Stowaway on the Slowboat to China…

It’s a scarcely known fact that one can travel directly from Thailand to China without the aid of a flying mobile. How? Check out a map. See that thick blue line that separates Myanmar and Laos? For centuries boats have been using the Mekong river as major trading route between China and Thailand. And on a much smaller degree, travellers and stow-aways have been using it as a transport link.

This notion of reaching China via the Mekong satisfied my environmental tendencies and intrigued my backpacking spirit. Internet research proffered two options: boarding a passenger ferry (taking about eight hours) or a cargo boat, taking anywhere from two to four days. But the info I found was scant. Both types of boat left from the Thai port town, Chiang Saen. It seemed that athough travellers had caught Chinese cargo boats in the past, it was now banned by local authorities. Furthermore, the passenger boat now ran sporadically these days too. With my Thai visa due to expire soon, I called up a guest house in Chiang Saen that could organise tickets for the passenger boat. There was one leaving just a couple of days before my ‘get out of Thailand’ date. The lady on the phone said I better catch that as there wouldn’t be another one for a month!

IMG_1681From China to Thailand by boat….. Perhaps?

After hitchhiking from Chiang Mai (hitchhiking was a phase I was going through) I arrived in Chiang Saen in the afternoon and checked into a guesthouse. At a nearby coffee shop facing the Mekong, I mentioned to a fellow coffee drinker and local resident, that I was due to catch the passenger boat in a couple of days but that what I’d really like to do was take a cargo boat. “That’s possible” he said. “But it may not be so nice for you. It will just be you and the Chinese crew. Also it can take a long time and isn’t even much cheaper. Better you take the ferry.” But he’d unwittingly aroused my intrepid traveller ego. So my new friend, Jo accompanied me down to the port. Massive cargo boats were being loaded with food stuff headed for China. Neither of us could speak Chinese but Jo chatted with a Thai who seemed to have some clout at the dock, and who said that it would be possible for me to take a cargo boat due to leave – tomorrow! What luck!

After cancelling my passenger boat ticket I chatted with David, the elderly Chinese proprietor of my guesthouse and Eric, an American man who lived in Chiang Saen. Eric seemed to spend his time cycling around the small town centre and stopping to talk to anyone who’d listen. I saw him several times in my short stay and every time he had forkfuls of advice ready to give: eat here, order this, don’t walk down the back sois, and DO NOT take the cargo boat. Eric is one of those older men that you meet who have resigned from their life back home in order to chill out in Asia. Nothing wrong with that. But unfortunately they often appear to have lost the art of normal social interaction (if they ever actually had it). They think that you’re someone to talk at rather than someone to talk with and you find yourself talking really fast at any gap between their two hour monologues so that you can say something uninterrupted.

IMG_1660Too late Eric… this would be my transportation from Thailand all the way to China!

When I informed David and Eric that I was taking a cargo boat and that someone I’d met was helping me, they seemed dubious and suggested I go to a travel agents to rebook the passenger boat. “Listen, this is Asia. Bad things can happen. We just don’t want anything to happen to you.” I thanked them for their concern and assured them that if anything seemed amiss then I’d get in touch with their travel agent friend.

Jo had advised me to be ready to leave in the morning. “You may have to wait around but it’s better to be ready as soon as they call. I knew a French couple who were late for the boat. The crew left without them and they had to pay for another small boat to catch up with it.” He also knew of another couple who decided to actually sleep on the boat because they didn’t know when it would leave!

I was showered and dressed by 9am, my heavy bag waiting by the hostel door laden with snacks. Next to that sat another bag dedicated solely to snacks. Jo didn’t know if they would feed me on the boat so I’d bought packets of noodles and – in true sailor fashion – biscuits upon biscuits. If anything, all the methane I’d be expelling from these wheaty delights, would help the boat to travel faster. With no word by 10am, I decided to go and get a proper breakfast. At 12 o’clock I went to buy more snacks. At 1 o’clock I took my laptop back to the café. I’d heard Facebook is banned in China so I thought now was a good time to update my photos from the last year of travel and reply to all those outstanding messages and wall posts. two coffees, a slice of coconut cake, and three album uploads later there was still no word from our boat guy. Eventually my phone rang. It was Jo. He broke the news: the boat was the ‘last in line’ to load at the dock, it probably wouldn’t finish loading until after 5pm when immigration closed. Therefore we’d leave tomorrow.

