Pamela MacNaughtan

Travelling to China from Northern Thailand may not be the cheapest option, but it is unique in its rarity.  It’s so rare that most locals outside of Chiang Rai and Chiang Saen are not aware of the boat existence. This can make it difficult, especially since a lot of the information online is a few years old.

Before booking a bus to Chiang Saen it is a good idea to call ahead and make sure the boat is running. As this is not a popular route amongst travellers, the boat operates sporadically.  You can find out if the boat is running by contacting Gin’s Guesthouse.

Getting to Chiang Saen

You can take an overnight bus (or a day bus) from Mo Chit Bus Terminal in Bangkok. The bus takes 15+ hours and will cost around 800-900 baht for a ticket. The VIP buses in Thailand are fairly comfortable when you compare them to Greyhound buses in America. However, there is a much cheaper option if you’re willing to take a detour through Chiang Mai.

In the Khao San area of Bangkok you can purchase an overnight (leaves at 6:00 p.m.) bus ticket to Chiang Mai for 350 baht. The bus will arrive at around 7:00 a.m. From here you can decide whether to stay in Chiang Mai for the night, or catch the 9:30 a.m. Green Bus to Chiang Saen. The ride from Chiang Mai to Chiang Saen is roughly 5 hours and costs 165 Baht.

Buying a Boat Ticket

When you arrive in Chiang Saen you can either take a tuk-tuk to Gin’s House (20 baht) or walk. If you want to walk there head toward the river and turn left. Follow the signs along the road to Gin’s. It’s a 15- 20 min walk.

When you arrive at Gin’s inquire about buying a ticket to Jinghong, China. The ticket costs 4,000 baht (800 RMB) plus 100 baht for insurance. Gin will ask you for your passport and money and will make the ticket arrangements for you.

Where To Stay In Chiang Saen

Although there are other budget options in Chiang Saen, Gin’s House is a good enough place to stay for the night before your trip. The outside is beautiful, but the rooms are very sparse. If you’re okay with basic accommodations, then stay at Gin’s.  Rooms range from 200 -300 baht per night.

If you stay at Gin’s she will arrange for a tuk-tuk to pick you up at 4:30 a.m. on the morning of departure at no extra charge. This is invaluable. Finding the dock in the pitch black is next to impossible.

What To Expect Onboard

When the tuk-tuk driver drops you off he will instruct you to wait in a dark courtyard. Do not panic. Eventually, someone will show up with your passport and guide you down to the boat.

Unlike the photo on your boat ticket, the boat is small and rides low in the water. In most cases, the boat carries 52 people. However, as this is an unpopular route, it’s possible that there will only be 7 passengers and about as many crew members.

While on board you’ll be given bottled water, breakfast and lunch, all free of charge. The food is usually fried rice with egg and diced pork.

During the 13 hour journey from Chiang Saen to Guan Lei, China you may go outside and sit on benches at the stern of the boat. However, you must wear a life jacket while you are out there. Spending time out on deck is highly recommended. The views of both Myanmar (on the left) and Laos (on the right) are breathtaking.

Arriving In China

Depending on the time of year, you may be arriving in Guan Lei, China in the dark. Arriving in China by boat, in the dark is a whole different experience than arriving at Beijing International Airport.

After the boat is secured an immigration official will board and review the crew list as well as the passenger list and accompanying passports. Once he/she has completed this, everyone will be instructed to follow him/her out of the boat and to the immigration office.

In China boats usually dock side by side, which means you will most likely walk through 2-4 other boats before setting foot on shore. Once you’re on shore, you will be guided up a long staircase along a tall wall. Once you reach the top of the wall, you’ll walk to another long staircase to the immigration office.

Immigration here is very easy. They don’t usually check baggage and in no time you’ll be lugging your things through the hot evening air towards a bus stop.


Depending on the time of year, it is possible that the boat journey will end at Guan Lei as it’ll be too dark to navigate the boat the rest of the way to Jinghong. Don’t worry the cost of the bus from Guan Lei to Jinghong is covered by the boat company.

The bus ride from Guan Lei to Jinghong is roughly 3 hours and takes you through mountain passes on bumpy dusty roads that seem to be too small for 2 vehicles. Riding through this in the dark is a blessing in a way and the views that greet you when you arrive in Jinghong are completely unexpected. The streets of Jinghong are lined with palm trees and its buildings are lit up like a Christmas tree.

If you have some time on your hands, I recommend spending a few days in Jinghong. You will not be disappointed. If you need to get to Kunming, China there is an 11:30 p.m. bus that costs 197 RMB. Ask the girls from the boat to drop you off at the bus station.

Gin’s House Contact Info.

71 Moo 8, Ban Huai Khiang T. Wiang, Chiang Saen 57150, Thailand +66840462827 Khun Juree (Mrs. Gin)


  • December 4, 2010

    wow! Very interesting! Views on Myanmar and Laos must be so incredible!

  • Michael

    December 4, 2010

    That’s really interesting. I’ve never heard of this. I love traveling by land.

  • Shane

    December 4, 2010

    Great article. Thanks so much for posting this – it’s been very helpful.

  • December 5, 2010

    Sounds like an interesting route and an interesting method of getting there. Beats the tourist bus any day! Cheers!

  • Liv

    December 6, 2010

    This was an excellent article – full of great information and a great, off-the-beaten-path travel idea. I wanted so much to visit China when I was living in Asia but never made it. One of these days…!

  • December 6, 2010

    Wow, I never knew that there was a boat trip from here to China, sounds like a really interesting route 🙂

  • December 9, 2010

    i never knew it was possible to go to china by boat. thanks for the post

  • Kyu

    February 3, 2011

    Hello Pam,
    your blog is GREAT!!
    me and my bf met you in a cafe in Chiang Mai, I asked you about the White Temple and you showed me the good map.. 🙂
    We are still in Thailand thinking of doing this route in March, take the train across to Beijing and then a boat to Korea..
    Do you have the number of Gin’s guesthouse?

    • February 5, 2011

      Hi Kyu!

      Thank-you! I’m glad you enjoy it. I did some asking around, the phone number for Gin’s is +66840462827 – Khun Juree (Mrs. Gin). She can tell you if and when the boat is running!

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