Thailand to China by Cargo Ship; My 7 Days as a Chinese Sailor

Now I was settled in my new life teaching English in Chiang Mai. Christmas was coming around and I had some time off from teaching so my two housemates (Max and Tom) decided to do a little hardcore backpacking. It would be my first REAL travel adventure. Thailand to China, by cargo ship!

I had wanted to go to China all my life but on 23,000 Baht ($700) per month teaching salary, I couldn’t afford to fly from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, and then Bangkok to Beijing. So another route must be found. I looked at a map and tried to figure something out. I knew that the Mekong river ran through Thailand to China. Could something be done that way? Looking at maps, I could see that the Mekong actually seems to run through a little town in Thailand called Chaeng Saen. Interesting. Further on, the river ‘becomes’ the border between Myanmar and Laos as it runs north until it reaches the Yunan province in China. I hatched a plan.

The Mekong River Map

You can see the Mekong River just ventures into Thailand at the very northern part of Thailand, in a district called Chiang Saen. I knew boats would ply their trade from China through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and into Cambodia on the river. Surely we could find someone would let us on their boat for a little cash? 

Thailand to China boat
Thailand to China boat; Mekong River Map

Planning the Trip

If you’ve followed by my journey to every country in the world, you’ll know my ‘planning’ is quite a loose concept. Whether it was travelling to Libya, Somalia or Afghanistan (with my mum!), my planning amounts to committing to going somewhere. After that, there are not so many details. So, after checking the Mekong River map, the Conversation with boys went something like this:

Right boys, I know how we can get from Thailand to China and not spend loads of money” Me

“Great, hows that”Max

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

“Oh shit….”Tom

And so the ‘plan’ was set. All we needed, in theory, was:

  • A visa to enter China.
  • A bus ticket from Chiang Mai to Chiang Saen
  • Enough Thai or Chinese language ability to barter with the cargo ship owners to convince them to let us on board.

So I paid a quick trip to the embassy to get our Chinese visas. We used the Chinese consulate in Chiang Mai so this was surprisingly easy. One week later, a tourist visa was secure. Then straight to the Chiang Mai bus station for a 7 hour bus ticket the following day to Chiang Saen. 200THB ($7). Easy. And finally, I had been studying Thai 2 hours a day for a couple of months, so I was conversational. I hoped it would be enough. The school break was upon us. Let’s get this show on the road!

THE TRIP BEGINS; Chiang Mai to Chiang Saen

Thailand to China boat
Tom, Max and Me in Chiang Mai. About to try to get from Thailand to China by cargo ship.

We left Chiang Mai early in the morning. Hopped on the public bus from Chiang Mai bus station. 8 hours later we were at the rough port town of Chiang Saen. We found the cheapest accommodation possible (around 100 Baht) and went to bed in a triple room. No air-conditioning, no hot water, but winter int eh North of Thailand is chilly, so we managed to sleep. Although the night wasn’t unbroken. We were nervous. No idea what lay ahead, so our sleep was punctured with comments like “Do you think we’ll find a boat tomorrow boys”, and “I wonder who long it’ll take ti get to China on a cargo boat”. 

The following morning, after a cold shower, we grabbed a tuk-tuk and got him to take us to the port where the real fun was about to start.

Chiang Seng Port
Chiang Seng Port

Chiang Saen Port

The first hope was if boats even used the Mekong to travel between Thailand and China. As soon as we reached Chiang Saen port, there was our first bit of good news. Huge cargo ships with Chinese writing plastered all over them. A good sign. I asked our tuk-tuk driver if the boats left daily, and he told me they leave every day, 365 days a year. Without fail. Great! “And does anyone speak any English? Or even Thai? “Zero English and awful Thai” was the answer. Ok, not ideal, but we can work with it. 

