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It was the evening of our 2nd day on the 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 coming rather close to land..

Breakfast on the cargo boat

It should be said at this point that we did have our passports with us, complete with Thai work permits and Chinese tourist visas in expectation of our arrival, what we most certainly didn’t have were any permission to enter Laos… at night… illegally… We figured it was late, dark and noone would see us. So the boat pulled up against the land, the sailors went to sleep and we nipped over to Laos 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 shelves and went to sleep. Little did we know that illegal immigrant status was about to get a lot more serious elsewhere!

We woke up, and as normal, had breakfast with the crew around 6 am on Day 3. Food on the whole was delicious, most of it was catfish, caught from the Mekong an hour before meal time, then served up in different ways and fed to us with rice (and lots of chilli).

Day 3 – at last we would be arriving in China and getting off this bloody boat! Or so we naively thought….

We were going up stream through the Mekong river and it was slow progress. The scenery was still jaw-dropping and the novelty of the entire ordeal still held is luster but, it the back of mind, i couldnt help but think when we’re we going to reach China?! As we meandered on up the Mekong all morning as Max, Swede and I zoned out…

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, where the hell did we go next. We approached the tiny concrete docking area and we saw a flag pole proudly bearing the flag of…… Burma. It was now past 2pm on Day 3 and we were docking here – wtf?!

The Burmese port
I’m sure the boat was full but let see if we can squeeze a SUV on too

The loading and unloading was continuing at a not-so-frantic pace and we were pretty much stuck on the boat, confused as to what was going on. Although when we saw the captain of our boat downing some rice wine we pretty much knew we weren’t going any where for the rest of the day or night! So, jackets on and hoods up we went for a covert mission into Burma to go to the supply station to stock up on some necessary goods for the rest of the journey…

Some purchases to warmer our relations with the crew

We bought some beers for about $2 and headed back to the cargo boat where the sailors had all congregated in the social area and the booze was flowing freely. We made a real break through here, playing drinkin games with the guys, having a chilli eating competition (which we lost comprehensively when 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)

Drinking over dinner

This is where the story gets a little crazy – we all got drunk over dinner and were having a great time when suddenly the captain summons the crew, apart from one guy who appeared to be told to stay with us, and off they went. Past the supply stall on the burmese border and on into the jungle. While Swede, Max and I were left on the boat with one of the sailors. We slowly discovered they had gone drinking in some Burmese town and we had been told we weren’t allowed to go, 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 we went.

The sailor was pretty scared and as we crossed the actual barrier we ordered us to cover ourselves up 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 after we turned the corner, we were walking to the Burmese town! We hitched a ride with some dude in a van who was very confused when he pulled over and saw us!!

10 minutes later and we were in the strangest town, to this day, that I have ever been in. No real technology whatsoever, all wooden huts, weird fairy lights everywhere and people milling around drunk! Must have been about 8pm, it wasn’t long before we were summoned over by a policeman :S

Getting friendly with the burmese police
The Burmese police loved us and desperately wanted to trade IDs

Crazily, the Burmese policeman loved us and ended up buying us drinks, we sat with them for nearly an hour despite the fact that we didn’t speak each others language – don’t you just love travel πŸ™‚

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

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

We ended up bumping into our crew mates, 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: Wake up 6am again, I managed to gather my thoughts into a more lucid pattern and thought – ok day 4, the day we get to China, surely! Probably half drunk the 3 of us finally decided to bite the bullet and shower in our shared bathroom, on went the shower cap and out came the muddy water – straight from the Mekong lol. Oh well, washed away last night’s stink at least. I went towards the captains quarters to see if he was getting ready to go, SHIT SHIT SHIT SHIT. He was bloody drinking again and it wasn’t even 7am yet!!! The atmosphere was noticeably different and the crew loved us now, to be honest, we didn’t even care about China anymore – this was one of the greatest experiences of my life!

The captain letting me have a go

So what do u do when you’re in Rome? And that’s what we did, chewed the fat with the Chinese using sign language and drinking games, more chilli eating and another crazy evening spent in a Burmese town that, to this day, I have no where 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 – 6am, chug chug chug. Looks like we were on our way!! We moved up stream for another few hours until around midday we saw signs of life on the land and….. a Chinese flag!!! We had finally reached China, an hour later we were approaching another dock when we heard the sirens. Our crew were frantically running around the deck when they came charging into our cabin, pushed us on the floor and told us to be quiet!

The moment we realised the Chinese police were boarding our boat

The police boarded, 2 of the crew stood directly outside our cabin so as to attempt to dissuade the Chinese police not to bother looking…. luckily enough it worked and 5 minutes laters they were back on their quaint little (armed) Policeboat and we were on our way. PHHHHHHEEEEEEEW

The back of our beloved cargo boat

We soon were docked, dropped off and left to fend for ourselves – see you later boat, it’s been fun.

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

I treasure this last pic 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 Burma, too much whiskey to even mention, learning how to count in Chinese and showering in murky Mekong water – as funny as it sounds, 5 of the best days of my traveling life.. now we were in a town called Guan Lee where I honestly think we may have been the first white people there for a long, long time (ever?)

