Saen are going to be like: "hey wow let's grab some KFC in Laos! That's what we paid a few hundred Baht for a boat to do here!" There are already at least half a dozen KFCs in neighboring Thai towns such as Chiang Saen, Mae Sai and Chiang Khong alone.
No idea about the casino itself, I might consider going there one day, by car from Thailand. It's quite a long way away as you have to cross the 4th Friendship Bridge first and then drive around 60km along a narrow potholed road along the Mekong from Huay Xai to the casino. Alternatively, without a car you can just cross directly from the Golden Triangle (Sob Ruak) immigration by boat and get stamped into Laos at the casino zone, which is an official immigration checkpoint.
Lots of good and bad things have been said about the casino and it being built in this location in Laos. I would say it certainly looks modern, clean and provides job opportunities for the locals (this includes Thais and Myanmar citizens who are more numerous than local Laotians in this area) and as long as it isn't taken too far (there should be limits on how tall any hotels and apartments can be) it shouldn't have too much of a negative environmental footprint.
I wonder whether one day it may suffer the same fate as the casinos formerly located in Boten, next to the Chinese border. If so, this place could eventually resemble a ghost town and be swallowed up by the jungle again. For now though, the place is booming.
**Update** I have since found out that this casino is subject to US government sanctions as a result of money laundering and drug trafficking. There was also a recent case of a Chinese gang who kidnapped a Thai businessman in the area. Although the majority of visitors will be fine, be careful. If you do choose to gamble, don't gamble more than you're willing to lose.