I nervously approached the nearest cargo ship that was docked. I jumped on board and entered their cabin. Upon receiving one the strangest looks I had ever received (who the hell is this white guy and what’s he doing on our boat?!). Speaking in Chinese, and then louder Chinese. I was ushered off the boat. Rejected. Another boat, another rejection. And then a 3rd, but this time physically escorted off the boat.

This wasn’t doing wonders for my confidence. Ok, Johnny. Deep breath. Finally, I entered a 4th boat. The last one docked that I could reach. A skinny Chinese captain tried to speak to me in broken Thai. 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 myself we came to an arrangement. What I understood was the boat was leaving in an hour or so. It would arrive in China tomorrow afternoon and if we gave them 1000 baht ($30USD) we could go with them, sleep in a cabin and get fed. Now that sounded like a good deal. We’re in! We ran back to the guest house, grabbed our bags. Back to the port, and threw them on board. 

Thailand China ferry
Chinese sailors queuing to sign the boat register. We would join the queue shortly.

Leaving on the cargo ship

As far as I could understand, everything was agreed. I handed over the 3000THB for the 3 of us (about $100 total). All we had to do was avoid the police during the whole journey. I had asked for a ride all the way to Kunming. He said it wasn’t confirmed, but if the police were causing problems we must get off at the first available port. And finally, before we leave, we must sign the register stating that we are fully-fledged members of their crew. The register was in the Chinese-Thai sailor registry centre in the Chiang Saen port office and immigration.

We obliged. I would have agreed to anything. I couldn’t believe this was actually happening. And so I headed to the port office. Lined up with the dozens of Chinese sailors. When I entered the office and I saw the register I knew we were in for an adventure. An old ledger. 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. I scribbled in 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!

Don’t forget the booze

With plenty of trepidation, we bought four bottles of whiskey at 7-11. Loaded up on crisps and water and made our way down to boat. If my Thai was right, we were expecting to leave in the next hour or so. It’s on.

We boarded there and then. 6 hours later (and the realisation that we were low on the list of the crew’s priorities) we set off.

China Thailand boat
Tom boarding our cargo boat
Our very own Chinese cargo boat
Our very own Chinese cargo boat. Loading it up while we waited.
And the Cargo boat was off
And the Cargo boat was off (this was the boat before us)

The Cargo Ship Journey

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 whose Thai was worse. His or mine. So we didn’t make much progress, aside from entertaining the rest of our crew. About 6 Chinese sailors in total.

We had hoped to set-off just after breakfast, but by the time we left Chiang Saen proper, it was dusk already. We were making slow progress up the Mekong river.  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 before agreeing our deal was the toilet, or shower (which turned out to be the same thing in the end). Around midnight, after a few glasses of whiskey, Max cracked and finally needed a pee. He made a successful attempt at some sort of charades/rudimentary sign language indicating he needed the total, which he probably wishes he hadn’t. I mean that in the most literal sense imaginable. And so we discovered our washroom for the journey.

China Thailand Ferry
Our shared toilet, and washroom and shower on the cargo ship

Making Progress up the Mekong

I didn’t expect a group of Chinese sailors to keep a pristine area to piss, shit and shower in, but come on. A bit of effort to keep the place cockroach free would have been nice. Let’s just say we were happy it was only a day or so until China. We immediately decided to only use it to take a piss, anything else (showers included) could wait until we arrived in China tomorrow. Or so we thought.

After a hazy night on the whiskey, we woke up a little late. Around 10am. It was the only way to sleep on the 1mm thin mattress and the filthy room. Anyway, we had done it. We got up and headed to the front of the cargo boat. It was beautiful. The huge Mekon River, flowing powerfully, surrounded by thick jungle on both sides. Small villages were visible as we moved, people washing their clothes in the river, fishing and waving as we moved past. 

Our First Delay

One of the crew finally came to check on us. I was pointing at a small town on the riverbank in the distance, looked at him longingly and suggested ‘China?’. He followed that up with ‘China, China, hahahahaha!’. Hmmm. What did that mean? He scurried off back to work, leaving Tom, Max and I understanding that we wouldn’t be reaching China today. Eurrrgh. Anyway, I guess it was to be expected after we left so late yesterday evening. We must arrive tonight or early tomorrow morning. Another 12 hours or so, while not ideal, isn’t the end of the world. 

