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Now I was settled in Chiang Mai, Christmas came around and I had some time off from teaching so my two housemates (Max and Swede) decided to do a little hardcore backpacking… my first real adventure…

I wanted to go to China all my life but on 25, 000 Baht per month teaching salary I couldn’t afford to fly from BKK to Beijing so another route must be found! I looked at a map and saw that the Mekong river runs from a little town in Thailand called Chaeng Saen and then the river ‘becomes’ the border between Burma (Myanmar) and Laos as it runs north until it reaches the Yunan province in Thailand. I hatched a plan.

Thailand to China by cargo boat, following the Mekong

Right boys, I know how we can get to China and not spend sh*t loads of money” Me

“Awesome, hows that”Max

“We’re gonna hitch a ride on a Chinese cargo boat from some random town in Northern Thailand and get off on the first port in China we come to”Me again

“Oh shit….”Swede

And so we got our ‘plan’ underway (no need to worry, traveling by boat is always awesome). Quick trip to the embassy to get our Chinese visas, surprisingly easy but this was 2007 (i.e pre-olympics, so no forged documents needed for this trip to China, we saved that one for the next trip to China :P), a week later we were set.


Swede, Max and Me about to set off to China

Bags packed – Check

Chinese Visa – Check.

The vaguest idea of what we actually do when we get to Chiang Saen – SH*T

And we left early in the morning, got a public bus from Chiang Mai bus station to Chiang Saen near the golden triangle and 8 hours later we were at the skanky port town of Chiang Saen. We found the cheapest accommodation possible (around 100 Baht) and hit the sack. Next morning, we grabbed a tuk-tuk and got him to take us to the port where the real fun was about to start…

The booming international port that is Chiang Saen

By this point I had been in Thailand for about 9 months and I had been studying Thai for about 4 of those so I could get by if and when I needed, and right now I needed, and needed and needed! We managed to discover that the boats were heading to China (result!) and that some of them were leaving today (another result!) and that the entire crew of every boat were Chinese, spoke zero English and pigeon Thai (not such a good result!) but we had come this far, so we gave it a crack.

I sauntered onto the nearest boat that was docked, receiving the strangest looks I had ever received (who the hell is this white guy and what’s he doing on our skanky boat?!). After a bit of coming and going between the tuk-tuk driver, who came back to see what was going on, the staff, the captain and me we came to an arrangement. What I understood was the boat was leaving in an hour, it would arrive in China tomorrow afternoon and if we gave them 1000 baht ($30AUD) we could go with them, sleep in a cabin and get fed – now that is cheap travel!

Us queuing to sign the Chinese sailor register

All we had to do was avoid the police during the whole journey, get off at the first available port and, before we leave, sign the register stating that we are fully fledged members of their crew in the Chinese-Thai sailor register in the port office. We obliged and I never laughed so hard when I saw the register… 3 columns which I guess said first name, last name and passport number  followed by pages upon pages of scrappy Chinese script and signatures with no English anywhere to be seen.. aside from our Johnny Ward, Thomas Edmunds, Max peters written amongst it all with our signatures beside, that must have made good reading when the immigration officer flicked through it next month!

With trepidation a plenty, we bought four bottles of whiskey at 7-11, loaded up on crisps and water and made our way down to boat, expecting to leave in the next hour or so.

Our very own Chinese cargo boat

We boarded, 5 hours later (and the realisation that we were low on the list of the crew’s priorities) we set off…

And the Cargo boat was off

Well there was no turning back now, that’s for sure. We did actually get our own ‘cabin’, and by cabin I mean 4 wooden shelves attached to the wall but it was better than we expected. I was communicating with the boat’s second in command in Thai although I’m not sure if he could even speak Chinese nevermind Thai or English so that proved fruitless, aside from the rest of the crew finding it hilarious.

It was dark already and we made our way up the Mekong river at quite a slow pace but we were feeling very proud of ourselves at actually managing to sort the whole thing out and it looked as if we were going to be in China tomorrow and one of my childhood dreams would be fulfilled.

One thing we didn’t ask about was the toilet, or shower – which turned out to be the same thing in the end and it was a sight to behold. Around midnight, a few glasses of whiskey in, Max cracked and through a ridiculously funny attempt at some sort of charades/rudimentary sign language Max managed to find out where the toilet was, he probably wishes he hadn’t. I mean that in the most literal sense imaginable.

Our shared toilet, and wash room and shower

I mean who would have doubted that 8 multilingual, civilised, poetry reading, ballet watching, fine-dining Chinese sailors would have kept such a pristine area to piss, shit and shower in – it was certainly an experience.

We immediately decided to only use it to take a piss, anything else (showers included) could wait until we arrived in China tomorrow – wherever or whenever that would be…

Tomorrow came and all our pointing and shouting ‘China?’ was followed with ‘China, China, hahahahaha!’ by our Chinese friends which admittedly was pretty funny although the 3 bottles of whiskey that managed to disappear throughout the day may have added to the humour. The evening was upon us and as the sun began to set on the most beautiful backdrop I have ever seen with Burma to the left, Vietnam to the right, Thailand behind us and China (supposedly) in front of us it became obvious that the neither boat or crew ever had any intention on reaching China today… we were dismayed but holding onto hope that we’d get there tomorrow instead….. to be continued

Sunset on the cargo boat


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5 thoughts on “Cheap travel – boat from Thailand to China (taking a cargo boat, up the Mekong river, from Thailand to China)…

  1. Sounds exciting! We are hoping to do this journey in a few months but can’t find any recent information online. Can you still do this? Are there any other boats going up from Thailand to China?

    Any help would be appreciated!

  2. Got to love just having a wee look through your archives to uncover quality travel stories like this. Telling it like it is Mr. Ward!! Cracking wee adventure there. Gutted I wasnt part of it. I was in China in 2007 too, big country though so I missed you! Get some more stories like this on here when you get a chance! Safe travels. Jonny

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