 

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26 thoughts on “Traveling Cheap – the boat from Thailand to China contd…

  1. Great tale, fellow Irish guy here, coming up on 3 years in Asia, currently traveling in Thailand, in Pai at the mo… was researching an alternative way back to China… that didn’t involve busses… such a pity the boat trips been canceled…

      1. Should be in BK tomorrow Johnny, getting a bus from Chiang Mai. Gonna stay 1 night, then off to an Island… was thinking of a quiet end of Koh Phangnan, but Koh Phayam looks nice after reading your article… but, not sure if its suited to a solo traveler… is it full of couples?

    1. The Tianda speedboat has been discontinued. According to the owner of Mekong Cafe in Jinghong it has become far too dangerous with boats being fired upon from Burma. Apparently one was sunk a couple of months back. The people in the office at Tianda Shipping, Jinghong Harbour also said it is unlikely to be re-started. Most people travel by bus these days since a new highway with tunnels under the mountains has been constructed to the Lao border. The bus trip from Luang Namtha to the border is very spectacular but unfortunately for us the return trip from Jinghong to Luang Prabang was a 1 hour flight rather than 3 days on river boats.

      1. thanks for the comments katie and chris!

        yep, this is definitely authentic πŸ˜›

        chris, cheers for the update mate – it’s a shame you can’t take the boat but i guess cargo boats still ply their trade πŸ˜›

  2. Great story. Been doing research on the trip. Be doing it ourselves in a couple of weeks – can’t wait. The passenger speedboats have been running for years and do the trip in 13 hours for about 4000thb. However there are some reports that it actually takes two days sometimes – with a complimentary hotel stay in the town where you boys were dropped off. Here’s a link from a Sydney newspaper from 2009.

    http://www.smh.com.au/travel/activity/cruises/whirlwind-on-the-river-20090813-ejw4.html

    We’re a married couple well into our 50’s. we did the slow boat from chiang Khong to Luang Prabang last year and it was the best tripever. Souns like we might be going one better.

    1. hey chris, there was no tourist boat in my day here, that’s for sure!! cargo boats all the way πŸ˜› good luck with your trip, i’d love to hear how it is now – keep me posted please mate =)

  3. Haha this is an incredible story! I’m just trying to imagine what the crew was thinking when 3 white guys approach them wanted a ride on there dinky boat all the way to China. You’ve shared this story with the world I wonder how many people they’ve told, I can just imagine it will go down as Mekong river sailor legend! Nice one, you guys are pretty damn courageous I must say, kudos for your adventurous spirit! πŸ˜€

  4. Nice one! sounds like good old backpacking. Came across your story when looking into ways of doing the reverse. In China now and looking to head to Thailand overland. Not sure if it can be done, but seeing that we speak some Chinese and zero Thai maybe we are on the same level.

    If you have some tips please contact me

    1. Hey Olli, yeah this was one crazy trip!! I actually heard a rumour that they are official passenger ferries running this route now – did u see anything about that?

      1. Hey, yes – there seems to be a general crackdown on people taking boats on the Mekong on that route. Enforced by China. My suspicion is that the local power that be, decided it be good to make money and hence there is now a ferry service. If its anything like the service described here:

        http://www.mekongcafe.cn/xishuangbanna%20china%20travel%20by%20boat%20to%20Thailand.html

        then I think I pass – not really interested in being put in a enclosed environment (read airconditioned speed boat). Awaiting an answer from Mekong Cafe on the cargo ship option…

        1. is that a company who offer cargo ship ‘tickets’?! none of that in my day mate! it cost me 1000 baht i think for the 5 or 6 days – awesome experience. Good luck and keep me posted (good call on the A/C speed boat, where’s the fun in that :P)

        2. You were among the last people,Chinese ornot,who were allowd to arrange such an independent trip on a Chinese cargo boat between Thailand and China,because in 2007 it stopped being allowed.Even though it wasn’t until a couple of years later that a Chinese cargo boat came under attack and sailors were killed,the trip was considered too dangerous by Chinese authorieties by 2007. There was a one day trip on a Chinese “speed ferry” available between JingHong China and Thailand,and quite worth the price,about $100USD+.It only takes about 7 hours,and the scenery is still spectacular if you sit outside.Its a small boat with about 18 or 20 passengers or so. You can buy an actual ticket legally.IF YOU DO FIND A CHANCE TO GO ON A REAL CHINESE CARGO BOAT,DO IT!!! Probably easier to get on in Thailand and go to China than the other way,but I don’t think it is allowed anymore.

  5. Fascinating story. I hope none of your Thai, Burmese, or especially Chinese friends get in trouble. Would be easy to track down these people from your pics if the authorities were alerted, and wanted to. And you guys might not be able to enter China again.

    1. hey Belinda,

      thanks for reading. Yeah crazy times eh! happy to make it out alive lol. Im in Sudan at the moment, waiting for a boat to egypt so it’s bringing back a lot of memories!!

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