Pamela MacNaughtan

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t exactly a slow boat, but it was a boat!

My mind had drifted from the bumpy bus ride through the mountains and dirt roads of Northern Thailand. Most of the locals I had spoken to in Chiang Mai were confused when I asked them about the boat that sailed from Chiang Saen to China. While some travelers would have taken that as a sign that the boat was just a myth, I took it as a sign that if the boat did exist, it would be a unique experience. My mind was racing. For 5 hours I sat in my seat and thought about what the boat would be like. Would there be a lot of travelers? Is it running or was I wasting time and money traveling to Chiang Saen only to find out that the boat was a myth. The possibilities were endless and I thrived on them. My quest to know was almost as thrilling as the idea of traveling to China by boat.

When I arrived in Chiang Saen it took very little time for me to find Gin’s House and inquire about the boat. I figured I’d be lucky if the boat was running, but I didn’t realize just how lucky I would be.

Me “I would like to buy a boat ticket to China for tomorrow.”
Gin “Yes, boat is running. It only goes 4 times this month.”
Me “4 times?! When does it sail?”
Gin “This month, on 1st, 3rd, 5th and 13th, then no more. Not enough people want to take boat.”

In my research prior to arrival in Chiang Saen I had read that the boat ran every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. To find out that the sailings were so sporadic was a surprise and I felt an immediate wave of relief at having left Chiang Mai when I did. Chiang Mai is like the magnetic force, I never want to leave it.

I was more than happy to hand over the 4,000 baht for my ticket, but a little nervous about handing over my passport. It wasn’t like I was getting it right back. My little travel security blanket was going to be spending the night away from home. Poor Lola, yes, my passport’s name is Lola!

At 4:30 a.m. the next morning I was struggling to stay awake and coherent as I threw my backpack into the back of a tuk tuk. There were two other travelers (from Singapore) who were taking the boat to China as well and we were crammed in together like sausage meat being stuffed into its casing. Riding in a tuk tuk in the pitch black of morning in an unfamiliar town is a surreal experience. We had no idea where we were or where we were going. Anything could have happened. Thankfully nothing did.

As our tuk tuk pulled up near the river, we could see a boat below. Was that the boat? It didn’t look anything like the photo on our ticket, as a side note; nothing looks the same in real life as they do in photos in China. As the driver took my big heavy backpack, I lifted my leg and attempted to step out of the back of the tuk tuk. However grace was not on my side and my other foot caught itself in one of the metal bars, which caused me to face plant into the cold hard ground (Do you notice a reoccurring theme here?). Good morning to you too, Thailand!

As my ego slowly recovered from falling out of a tuk tuk, our driver pointed to a dark empty courtyard. No, we were not supposed to go down to the boat, we were supposed to walk into a dark empty courtyard. The only reason why we listened to him was because he had said the magic word, passport. Lola! My darling, Mommy misses you! My heart leapt at the chance to have Lola back in my possession. As we entered the courtyard our driver took off and we were alone.

The next 15 minutes were confusing. Nobody was around at first, and then men would come in and out of a building inside the courtyard. I attempted to speak Thai and asked for my passport. They would look confused and keep walking. It was frustrating as hell. In the cool dark morning I was starting to wonder if it was all a scam. Things seemed a little too disorganized. With less than 5 minutes to go before we were supposed to depart two girls showed up on a scooter holding Lola. All my worries and fears were washed away immediately. I had my passport back. I was good to go.

With my small passport crisis behind me, I was faced with a new one. I had to walk-down-steep-bumpy-stone-stairs-in-the-pitch-black-of-morning-with-a-20kg-pack-on-my-back-after-face-planting-while-trying-to-get-out-of-a-tuk-tuk. The odds did not look good. When I saw the plank -yes a plank- of wood leading from the shore to the boat my odds got even worse. It seemed to take a decade for me to navigate my way down the stairs and not fall. When I reached the plank of wood I looked at the workers across the way on the boat and shook my head. Na-uh, not gonna happen. I will definitely end up doing a belly flop into the Mekong River as I attempt to walk the plank. After a couple of giggles from the boat a man walked over to where I was and reached out. I took his hand and made my way onto the boat. Okay, so maybe I wouldn’t have belly flopped into the Mekong River, but I really didn’t want to risk it.

The boat ride from Chiang Saen to China was long -13 hours- but beautiful. With 52 available seats, only 7 were filled with passengers. Shortly after departing I convinced the crew to let me adorn a smelly bright orange life vest so I could go sit at the stern of the boat and watch the sunrise. I’ve seen many sunrises in my life, but there has never been one so beautiful as this. During the day the Mekong River is a muddy brown, but as the sun rose the water reflected the pinks, purples, and yellows in the sky. I stayed out on deck for hours, my nose getting cold and red. On the right side of the boat was Laos. On the left was Burma. We sailed through miles and miles of jungle landscapes intermixed by small sections of beach, hill tribe villages and crags of rock. While most of the river was calm, there were also small sections of low-grade rapids. The trip pushed passed my visions of a calm wide river the color of mud.
The day passed by slowly and I was more than happy to sit back, relax and soak in the views both countries had to offer. Bottled water, breakfast and lunch were covered in the price of my ticket, so finding something to eat wasn’t a problem. As the crew didn’t speak English, or as it turns out Thai- and my Mandarin is limited the girls aboard resorted to their cell phones to communicate with me. I have to say, it was the cutest thing in the world. As we neared Guan Lei, China where we would have to go through immigration, I was handed a cell phone.

Me “Hello?”
Guy “Hi, you eat dinner?”
Me “Um, yes, I eat dinner.” Slightly confused
Guy “Company take you to dinner, you pay. You go, yes?”
Me “Yeeeaah… okay, I go.”
Guy “Okay. You understand?”
Me “Yes, I understand”

After hanging up, I was still a little confused, but I figured things would become a little clearer once I arrived in China.


  • November 6, 2010

    Loved this….for many reasons! Mostly, it’s because I felt like I was there with you. Really got a kick out of Lola, the tuk tuk, the sense of confusion, etc. Glad you got to see that wonderful sunrise, too.

    I flashed back a tiny bit to a slow boat I took to Putuoshan from Shanghai a while back. Quite a trip, too…

    Anyway, thanks for this very enjoyable read!

  • November 6, 2010

    This is a well-told tale, Pam. I’m so glad you and Lola were reunited. It was sounding pretty sketchy there for a awhile. (And how much do I love that you call your passport Lola? Hee.) That is a stunning photo, by the way. Wow.

  • November 6, 2010

    great story — the boats over there are a totally unique experience — glad you got a chance to enjoy it.

  • November 6, 2010

    13 hours on a little boat ahhhhh! I would have needed some cocktails I think. Though the sunrise sounds like it was pretty spectacular. Glad you made it to China safe and sound.

  • pam

    November 7, 2010

    Need. More. Pictures.

    xoxox SeattlePam

    • November 7, 2010

      More photos coming! I’ve had the worst battle with internet filters and not being able to upload things.

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