Muang Sing in Luang Namtha province, an administrative district of northern Laos bordering Myanmar and China, has been portrayed by the Lao government and international development agencies as a ‘poor’ rural region in need of development. To developers, Muang Sing's remoteness from major towns and the livelihoods of ethnic people such as the Akha in the uplands based on swidden agriculture and opium production characterized ‘poverty’. To address this rural poverty, state and development agencies devised land use zoning that would demarcate and regulate various land uses in line with a rural development plan for the district. This vision for regulated development began to go awry, however, as farmers and traders in Muang Sing launched their own rapid social and economic changes. In contrast to the official image of a backward rural district in need of outside assistance, this paper portrays farmers and local entrepreneurs of the Muang Sing borderlands as actively transforming their lives and agricultural landscapes. This paper challenges the official version of a remote, poor district untouched by regional trade through a focus on narratives of local people. Ethnographic research reveals the dynamic micro-processes of agrarian transformation during recent decades to highlight the centrality of borderland people in reworking their lives and agricultural landscapes through cross-border relationships in China.