IMG_1629Loading the dock, hard work. 

The next day it was pretty much the same deal. Jo had word that the boat would be ready to leave around 2pm. As I came out of my room in the morning, Eric turned up at the guest house. “So you didn’t get the cargo boat?” He asked.

“I’m just waiting to hear but it will probably go later today.” I replied.

He tried to convince me to do away with this reckless idea and get the passenger boat. “The price difference is minimal, it’s way faster, the food’s better and you’ll be safe. The cargo boat really isn’t a good idea.” When I questioned his heavy suspicion, Eric took a sigh. “Listen. You’ll be on your own with 12 Chinese men. These guys live on the boat.” I continued to stare at him blankly. Eric realised he had to spell it out to me. “These. Are not. Grade. A. guys.” Eric had obviously been on the road so long he’d lost his spirit of adventure. Some people are such Debbie Downers!

I was a little surprised when, at 11:30am as I was walking to the post office to deliver the 10 postcards I’d written in the coffee shop, my phone rang. It was Jo. “The boat is leaving, you have to come now!” I ran back to the hostel (stopping to panic purchase bananas on the way) where Jo was sat in his car waiting to race me to the port.

I counted that there had to be about 40 men working around the boat. Where will we all sleep, out on the deck? Are they Thai or Chinese? During my musings I realised that ‘The Captain’ was strolling off. My eyes followed him into a car which he pulled out into the road and drove off in. I’d lost him already! He was probably going to immigration now. I routed around in my bag for my passport and made frantic ‘passport stamping’ gestures at one of the men who was overseeing the loading. He shook his head and in return made a gesture I took to mean “later, after the boat’s been loaded.” I allowed myself to relax a little.

IMG_1624Getting ready to go- the crew hard at work loading all that cargo.

Finally ‘Captain Stripy-top’ returned and joined some men outside the office. I sat up straight and tried to position myself so that I could keep an eye on him. I wasn’t going to make the mistake of losing him again. Eventually the trucks were empty and I was motioned to get on the boat. I was surprised that the captain remained chatting outside the office. But on board the boat I saw another man in a stripy top and realized that I’d been shrewdly watching the wrong guy for the last 30 minutes! As our boat pulled out of the dock I wondered if they’d even take me to immigration. Was I being trafficked? I also saw that there were actually only seven men on board and that the 30 others carrying the coke and gas weren’t actually going to be making the journey to China. Visions of us all stringing up hammocks and singing sailor songs under the stars disappeared.

IMG_1933My crew mates… ready for a couple days cruising down the river!

Unsure what to do with myself I went upstairs to rearrange all my snacks and enjoy the view. A couple of minutes later we pulled back in at other dock down the river. I was just munching through my bag of sticky rice and wondering what was happening now, when one of the crew (let’s call him ‘Tash’ since he had a slight upper lip adornment) approached me with an ‘eating food’ motion “Chur Fan”. From my stint teaching in Hong Kong I recognized “fan” as ‘rice’ or ‘meal’ and followed him downstairs to where the rest of the crew were sat around a small wooden table laden with bowls of steaming vegetables. I was given a bowl of rice and chopsticks. After a few unsuccessful attempts to serve myself some slippy cabbage, a spoon was thrust in my direction. I nodded my thanks and tucked in with gusto. The crew ate in silence. The food was delicious. I couldn’t believe my luck. As meals were finished, the men chucked remains overboard, rinsed out the bowls from a tap at the side and took them to the kitchen. However, the chef wouldn’t let me do this myself and took my empty bowl off me. Who says sailors don’t have any manners? I was being treated like a lady!

