Travelling from China down into Thailand, through the rocky rapids of the Mekong is one of the few great river journeys that most tourists still do not know about. This remote section of the Mekong River is one of the lesser-known overland routes out of the country. Departing from Yunnan’s lowest and southernmost port, it winds its way like a rushing blue ribbon, squeezed in between the rocky riverbanks of Laos and Myammar, until it emerges at Thailand’s notorious Golden Triangle. This is an intersection that has long hosted all kinds of illicit activities -- from drugs and human trafficking to weapons smuggling and the sale of rare species. This area has always been a hot spot for bandits and outlaws, but the region gained worldwide notoriety in 2011, when two Chinese cargo ships were attacked by ruthless river pirates, and the route was quickly closed down to all further traffic.
There are a number of different versions about what actually happened. China very clearly stated its view of events in the 2016 action movie Mekong Operations, which quickly became one of the country’s highest-grossing films, with a box office revenue of more than a billion Renminbi. These days river traffic has resumed normal service, but the river is still extremely regulated, with access to the wharf and boats blocked off and a strict customs and immigration staff checking everyone and everything.
The new passenger boats are much more comfortable than the refurbed rocket ships that used to ply this route. The old boats were noisy hydrofoils bought second-hand from Vietnam, and were completely enclosed, but still gave little protection from the awful din. These days the open decked boats are a little larger, maybe 40 metres long with two well-maintained Cummins engines. A very high level of nautical skill is required for a journey like this. The Master is a very experienced river pilot and he needs to be absolutely on-the-ball, steering through some very dangerous spots for the full ten hours. It is only for about the last two hours that the river widens out and the danger is reduced. This is a very fast and narrow waterway with the constant complication of commercial boats coming up the river, which can only allow passing during a limited amount of time. This coordination of traffic is very well achieved with basic radio comms but the margin of error for the voyage is pretty slim.
Therefore, this route is highly recommended for fit and healthy adults but not recommended for kids, pensioners and non-swimmers. There is plenty of all the right safety gear onboard, but the river is so fast that the time between hitting the rocks and ending up in the water would mean that most people would not have a chance to get to it and put it on. The river runs at about 10 knots and the boat goes about 5 or more knots, so the result is an exhilarating ride especially through the rocky narrows. Even in the dry season with the river at a very low level, it is easy to imagine what it must be like to blast through those narrow gaps when the monsoon has turned it into a torrent. You can see from the debris stuck on the top of some prominent rocks that during the peak of the rainy season the level rises 6-10 metres above the current level.
This is what one of our recent customers had to say about the trip.
“The trip down the Mekong from Guanlei port in China to Chiang Saen in Thailand is a sensational adventure and I recommend it to anyone who likes a 10-hour exhilarating boat ride down a wild river in the middle of nowhere. I cannot recommend WOY Travel and Melanie and the river journey highly enough.”
Ross Ainsworth - Tripadvisor
Once you arrive in Xishuangbanna, we will make sure that everything goes exactly to plan. This means polite drivers who all arrive on time, hotel staff to assist you in transferring from the hotel to the Chinese Immigration then onto the river boat at the Mekong port in China and even staff at the Thailand immigration port to assist you on entry to Thailand at Chiang Saen. During the low water season, passengers have to transfer to the border port of Guanlei, but even this is a smooth a painless process with our extensive regional contacts. Be prepared for some looks of amazement when hotel staff and immigration officials see that your first point of entry was Guanlei, rather than Beijing of Shanghai. Best of all, PayPal makes inclusive online payment a very smooth and simple process.
The immigration entry at Chiang Saen is also very official, but well organised and efficient. From here you can visit the various drug related museums in the Golden Triangle and cross over the river to experience an authentic Laotian market. There is the luxurious Paradise Casino on the Burmese side of the border and then the real wild east gambling dens of the 10,000-square metre “Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone” on the Laos side. The Chinese-owned the Kings Romans Casino Complex is topped by a giant golden crown that bursts into view from a sleepy Laotian river bank. Open seven days a week, 24 hours a day, it receives a steady stream of Chinese gamblers who have made their way south with pockets and briefcases filled with cash. Some observers say the SEZ has now become a place to wash dirty money from China as well as local criminal networks. The casino owner is Chinese national Zhao Wei, a man who made his name in the drug-lands of Myanmar's north, where the fearsome Wa tribe continue to dominate the production of methamphetamines. Alongside gambling, a whole host of other bacchanalian industries including a myriad massage parlours, have sprung up to cater to punters looking to play away from prying eyes in their homelands.
If you prefer to stay in laid back Chiang Saen, enjoy a hotpot dinner on the Mekong embankment or explore the ruins of the fortified old city. Chiang Saen is one of the most charming towns in Northern Thailand, and one of the least visited. From here you can take an open-air public bus through the tropical hills down to Chiang Rai, and then onto Chiang Mai. It certainly beats the hell out being cramped up on another Air Asia flight, and arriving at Don Muaeng in the wee hours of the morning.
Individual boat ticket sales price: 120 USD
At the moment, the boat leaves from the border port of Guanlei rather than Jinghong and so a private car transfer is necessary to get down to the boat embarkation point. This usually involves an overnight stay for an early morning start.
Package price per person:
- Boat ticket
- Hotel at Guanlei port
- Private transportation from Jinghong to Guanlei port, 5 seats car (hotel/airport pickup)
1 person: 428 USD
2 persons: 275 USD
3 persons: 240 USD
Add Kunming airport drop-off 5 seats car: 60 USD
We can also book flights to Xishuangbanna
Make sure you have passport copies for customs at the border:
Main page, visa and China entry stamp