Keith Lyons takes the plunge, traveling overland from Myanmar to China, through Thailand and Laos.
With Myanmar’s two border crossings into Mainland China currently closed to foreigners, how do you get from Myanmar to the Middle Kingdom without flying? Up until mid-2013 it was not possible to easily or legally cross overland from Myanmar to its neighboring Thailand, but since August of 2013, border restrictions at five points were lifted.
While in the past foreigners traveling or living in Thailand would do a visa run to Myanmar, independent travelers weren’t allowed to venture further into Myanmar. Now with the new regulations, visitors no longer require permits, guides, or pre-arranged transport to enter or exit Myanmar.
With these new freedoms of movement, I decided to investigate the possibility of getting from eastern Myanmar to southwest China in a few days with minimum expense. Land travel always feels like real travel, as opposed to air travel, which just whisks you from one location to another. I was looking forward to observing the differences and character of each country as I ventured from recently opened-up Myanmar to Modern China.
The most logical route goes from the far east of Myanmar’s Shan state into northern Thailand, before heading across the north of Laos to Yunnan province. Visa on arrival is available in Thailand and Laos, though a visa for PR China must be obtained in advance in Yangon or Bangkok. While international travel between these Golden Quadrangle countries is reasonably easy, there is one problem. Exiting or entering Myanmar via eastern Shan state requires a flight over the rebel-held, opium-producing hill country between the state capital of Taunggyi and the border town of Tachileik. There are flights most days from Yangon, Mandalay, Lashio and Heho (the service airport for Kalaw and Inle lake). Or you can fly into nearby Kengtung closer to the Chinese border and make your way to Tachileik.
Flying over the Shan plateau you get an idea of the rugged terrain, the low population density and the lack of infrastructure. Below, you see thick forest and clear-felled plantations, small hamlets and scarred land from mining.
Almost an hour from Heho you land at Tachileik among lush rice paddies. It is a 3,500K ride by shared van or motorbike taxi, into the dusty main town.Tachileik is not a pretty place. It proudly displays a sign welcoming visitors to the city of the Golden Triangle. Restaurant signs are in Chinese and Thai baht is the defacto currency. Tachileik doesn’t appear very Burmese until you catch sight of sizable Mae Sai across the river. At the approach to the vehicle and pedestrian bridge, you can get rid of your excess kyat, which is basically worthless outside of Myanmar. There are forms to fill out to receive an exit stamp, and then on the Thailand side, more forms, more waiting and eventually a passport entry stamp. Most visitors get thirty-day entry passes, though certain countries only get fifteen days.
The international border is open till 10.00pm; there is half an hour time difference between Myanmar and Thailand. Those people going the opposite way, back into Myanmar, are Thais heading off to golf courses, casinos, and markets stocking cheap Chinese goods. Despite the warning posters about the illegal trade of endangered species and narcotics, there doesn’t seem to be much screening for bootlegged goods such as knives or fake Viagra. Mae Sai is cleaner and less seedy than its Burmese counterpart, but you might not want to linger too long at Thailand’s most northern town.
The last bus and van from the bus station to Chiang Rai departs at 5.30pm (40 baht) otherwise you can share a taxi or pickup for around 200-250 baht (US$7-8) per person, for the one hour journey on a very smooth and fast road.
If you arrive to Chiang Rai on time, you can witness the spectacular music and light show at the landmark clocktower, at 7.00pm and 8.00pm. On the small streets nearby are pad thai stands, reggae bars, guesthouses and very friendly ladies and ladyboys.
The New Bus Station, also known as Bus Terminal 2, is located 7km south of the city just off the highway, and is where buses for Laos depart. There are even morning buses to China, though not every day. In the past, Laos-bound travelers took a bus to Chiang Khong and then a short boat trip across the Mekong to Laos. But hey, those Hippie Trail days are long gone.
There is a new ‘friendship bridge’ connecting Thailand and Laos, and buses depart every few hours to the Laos town on the other side of the great river, Huay Xai, the capital of Bokeo province (a three hour ride for 200-280 baht). Located 10km south of the former border crossing, the new facilities are impressively well-run on the Thai side, but chaotic on the Laos side. If you’ve only got your transport to the border, you need to get a shuttle bus (20 baht) across the Mekong to the Laos immigration center. Otherwise your international bus meets you on the other side of the customs and immigration processing.
The good news regarding Laos is that everybody can get a visa on arrival. The bad news is the cost, the waiting, and the chaos. Most of the cross-border travelers seem to be nouveau riche Chinese in shiny new SUVs, complete with numerous spoilt and obese children. It is not clearly marked, but arriving visitors must first fill out a form to apply for a visa, present it to the right-hand window, and then go and wait at the left-hand window. You need a passport-sized photo, obtained easily on the Thai side, or you can get a scan for a small fee at an office nearby the money exchange booth. Most nationalities pay $US30 for a 30-day visa, though it might be more or less depending on what passport you are carrying. The visa can also be paid for baht or RMB, at an obligatory unfavourable exchange rate. There is also an overtime fee of $US1 that applies on weekends, early morning, late afternoon and even around lunchtime.
It is then a short drive from the border crossing to the international Bokeo bus station, located south of town and 1km from the provincial bus station. If you’ve bought a thru-ticket in Chiang Rai you will have an hour or so to try some Lao food and of course a Laos beer. Local buses leave from the provincial bus station but the better buses depart from the international station. There is a 3.00pm Luang Namtha-bound bus (60,000 kip) complete with airline seats, air-con and a tiny toilet, which zooms along the newly-widened road linking Thailand and China. The journey is scenic, taking in stilt-shack villages, rubber plantations, verdant jungle and the occasional overturned truck sitting on the scorched red earth. It seems that no one living along the road can afford the VIP bus. The 187km journey takes between 3-4 hours.
Luang Namtha’s bus station is located far from the one-street town and its night food market. Travel agencies can provide you with a ticket that includes a tuk-tuk transfer for onward travel. Just like Huay Xai, Luang Namtha has international buses to Jinghong and Mengla in Yunnan (90,000/50,000 kip) as well as a long-haul bus to Kunming. The 8.00am bus to Jinghong and Mengla takes around ninety minutes to the border. New border facilities on the Laos side speed up the exit time. In the extensive no-man’s land between border stations there are casinos, duty free stores and even a cafe with live elephants. You need a tourist visa in your passport for China, as there is no visa-on-arrival.
From the Chinese side it is three hours to Jinghong, and another seven to ten hours to Kunming. For travel on this route, using public transport, it is best to start early, as often there is only one bus a day. You can save money by taking buses point-to-point, or using local buses, but if you prefer comfort, security and efficiency, getting a thru-ticket is your best bet for guaranteeing a seat.
There has been talk for the last few years that Myanmar will soon open two borders with China, at Muse-Ruili and Kengtung-Mong La. With on-going conflict spreading over the border, it may be some time until foreigners travel directly between China and Myanmar. In the meantime, there lies this interesting and adventurous route through northern Thailand and Laos as a viable alternative.
With a Myanmar visa in your passport, you can also do the route in the reverse direction, from China, through Laos and Thailand to Tachileik and then flying into the heart of Myanmar. Enjoy and travel well.
There are excellent maps for this route at http://hobomaps.com/.
Keith Lyons is a travel writer and small group tour leader at Slow Burma Travel (www.burma-travel.info) and Lijiang Guides (www.lijiangtravel.info)
This article was previously published in MYANMORE’s monthly lifestyle magazine, InDepth #7, May 2015