As lunches were digesting, a guy in a clean polo shirt, who’d been supervising the cargo loading (I’ll call him ‘Doc’ as he managed all the ship’s documents) gestured for me to follow him and made the fist pumping into an open palm gesture that I’d made myself earlier, the “passport stamping” gesture. I followed him off the boat and to the immigration office. It was all very easy and simple and the Thai immigration officer bid me farewell. Back at the boat, Toyota land-cruisers were now being added to the cargo using strategically positioned planks to drive the cars on board. Around 2:30pm, with 1000s of coca-cola cans, 100s of bottles of gasoline, 6 Toyotas, 7 Chinese crew and one backpacker we were finally ready the leave. I took my position on a chair on the upstairs deck and watched the buildings of Chiang Saen pass away, soon replaced by lush jungle.

IMG_1652Always got those mountains to gaze out over, even when boat life is a little slow. 

My immediate impression was that this was one clean crew. They all took off their shoes to enter the boat’s living quarters and donned a clean pair of slippers inside. One of the younger guys noticed me struggling in and out of my tightly laced Converse trainers as I alternated between the inner and outer deck. A few minutes later he approached me with a pair of wet, soapy slippers that were to be mine for the rest of the trip. In fact, this was an incredibly clean crew. They were always emerging wet haired from the small shower room and scrubbing their laundry in plastic tubs on the top deck. One lad seemed to have several wardrobe changes a day. Only showering once and doing no laundry at all, I was obviously the dirtiest on board!

Not only were they a sanitary crew but incredibly polite and thoughtful. Thankfully, and I’m sure not for the first time, Eric’s opinion was completely off the mark. On being shown my own small room – with bunks enough to fit four sailors – I later saw Tash go in to change the bed sheets for me. Ten minutes later, I was sat rearranging my snacks when he entered with a small bottle of aftershave and proceeded to spray my sheets and then into my rucksack and a little bit on me. I’m sure P&O cruise passengers don’t even receive this kind of service!

This consideration extended to food and beverage. The boat had a supply of M150 energy drinks on board. Personally, I can’t stand the stuff. It tastes like rancid pineapple juice and nail varnish mixed with sugar and too much gives me a shaky leg. But more than my dislike, is my desire to please. So when one of guys handed me a can, rather than mimicking gagging and having an epileptic fit, I accepted and took a miniscule sip. My inability to say “no thank you” came as a downfall at dinner. I’m a vegetarian, but not knowing how to communicate that in Chinese and feeling very shy, I tried to pick just out the vegetables. Noticing that I was missing the best part of every dish the Chef selected the most grizzled and hairiest chunks of meat from each bowl and proudly placed them into my own. Let’s just say it was a long, chewy meal for me.

IMG_1631Lunch is served. 

A mahjong table took pride of place in the upstairs living quarters – where I was spending most of my time staring out of the window and trying to fathom my mandarin phrase book – and I wondered if the crew’s evening entertainment was spent gambling and downing shots of rum. I deliberated whether I would join them; feigning interest in and chuckling at the game, maybe doing a few shots of rum and M150 myself, or retreat to my quarters and stare out into the inky blackness, listening to the ruckus of sailors having fun into the night. However, come 8.30pm when the dinner plates had stacked, the crew were washed and the night was pitch black, the men retreated, presumably exhausted, to their beds. The engine was off and the night felt completely still. Silence. It was so black that when I woke to go to the loo some time in the night it took a lot cautious treading and feeling my way down stairs to find door and not to put my foot down the hole in the floor that acted as a privy.