The evening was upon us and as the sun began to set on the most beautiful backdrop I have ever seen. Knowing we hadn’t reached China yet mean we had Myanmar on one riverbank to the left, Laos to the right, Thailand behind us and China (supposedly) in front of us. As the sun set, it was obvious that neither boat nor crew ever had any intention of reaching China today. So we settled for another night of cheap Thai whiskey and the 1mm mattress.

Sunset on the cargo boat
Sunset on the cargo boat

End of Day 2 on the Cargo Ship to China; Reaching Laos Illegally

It was the evening of our 2nd day on the Thailand to China cargo boat. Day 1 had certainly been an experience and as day 2 wore on we realised China was nowhere to be seen. We did, however, seem to be approaching land. But if we weren’t arriving in China. Where the hell where we going? It was on the Eastern riverbank. So, Laos then. Hey Laos!

It should be said at this point that we did have our passports with us, complete with Thai work permits and Chinese tourist visas. What we most certainly didn’t have was any permission to enter Laos. And certainly no permission to enter at night, illegally.

Our 1st Illegal Country Entry

We figured it was late, dark and no one would see us. So the boat pulled up against the land. The sailors went to sleep.  We grabbed a couple of our beers and jump onto the rocks on the Laos coast for a cheeky beer on the beach. Feeling undeservedly proud of our illegal immigration status in Laos (all 90 minutes of it) we made a silent, triumphant return to our cabin shelves and went to sleep. Little did we know that illegal immigrant status was about to get a lot more serious elsewhere!

Cargo boat to China
Breakfast on the cargo boat

Day 3 on the boat; Finally in China? Nope!

We woke up, and as normal, had breakfast with the crew around 6am on Day 3. Food, on the whole, was delicious. It was my pre-veggie days, so mostly the chef would fish for catfish in the Mekong during the day. Catch it, fry it and it serves it all within an hour of mealtime. Each meal would be served up in different ways and fed to us with rice (and lots of chillies).

Laos to the right, Myanmar to the left
Laos to the right, Myanmar to the left
Laos to the right, Myanmar to the left
We flew the Laos flag as we went through the Laotian section
Thailand to China
We passed countless little villages as we slowly headed north.
Thailand to China
Thailand to China. Whiskey by night, books by day.

Reaching A Port; China or Myanmar?!

Finally, the end was in sight. Or was it? In the distance, I was straining my eyes, convincing myself I saw a port.

Yep, definitely a port. We started to get pretty excited. But it looked tiny. If this was China, how on earth will we get to civilization from here?! We approached the tiny concrete docking area and we saw a flag pole proudly bearing the flag of…… Myanmar. It was now past 2 pm on Day 3 and we were docking here. No China today again I guess. Great.

Thailand to China
The Burmese port
thailand to china
I’m sure the Thailand to China boat was full but let see if we can squeeze an SUV on too

Booze run in Myanmar

The cargo ship docked. No-one told us anything. But we could see them start to move cargo. The loading and unloading was continuing at a not-so-frantic pace and we were stuck on the boat, confused as to what was going on.

The Captain didn’t have to worry himself with manual labour. So within 30 minutes of docking, we could the captain of our boat downing some rice wine. Final confirmation we weren’t going anywhere for the rest of the day or night.

Let’s make the most of it then. Our alcohol had run dry. We had only brought enough for 1 day. We were already on Day 3, and we would clearly be stuck with this boat until tomorrow. So, jackets on and hoods up we went for a covert mission into Myanmar to go to the supply station at the port to stock up on some necessary goods for the rest of the journey…

Some purchases to warm our relations with the crew as we made our way from Thailand to China.

