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Posts Tagged ‘Burma’

Mekhong Di small

We have fantasised for years about taking a cargo boat down the Mekong River from China to Thailand. When we lived in Singapore, back in the day, we knew an old Chinese guy who did the trip regularly to buy jade in Burma. It always seemed like an impossibly romantic trip – and I am an absolute sucker for anything like that. Last year we went up to Chiang Saen in Thailand’s far north to see where the Chinese cargo boats dock. Now we are about to find out if we can get there from this end.

The passenger service has been suspended for the past three years because of an incident involving a Thai General, a large quantity of drugs and the shooting dead of 13 Chinese sailors! But we get some encouragement in Jinghong – you just have to go to the cargo port and ask around.

So we leave the comfort and friendliness of Caffy’s Hostel, saying goodbye to the new friends who shared the Christmas Eve feast, and take the bus to Guan Lei Port.

The bus winds slowly down small roads through wooded hills planted with acres of rubber trees and plantations of banana trees festooned with long plastic bags, like blue ghosts to protect the fruit.

Mekhong start small

Immigration guy sorts us out a boat

Five hours later, we’re dropped off in Guan Lei next to the river. The Port Authority and Customs and Immigration Point is a brand new building with signs for Passport Control, Immigration and what have you but nothing’s happening. It’s totally deserted but for one chap in a smart green uniform who hails us in English. We are definitely encouraged. And with the aid of his phone translation app and my “useful phrases” we get on famously.

“These days there are no passenger boats” This we know.

“There are ships which go to Thailand” Oh good.

“Maybe not today” “What about tomorrow?”

“It depends on the circumstances. You must ask the boat captain” Mekhong boats small

 

 

 

We descend several steep flights of steps to the wide, fast flowing river below, and a scene of fervid activity. There are about 15 cargo boats, some being loaded, some unloaded and some waiting their turn. With the help of by now our favourite customs guy ever we soon find the one which is going to Chiang Saen this very evening.

Now as long as the captain will agree, we are in business. It is conveyed to us that for 500 yuan each including a cabin and food, we can get a lift. It’s not cheap, but we’re not in the mood to argue.

“Are you husband and wife?”

“Your accommodation is being arranged” says his phone screen. Oh Joy!

Teams of what may once have been called “coolies” are loading boxes of Chinese apples from two huge articulated lorries. They are fit and mostly young and although its hard work and the sun is hot, they clearly enjoy it in a gung-ho sort of way. There’s still a hell of a lot of boxes of apples to load so there’s time to look around.

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Lorry loads of Burmese timber

Further along two boats are laden with enormous chunks of timber cut from what must have been huge and ancient trees. These are being lifted by crane onto waiting lorries. Surely this must be breaking all sorts of international laws and agreements about stripping ancient forests from Burma or Laos? The Chinese Customs officers who are everywhere clearly aren’t concerned, even if we are.

Having imagined myself the only female amongst a load of Chinese sailors, I am mightily relieved when a young woman carrying bags of food whizzes up on a motorbike and steps on board. She sets to work in the galley and is clearly the cook. It turns out she’s also the captain’s wife and willingly gets stuck in to securing tarps and ropes. Once the apples are all on board, we formally emigrate from China along with the crew of four- the captain, the cook, engine-room guy and pilot guy. Strangely, at no time at all has anyone so much as looked at our backpacks. If this is such a reputed hotspot for illegal trafficking, I’ve spotted a loophole!

We say “Goodbye” to China at 6.30pm with the hills turning black and the sky pearly white. It’s completely magical and we can’t stop grinning – we’re actually going down the Mekhong!

Before it’s completely dark we pull in and Captain with head torch and machete jumps off to secure the boat for the night. This entails climbing the bank and slashing at jungle branches to find a tree robust enough to rope the boat to.