The boat’’s engine spurred to life at 4:30am accompanied by sounds of activity. We were off. 4:30am seemed a little too early for me to arise so I stayed in bed till 7am then went downstairs to see what was for breakfast. Noodles! I sat staring into the distance as I slurped down a massive, steaming bowl then, satiated, went to sit on the top deck and continue where I’d left off staring. One of the youngsters found me and made an eating notion. I nodded and smiled enthusiastically whilst mimicking him. He left, and returned minutes later with a new bowl of noodles. “Oh, thanks!” Of course, rather than communicating that I’d already eaten and was stuffed, I accepted the bowl and rediscovered a new capacity for noodles in my stomach. By my accounts, I was eating double anyone else on the boat and doing fifty times less activity.

I was on the boat for a total of two nights and three days. There was nothing to do except my Chinese studies and sit on the deck watching the muddy brown surface of the Mekong and staring into the lush jungles of Laos on one side and Myanmar on the other. Occasionally I’d spot signs of human life – a solitary hut, or a man and woman farming on steep hills, but it felt as though we were completely alone with no one to document our passing. Time passes very slowly when one is sat on a boat with no one to talk to, and the hours merged into one another separated only by meal times. In Chiang Saen I’d purchased a small notebook had hoped that through some miracle of osmosis, by copying out the contents of my phrasebook, I’d acquire some Chinese. The young guy who’d plied me with M150 spotted the Chinese script in my book and sat next to me, reading out the words. A friendship was born!

IMG_1934And where shall we go next?

Later in the second full day, a change in engine level alerted me to the fact we were slowing down. I looked over the boat rails to see a mass of other boats parked around a port. We’ were in China! I returned to my room and started to pack my bags up, deciding to leave some packets of noodles as a souvenir to the room’s next residence.

After some waiting and hanging round deck, my attention settled on the “Shan Checkpoint” sign and it slowly dawned on me we were in not China, but Myanmar. There were about 15 boats of varying sizes. I was mesmerized by the sight of three wirey, strong and topless Burmese men using long pieces of bamboo to steer their small wooden boat into the port and protect it from getting crushed by our giant of a vessel. I leaned overboard with my camera aimed, to close in on these Adonis like specimens, only to be interrupted by a clapping. Doc waved his hands and shook his head at me. It seemed photography was not appreciated round here and I reluctantly replaced the lens cover.

IMG_1630From Thailand all the way to China, we finally arrive. 

It was after lunch of day three that we joined a host of other cargo-boats anchored at the Chinese port in Guan Le. Before we reached the port, the chef knocked on my door and made the thumb-rubbing-index-finger, international hand gesture for ‘pay up’’. The fee was 500RMB (about 2500baht). At the port, two young police officers came on board to scrutinise passports and check our bags for illicit goods. The female officer spoke a little English and told me I was very brave to be travelling alone. She also informed me the boat was stopping here and not continuing to Jinghong as I’d thought. It was time for this stowaway to bail out. My departure from the crew was unemotional. I guess they’d had their share of good-byes, so longs and see you laters to last them a life time. No room for sentiment on the sea (or river). I gravely bowed to the Captain as he lounged in a hammock and bid him “Xie-xie” before one of the guys  lugged my hefty backpack over his shoulder and escorted me to the immigration office. It was time to enter China.

About the Author: Written by Penny Atkinson. 80’s quiz mixer, hitchhiker, spontaneous naturist, occasional vegan, identity stealer, and all around great girl!

7 thoughts on “Stowaway on the Slowboat to China…”

  1. Woah! If I only knew this was possible! Only when I hitchhiked from Laos to China and got a lift from a man who owned cargo ships that sailed down from China to Thailand, I realized I missed a great adventure!

    Thanks for sharing this story!

  2. paul | walkflypinoy

    Amazing story this! The kind of intrepid travel tale that gnaws at me until I do it, too. I actually did some research on this route last year but was discouraged by a news story involving murder in the high seas, well, high rivers. So I took the wimpy way out and flew to Kunming. Now that I know that it’s possible. Let’s see then.

  3. Fani Sakantani

    Me ,,,,no way……train is o.k ,or if i do this trip by boat i must have my man with me.

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