We bought a case of beers for about $5 and headed back to the cargo boat where the sailors had all congregated in the social area. Dusk was coming, they were settling in for the night, and the booze was already beginning to flow freely.

Chilli eating competitions with the crew

Finally, the thaw in the atmosphere between the crew and ourselves began to warm. We started handing our beers, and we made a real breakthrough here. We explained some drinking games with the guys and proceeded to lose in a chilli eating competition. One of the sailors just engulfed the entire tub of raw chillis in one go and laughed at us with our bloodshot eyes and sweat brows. By 9pm, we were all pretty drunk.

Drinking over dinner

Illegally entering Myanmar

This is where things started to go a little array. After dinner together, suddenly the captain summons the crew, apart from one guy who appeared to be told to stay with us, and off the whole crew went. Past the supply stall on the Burmese border and on into the jungle. While Tom, Max and I were left on the boat with one of the sailors. We slowly discovered they had gone drinking in some Burmese port town and we had been told we weren’t allowed to go. Which was fair enough really considering we had no visas, no permission to be there, no right to even by on their boat legally and no idea where to go. So what happened? 

We got the sailor even drunker and convinced him to let us go to town. He was pretty scared as we jumped off the boat and pulled our hoods up to avoid being recognised as foreigners. As we crossed the actual barrier we ordered us to cover ourselves up furthermore in the hope that the armed guard would assume we were Chinese. Retrospectively this was a pretty stupid move, and dangerous too. Anyway, we did it and we got away with it and we suddenly found ourselves in Myanmar – no visas, no passports, and very drunk.

Hoods up, no passports, run!

We turned the corner after the security barriers and started walking the dark further into the jungle. Just then an old SUV drove by us and stopped. He was going to suggest to the Chinese that they could hop in the back of the SUV for a ride to town. When we saw 3 Europeans, he was a little dumbfounded but offered the lift nonetheless. So we clambered in and drove off-road to town. 

10 minutes later and we were in the strangest town that I have ever been in. No real technology whatsoever, all wooden huts, weird fairy lights everywhere and people milling around drunk. A mix of Chinese sailors, smugglers, and Burmese prostitutes. All mingling, singing and drinking together.

Summoned by the Police

Within 1 hour, we were summoned over by a policeman. Oh sh*t.

Getting friendly with the burmese police. Thailand to China had taken a detour.
The Burmese police loved us and desperately wanted to trade IDs

I was legitimately scared. Entering a country illegally is serious business. And this is still when Myanmar wasn’t open to tourists like it is now. This could turn south, fast. He sat down, and through sign-language demanded my passport. Not good.

ID please

He grabs my driving licence, takes out his Burmese Police ID and asks can we swap IDs! Not keen to be caught with someone else’s police ID I politely declined at which point he cracked up laughing. Clicked his fingers at a nearby hut and bellowed something in Burmese. A young girl runs out with 8 beers. 2 for me, 2 for Max, 2 for Tom and 2 for myself. Instantly opened, a big smile and ‘CHEERS’ as he skulled the first beer in 10 seconds flat. Ok, this has gone a lot better than I thought. We sat with them for nearly an hour despite the fact that we didn’t speak each other’s language, dunk our beers, and tried to pay. He wasn’t having any of it. He paid, stood up and started walking deeper into town, beckoning us to follow.

These guys took us deeper into town where the party was really getting started, not once did the craziness of the situation dawn on us that night, we took it in our stride and had a blast. We ended up in a few Karaoke bars drinking Burmese whiskey.

The guy on the right ended up paying for everything for all 3 of us, top dude
Having a blast in Burma, very illegally.

More whiskey, more bars. We stumbled into our 3 Karaoke bar around 1am where ended up bumping into our ‘crewmates’. I was half-expecting them to be furious that we had smuggled ourselves off the boat and across the border. But they were al very drunk and strangely happy to see us! So had some more drinks with them and stumbled back to the boat in the middle of the night. And what a night it was.

