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MEKONG ON A CARGO SHIP: Thailand to China

Getting to China trough the Mekong wasn´t something I was planning when starting my trip, it wasn´t easy either. However it was undoubtedly one of the highlights of it and one of the experiences I enjoyed most. For sure an adventure I won´t forget.


This is how I travelled the Mekong in a cargo ship from Thailand to China, hope you find it useful, inspiring or at least entertaining.

trip from thailand to china
Thailand Lao Myanmar Map Mekong


I was visiting northen Thailand at that time and precisely the area called The Golden Triangle. This area is located where Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet and it´s famous for it`s opium planting past (you can even find a museum focusing on this topic).


Chiang Sean River town

So walking around the riverside of the village of Chiang Sean I saw this old hand painted map picturing all the area. That`s when I realized how close Thailand to China are, and how the Mekong river connects both. So it stuck in my head I wandered for long if it would be possible to actually go from Thailand to China trough the river without even stepping in either Myanmar or Laos.

Then, after visiting Chiang Sean I continued my trip back to the south of Thailand but always dreaming about that trip that would bring me to China up the mitical Mekong river. And after about a month I found a blog (this post) where some guys have lived that adventure. That´s when I realized I was right and the that the trip I had in mind was doable. Without more hesitation I went back and that´s where the adventure began…

Cargo Ship Chinese
Loading Cargo in the Mekong Thailand
The Mekong between Lao and Myanmar

So I came back to Chiang Sean and stayed at a hostel planning to start my research the next morning. I actually talked with the owner of the hostel an got told that my idea was indeed possible and to get to the harbour first thing in the morning to talk to the cargo merchants.

View from Cargo ship

Chiang Sean might look boring to many but I remember it as an interesting river port and meeting point of three fascinating countries.


The river harbour of Chiang Sean is full of cargo boats like the one in the photo (this one would end up being my cosy home for a week). I walked and tried to talk to the all chinese workers trying to ask if they where going to China. Many didn´t understand or told me they weren´t.

Typical chinesse lunch in the boat

However, after lots of asking and the help of a Thai officer from the harbour working as a tra understood and find a boat heading to China that very same day. At the end the deal was still pretty unclear to me as the captain explained that they were heading to China but didn´t know how many days we will need. After heavy bargaining we agreeded.

my room in cargo boat
sailing the mekong
myanmar or burma river harbour

This price included transportation to China with a cabin for myself (the one in the previous photo) and all meals with the other crewmen. The only problem was that it was impossible to know how many days it would take to get to China since the journey could from 3 days up to many more, in the end it turned out to be a 6 nights travel. The price we agreed was around 90$.

unloading cargo in Myanmar

The trip began and the first whole day was up the river seeing the jungle on both banks, Myanmar and Laos. The second day we reached the Myanmar river port in the special region of Shan state.

Shan State Special Region 4, commonly known as Mongla area or Lesser Mongla area, is a special region administrated by Peace and Solidarity Committee (PSC) of Shan State-East. It covers territories of the entire Mong La Township, eastern part of Mong Hpayak Township and to the north borders the northern part of Wa State.

Since its active involvement into casinos and endangered wild-animal trafficking, it has been an issue for the Chinese government. It also sent police cross border to destruct a casino there, under the acknowledgement of Burmese government. This special region is notorious in southwest Yunnan as they send casino advertisement spam SMS to Chinese cellphones. Organized crime used to be common in this region.

Sai Leun maintained a good relationship with Burmese army (Tatmadaw) as the Tatmadaw units benefit financially from it.

views over the southeast asia river

In first night we arrived at the port of Myanmar, the ship’s workers indicated that they would go to the village, of course I joined them. We crossed into border control without any problem since they did not even verify our identity. Once inside Myanmar (obviously I didn´t have legal permission to enter the country since I didn´t have a visa) a 4×4 vehicle picked us up and took us along a mountain road, with thunderous music to a shanty town.