No sooner is this done than we all sit down to a feast – fried chicken, roast pork, scrambled egg, tomato and cucumber soup (better than it sounds) green veg in oyster sauce, fish soup, and hot chilli sauce. What a Christmas Day! Not much chat though, what with our lamentable Chinese and the noise of the generator.

As long as that’s running, we’ve got lights in our scruffy little cabin but it all goes off at 9.30. The night is very dark and full of strange booming noises whenever the boat rolls with the wind. As soon as it’s light enough in the morning we get going.

Mekhong small 2 Mekhong morning smll

It’s cold and misty for a good 3 hours as we sit up on the bridge watching our progress through wild and empty gorges. In the gorges the river is deep and fast, and there’s more virgin forest on either side than we expected. Elsewhere the river is much wider. The captain and pilot have to pick their way past rocks and shallows. Fortunately, they do this brilliantly. Gradually over the course of the day, the sun breaks through and warms up, boat traffic becomes more frequent and there are more and more signs of habitation on both sides of the river. Laos on the left, Burma on the right. Small herds of buffalo, rubber trees, the odd fisherman, tiny thatched roof stilt houses, barges full of cattle or pigs, low water veg gardens planted in the river banks.

Mekhong village smll Mekhong Jim small

It’s just a perfect day that neither of us wants to end. However everything has to, and at 5pm Burma finally gives way to the north coast of Thailand across a side river. And to confirm it, there’s the “Welcome To The Golden Triangle” theme park with its towering Golden Buddha.

All too soon we have docked alongside the other Chinese cargo boats at Chiang Saen. We clamber over loaded decks, down a wobbly gangplank and onto Thai soil! Now there are just a few bewildered Immigration officers to negotiate and a lift in a Police pick-up 5 miles back upstream to the official Immigration Point (Thank you to another totally helpful Immigration official!) to be properly stamped in.

Cargo boats from Jinghong in south-western China loading up

Back in Thailand

And that’s it, we’ve done it! In many ways much easier and less scary than I imagined, and in many ways so much more exciting and beautiful than I could ever have guessed.

 

 

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Looking down on the Maekhong on the border.

Looking down on the Maekhong on the border.

We’ve just done a big loop of a road trip around the North, much of it along Thailand’s borders.

Mai Sai – we started by driving four hours north of Chiang Mai to Mae Sai – much visited by the expat “border run” brigade as for $10 you can renew your visa – just cross the “Friendship Bridge” to Burma and then immediately turn back into Thailand. We come here for another reason; the market here sells jade and its good and cheap. You can also buy  lots of other things; Burmese tobacco and cheroots, fruit wines of questionable alcoholic content, sequinned marionettes and “kalaga” hangings, loose tea and tea paraphernalia, pen knives, electronics and all the other weird stuff men buy, and the usual market gear.

BIG Buddha looking out to Burma

A VERY BIG Buddha – that’s me at the bottom!

The border between Thailand and Burma here is nothing more than a few feet of water which most people could wade across, but border traffic is non-stop over the bridge during opening hours. In the past, we’ve had to cancel trips to Mae Sai because of “border skirmishes” or Drug -War -Lord action but this seems to have quietened down lately and commerce is allowed full reign.

Just a few yards from the madness of the market place is a quiet riverside neighbourhood where we stay, popping out after dark for a kebab barbequed over a clay pot. A huge white seated Buddha looms on the hillside into Burma. The Thai borders with both Burma and Laos feature “Holier Than Thou” wars : ever more enormous effigies of the Buddha stare at each other from the hillsides.

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If you file under the twin elephants while a man chants you can get some merit

The Golden Triangle – Heading east, we stop for breakfast at the village of Sop Ruak or “Golden Triangle” as it seems to have taken to calling itself. From the river bank you can gaze at both Burma and Laos at the point where the Mae Khong River arrives in Thailand. To commemorate this fact, you may take a boat ride to land (and do some shopping, of course) in all three countries.

