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.