Friday, July 15, 2005

13 Hours on the Mekong River

Our wake up call came a little after 5 am this morning, breakfast was a 5:30, and we left for the boat pier at about 6 am. Our boat is a new, high-speed jet boat that seats up to 66 people (6 across), which made it quite comfortable for our group of 31 plus luggage. We have two stewardesses who served us lunch and sold us snack in the air conditioned compartment. We were also able to go in the back and up on top to take photos when it was not raining.

I think that the biggest surprise has been the large number of rocks in the river. This is the high river season, but we still scratched bottom a couple of times and swayed as we wound our way through rapids in many parts of the river.

We saw a few villages along the way, but not many. The vegetation varied from dense, virgin tropical rainforest to second growth forests and recently cut and burned forests that were now growing dry (non-paddy) rice.

At one point someone yelled out “border” and a bunch of us headed up top to take photos of the first large port-like facility that we encountered on the left side of the boat. We were hoping that this was the Myanmar-China border, which would mean that we were only a couple of hours from our destination, Jinghong. Much later we learned that the port we saw was in Myanmar and was not the border, and that the rapids had slowed our trip down considerable. What can be a 9 to 10 hour trip would probably take us 13 hours.

When we finally did encounter the Laos-China border on the right side of the boat when a crew member came in a yelled “border” in Chinese. All that was there was a very small river and a rock in the water that they said marked the border.

An hour or two later, at about 5:08 pm we arrived at the Chinese port of Guan Lei, which is the official immigration entry port for China on the Mekong River. Fortunately, Mr. Lin was able to convince the immigration officials to come on board the boat to process us, instead of us needing to all get off the boat. They pointed an infrared (?) thermometer to each of our foreheads to check for high temperatures, which is an indicator of SARS.

It took over an hour to clear immigration. The one Hong Kong person on our boat had to get off because they first told her that they did not need her HK Identity Card, just her passport – then they changed her mind. She said that it was interesting watching them as they translated and entered our passport information into their computer.

The boat service that we used started a year ago as the first modern boat for tourism to ply the upper Mekong River. And we were the first large international tour group to take this boat trip and to pass through this port. We were also the first international group to pass through the Shan State in Myanmar on the first fully paved road that from Mengla to Tachilek. When I started organizing this field trip with my Zhongshan University colleagues, they mentioned that the tour company had never done a tour like this. I did not realize that neither had any other tour group done a tour like this.

The photo below shows the back of our boat with the flags of Laos, China, Thailand, and Myanmar (left to right). A hill tribe village lies half-way up the slopes on the right (Myanmar) side of the river.


We never made it to Jinghong by boat. The problem was that it was starting to get dark and boats are not permitted to run on the Mekong after dark because rocks and floating debris cannot be seen. So we stopped before Jinghong and waited for the customs official to come from Jinghong to allow us to disembark. It was a long wait, though once they arrived it went very quickly. We then took a bus to Jinghong – another 40 minutes away.

I was not feeling well during this trip and lay down to nap every time my stomach started hurting – which was quite often. I was exhausted by the time we got to Jinghong and just wanted to get the hotel and to bed. Instead, we were taken to a street lined with very noisy, open air karaoke bars! It was about 10 pm and Dinner was waiting for us behind the karaoke bars. Some complained that they were not hungry and asked if they could just go to the hotel. I asked around and a few others said that they were indeed hungry, so I did not pursue the option of having some people return to the hotel sooner. Actually, after I ate a bit I was feeling a lot better, myself.

Can this tour be packaged and sold to an international market? Yes, i the visa problems can be worked out and if one or two more days are added to the length. It would probably be good to stop overnight, if possible, on the boat ride – or plan on picking people up closer to the China borders, since it is much faster to travel by bus than boat. Those challenges can probably be worked out, so that the next group to do this will not face some of the more frustrating challenges that we experienced.

The problem of the tourism boycott of Myanmar is a different matter. Although the Myanmar government is not moving as fast as many would like, change is taking place. Some 50 political prisoners were released from jail this past week and a trial was begun in Myanmar for former military leader. I do not advocate supporting oppressive (or corrupt or bad in other way) governments anywhere. Unfortunately, I think that they tend to exist everywhere and are difficult to avoid and still live a relatively normally life. As one tour group participant put it, if they were concerned about oppressive governments, they would not have considered traveling to China, let along Myanmar


At July 18, 2005 at 7:36:00 AM MST, Blogger sweetces said...

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At August 4, 2005 at 11:54:00 PM MST, Blogger Pacificgeog said...

You are absolutely right: the trip would probably be enjoyed by many, especially with a little more time so as not to be completely washed out from fatigue. I wouldn't have minded an extra day along the Mekong, if only to give my stomach time to settle, but it was still a wondrous experience, especially the myriad custom stops and searches!

At August 29, 2005 at 12:48:00 AM MST, Blogger Alan A. Lew, The Travel Geographer said...

After I returned to Arizona a friend gave me a copy of the Economist magazine with a special section on Myanmar. According to that article, the army general who I mentioned as being prosecuted for corruption was the head of internal security in Myanmar and had negotiated the peace treaties with warring factions in the region that we had passed through -- the Shan State. Apparently the Myanmar government is pushing hard to disband the separate militaries that flourish in this region, which will likely lead to another period of unrest and instability. So, not only were we the first international tour group to travel through this area, but we may also be the last to do so for quite a while.

At October 15, 2005 at 6:54:00 PM MST, Blogger SiamPhile said...

I will be in Mae Sai next month and would like to go to Jinghong. Do you recommend that I go by bus or by boat on the Mekong. How long would it take for both the options. Thanks & regards.

At October 15, 2005 at 11:56:00 PM MST, Blogger Alan A. Lew, The Travel Geographer said...

Going by bus would be the scenic route -- opposite of what we did on our tour. The road from Tachilek to Kengtung is well established and buses might be more common. The harder part will be from Kengtung to Jinghong. That is a new road with very little traffic. I do not know if there is bus service as all we saw were people riding on the back of trucks. You might be able to hire a car, but that would cost more. There are travel agencies in Tachilek that might help you out.

By land you should give yourself 2 days at a minimum. You can read my blog about the time and issues related to the speed boat. I hear that there is also a slow boat that takes about 2 days.



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