You can also have your photo taken at all kinds of photo opportunity attractions; an enormous golden Buddha, a couple of gigantic plaster elephants, a sign saying “The Golden Triangle” or indeed at the Hall of Opium. Nearby are some benches “Donated by United States Drug Enforcement Administration Royal Thai Police Narcotics Suppression Bureau Sensitive Investigative Unit Bangkok” Catchy title.  As Jim grumpily commented, They’ve constructed an entire tourist economy on the old opium trade but just try buying some now!

Chiang Saen – On to Chiang Saen, a quiet town on the Maekhong where you can get a passenger ferry all the way to Jinghong in southern China. A few small Chinese cargo boats are in but Chiang Saen seems to be gearing itself up in a big way for a flood of foreign tourists. There are brand new, as yet unopened passenger terminals and immigration

Cargo boats from Jinghong in south-western China loading up

Cargo boats from Jinghong in south-western China loading up in Chiang Saen

offices on the quayside. So what’s going on? I have seen quite a few “Thai Border Police. Ready to ASEAN 2015” signs on our travels near the Burmese borders lately and wondered what they meant – now it’s time I found out.

ASEAN (the Association of South East Asian Nations) was formed in 1967 and aimed to be a sort of Asian version of the European Union. It’s an economic bloc of 10 member states which is planning to get closer. In 2015 the aim is to allow goods and services to pass freely between each of the countries, for professional and skilled workers (please note) to be able to work anywhere in the union and for tourists from each country to visit without a visa.

The Thais seem to be busy putting in the infrastructure to aid this new development. A second “Friendship Bridge” has been built a few miles from Mae Sai for large lorries to and from Burma, and Chiang Saen is clearly expecting more tourism from Laos and China. And as we soon find out, the former country road which meanders along the river and over the mountains from Mae Sai to Chiang Khong is being widened to a totally inappropriate dual carriageway. Just like in China, the road is being built piecemeal so that a few hundred yards of smooth tarmacked road is followed by a few hundreds yards of potholed old road, followed by a few hundred yards of dust-choked nightmare, all the way along

 ASEAN - its everywhere

ASEAN – its everywhere

for mile after mile.

Chiang Khong – Hot, dusty and frazzled, we get to Chiang Khong – a little town strung out along the banks of the Mae Khong and a place where foreigners can cross the river and emigrate into Laos. It has the feel of a border town. Here too, there is a new border post and a new “Friendship Bridge” to take freight between Thailand and Laos (and ultimately China) A “Chiang Khong New City” of brand new, as yet unlived in offices and apartments is being built and somehow it feels as if China is calling the shots.

So what does it all mean? Already there are cars with Chinese number plates in Chiang Mai, Asian tourism is vastly increasing anyway and that will only continue what with the numerous budget airlines like Air Asia (slogan: Now Everyone Can Fly!) and new international highways being built. One thing I am sure of is that life will not be made any easier for the stateless refugees and hill-tribe people of Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Burma.

These border regions have a long history of being settled by people arriving from other places – usually forced to move by war, oppression and poverty. It’s a place of safety. There are the Mon, Akha, Shan and Karen from Burma, the Yao, the H’mong, the Wah and even little outcrops of Kuomintang coming from China, and the Tai Lu, Lahu and Lisu  on the Laos borders. As you reach each village, you can look around for the small clues which show which people live there; the clothes on a washing line, the style of the roofs, a loom under the house, red lanterns hanging at a front

Those skirts mean its got to be a H'mong village

Those skirts mean its got to be a H’mong village

door. It’s a fascinating region full of people without a country of their own, who are in many ways treated as second class, without the same rights as the “real” nationals. The “hill tribes”seem to be viewed here in the same way many Brits view Romanian or Bulgarian immigrants.

It seems to me that ASEAN’s Governments are keen to make money by dissolving boundaries on their own terms, but if everyone had the same freedom to disregard borders and make their home wherever they wish, they wouldn’t be so happy.

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