Day 4; Still in Myanmar

I woke up, mouth dry and head pounding. That cheap booze really carried a hang-over. When I woke it was around 6am. I was gasping for water but we didn’t have any. I managed to gather my thoughts into a more lucid pattern and thought “Ok day 4, the day we get to China, surely”.

Stil half-drunk the 3 of us finally decided to bite the bullet and shower in our shared bathroom. It had been 4 days since my last shower, it was time to face the horrific toilet. One at a time, we went to the shower room. Switched it on, spluttering out came the muddy water, freezing water straight from the Mekong. I’m not sure I was any cleaner than I was pre-shower. Oh well, I washed away last night’s stink at least.

A drunk captain. Again.

In hope, I went towards the captains quarters to see if he was getting ready to leave port and FINALLY reach China. SHIT SHIT SHIT SHIT. He was drinking again and it wasn’t even 7 am yet!!!

One saving grace this time was that the atmosphere was noticeably different. The crew loved us now, and we had a fun day drinking with them all on the boat once more. By this stage, we didn’t even care about China anymore. What an adventure this is!

The captain letting me have a go

Day turned into night. The booze flowed. We taught them some basic English, and they did the same with Chinese. More Chinese sign language and drinking games, more chilli eating and another crazy evening spent in a Burmese town that, to this day, I have nowhere it was or what the name of it is. Day 4 came and went quickly and was probably the best day of my whole trip.

Day 5 & The Chinese Police

Another groggy hangover. It was maybe 6 am but I’m sure I could feel something. Hear something. Yup, definitely. Chug chug chug. We ARE DEFINITELY moving. Looks like we were on our way. We moved upstream for another few hours until around midday we saw signs of life on the land and finally, thankfully, mercifully, a Chinese flag!!!

We had finally reached from Thailand to China. But we weren’t out of the woods yet. We were hoping to get all the way in Yunan Province, all the way to Kunming. That would be at least another couple of days. but within an hour we were approaching another dock when we heard the sirens.

Our crew were frantically running around the deck. We had never seen them so stressed, and so serious. We were lounging around the deck like normal when they came charging towards us, and ushered us into our cabin, pushed us on the floor and told us to be quiet. This can’t be good.

The police boarded our cargo ship. The crew locked our cabin and the 3 of us sat down in silence. 2 of the crew stood directly outside our cabin so as to attempt to persuade the Chinese police not to bother looking. Raised voices. A bit of shouting. But luckily enough it worked. 5 minutes later they were back on their little armed Policeboat and we were on our way. Kunming here we come!

The moment we realised the Chinese police were boarding our boat

Dropped off in China. But where?!

Kunming? No chance. The crew had been shaken up by the Police Stop. They made it clear we HAD to get off their boat as soon as we reached the next port, no matter where that was. And so we did. We soon were docked, and dropped off and left to fend for ourselves. The middle of nowhere. In a small Chinese village on the bank of the Mekong.

I treasure this last photo with all my heart. Our first steps in China after enduring over 5 days on the cargo boat, it mightn’t have been so bad had we not thought initially it was going to be less than a day. An impromptu trip to Laos, 2 days in Myanmar, too much whiskey to even mention, learning how to count in Chinese and showering in murky Mekong water. As crazy as it sounds, 5 of the best days of my travelling life. Now we finally found ourselves in China, albeit no idea where in China. We found a small shack to stamp our passports and walked a couple of kilometres to town. We slept in a run-down Chinese motel that night. 

The following morning we found a bus moving north. We spent the next 2 days on buses through the South of China until finally, a week after leaving Chiang Mai, Thailand we arrived in Kunming, China. What a week. But we made it. 

Thailand to China Boat
Thailand to China. Our first steps in China, what an experience to get here.

On to Kunming, China

Thailnd to China? We had done it. Kind of. But now we were stranded in a small Chinese village. But how the hell do we get to civilisation from here? It would take another 3 days before we reached Kunming

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