Among all the houses made of wood and pieces of metal stood out this shiny new casino that seemed totally out of place. At the door, well-armed soldiers forbade me from taking photos and accompanied us inside.


Casino in Myanmar for chinese merchants
casino playing in myanmar

When we entered the casino I felt very weird since I was the only westerner and nobody expected it. The casino was full of people of Chinese origin and all the signs were written in Chinese. At that time I was already using an offline location app to travel but being in such a remote area did not work well. All this made me think that maybe I was already in China, and communication with my colleagues was impossible to the point of not knowing which country I was in.

When we entered the casino I saw that everyone was betting a lot of money on a very strange game that no matter how hard I tried I never managed to understand, the money they used was Chinese yuan. Everyone was smoking and gambling nonstop, the captain of my ship was clearly one of those who bet the most and everyone was watching him.

Then the captain and his wife, my guides and companions that night were bored and we went to the «center» of the town where the rest of the people had fun but with much more humble games. We were playing dices and other games in there for a while. Then we went to a kind of garage that the captain and his wife knew, they opened it and it turned out to be a karaoke almost completely dark and only illuminated by christmas lights.

The place was run by 3 women who undoubtedly dedicated themselves to prostitution. They brought us a lot of beers and we were drinking for a long time eating peanuts, the captain’s wife singing at Karaoke and the others chatting while I didn’t understand anything.

A while after and many, many beers later the captain and the woman decided that it was time to go and we rode our 4×4 with the music at maximum volume until we reached the port, it was certainly a very adventurous and unexpected night.

small town in myanmar
Capitain Cabin
knife from crew travelling in thailand

Next day passed calmly that served to recover the body from the excesses of the previous night. I also had my first encounter with border policy that in the following days would not leave me alone. The border military summoned me to the border post to interrogate me and make the captain of my boat sign some papers. Actually, the interaction was quite nice but it was long and I did not know if it would bring me problems due to my absence of visa for Myanmar. After searching my belongings they left me alone. 

In the pictures a knife I exchanged for some american dollars that make the crewmen very excited.

knife present from crew
food in the cargo ship

We killed time playing cards and eating on the boat, in the previous photo a man from another boat cleans a large fish just caught in the river. During the rest of the day we waited for our turn to unload part of the cargo.

playing cards with the crew in the cargo
arriving in a mekong harbour china
Arrival to china

Finally after a week through the Mekong we arrived at gu li port. Throughout the journey we could see the beautiful vegetation on both sides in both Myanmar and Laos. We were able to see animals like monkey, boats of all sizes and small towns to which the ship sometimes delivered packages. Almost half of the trip we were in the port of river of Myanmar that I have mentioned previously.

When I arrived at Gun Li’s port, I went directly to the border office to ask what the process would be to manage the entrance. I had already applied for a visa in the Thai city of Chiang Mai about two weeks before but I needed to report my arrival and have my passport stamped.


Then all the questions that one can imagine began, the police asked me the most unlikely things about me and my trip. They asked me about my background, studies, if I had military training, illnesses, religion and anything random that you can think of. Then they proceeded to an incredibly intensive analysis of all my belongings, photocopied all the documents I had, looked at all the photos on my phone and even analyzed all the SD cards in my camera.

They were kind but the whole process of interrogation was extremely annoying, they let me return to the boat and indicated that the next day I could catch a bus to leave the town and start my trip around China. So I went back to sleep on the boat and say goodbye to the crewmen and the next morning I woke up very early to take a bus that would take me to Jinghong (in the photo). Before I went to the police station as they had indicated the day before, I had a tea and an officer accompanied me to the bus while asking again all kind of questions that would make me feel like a criminal. 

After that the bus left that tiny town lost in the jungle bordering Myanmar and Lao and after several hours I made it to a surprisingly big and touristic (chinese tourism of course) town called Jinghong. You can see the rest of my stories in China here or a video of the full trip here.

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