Foreigners living in southwest China — sometimes for leisure, often for the necessities of working in China — head out to the countries neighboring Yunnan province. Vietnam is an enticing option, but you need to arrange a visa in advance before you can enjoy decent, affordable coffee and a steaming bowl of phở . Laos is an easier choice, not only for visa runs but for onward travel, with visas on arrival available at the border and Beer Laos at only five yuan a bottle. Northern Laos also connects with northern Thailand and the Golden Triangle, a former drug empire now rather gentrified and swamped with tourists.
The other country making up the Golden Triangle is Myanmar — formerly known as Burma. And while it has two border crossings with Yunnan, foreigners can't enter or exit without permits which are almost impossible to obtain anyway. So is it possible to get from China to Myanmar overland without flying? The answer is yes...and no. The recently lifting of travel restrictions means it is theoretically possible to travel from the jungles of Myanmar through the northern reaches of Thailand and Laos into the enigmatic land we know, love and sometimes hate, as China.
This year I decided to scout out the route and investigate getting from Myanmar to the Middle Kingdom. Of course, as some Chinese and many Burmese know, there is no need to go into Thailand and Laos just to get into China, as the long border with Yunnan is very porous with smuggling and black market endeavors. But for foreigners, strife-ridden northern Myanmar is definitely out-of-bounds.
Myanmar, as you might recall, has only recently opened up for tourism since 2011, and up until mid-2013 it wasn't possible to cross overland to any of its four neighbors. In August 2013 immigration restrictions were lifted in five places along the Burmese-Thai border, and foreigners were allowed to both enter and exit Myanmar without the need for permits, guides or pre-arranged transport. Before that, independent travelers could enter Myanmar at a couple places in Thailand, but only for short-term visits in the area — usually one day trips or visa runs. Onward travel into the heart of the country wasn't allowed.
My aim with these new travel freedoms was to get from Myanmar to southwest China in a few days with minimum expense. While one can often fly to Yangon or Mandalay from Kunming for roughly US$200, I prefer overland routes because it feels like real travel — as opposed to flights, which just whisk you from one location to another. I was also looking forward to observing the differences and character of each country as I ventured from quirky undeveloped Myanmar to modern bland China.
The most logical route goes from the far east of Myanmar's Shan State into Thailand before heading across the north of Laos to Yunnan province. Visas on arrival are available in Thailand and Laos, though a visa for China must be obtained in advance in another Southeast Asian city such as Yangon or Bangkok.
While international travel between these Golden Quadrangle nations is reasonably easy, there's one problem: Exiting or entering Myanmar via Shan State requires a flight over the rebel-held, drug growing, rolling hills 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 Inle Lake. Another option is to fly into nearby Kengtung closer to the Chinese border and make your way to Tachileik.
Flying over the Shan Plateau, one gets an idea of the rugged terrain, the low population density and the lack of infrastructure. Below is thick forest alternating with clearcut plantations, small hamlets and the scars of unregulated mining. After almost an hour from Heho, the plane lands at Tachileik among lush rice paddies. After some fruitless negotiations it is 3,500 kyat (US$3.50) to get to the dusty town whether one joins others in a van or rides singly on the back of a motorbike taxi.
Tachileik is not a pretty place, though it proudly displays a sign welcoming visitors to the 'City of the Golden Triangle'. With restaurant signs in Chinese and Thai baht a commonly used currency, this border town doesn't appear very Burmese until you catch sight of the sizable Thai town of Mae Sai across the river. Among those going the other way are Thais heading to the golf courses, casinos and markets which stock cheap Chinese goods.
Beside the approach to the bridge, visitors can get rid of their local kyat, which are pretty much worthless outside Myanmar. There are some forms to fill out to get an exit stamp and then on the Thailand side some more forms, more waiting and eventually a passport entry stamp. Most visitors get 30-day entry passes, though certain countries only get 15. This international border crossing is open until 10pm, though there is a maddening half-an-hour time difference between Myanmar and Thailand.
Despite the warning posters about the illegal trade of endangered species and narcotics, there doesn't seem to be much screening for bootlegged goods, knives, or fake Viagra. Mae Sai is cleaner and less seedy than its Burmese counterpart, but visitors might not want to linger too long in Thailand's northernmost town. The last bus and van from Mae Sai's bus station to Chiang Rai departs at 5.30pm and tickets cost 40 baht (US1.20). Another option is to share a taxi or pick-up truck for around 250 baht (US$7.50) per person for the one hour journey on a very smooth and fast road to Chiang Rai.
If you've just spend a few weeks in Myanmar you will be impressed with everything. On the small streets are noodle stands, reggae bars, guesthouses and very friendly ladies and ladyboys. The new bus station — also known as Bus Terminal 2 — is located seven kilometers south of the city, just off the highway 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 River to Laos.
But dude, those hippie trail days are gone. There is a new friendship bridge between Thailand and Laos, and there will soon be another friendship bridge opening further upriver between Myanmar and Laos. This new and far-flung gateway could change the dynamics of Mekong region travel — or at least make it easier to transport truckloads of opium, yaba, and crystal meth.
A game-changer for the region has been the opening of the new Friendship Bridge 4 connecting Thailand and Laos south of Chiang Khong. From Chiang Rai, buses leave every few hours for the Laos town Huay Xai on the other side of the great river. The journey takes about three hours and tickets run 200-280 baht (US$6-8.50) Located ten kilometers south of the former border crossing, the new facilities are impressive and swift 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 20 baht shuttle bus across the Mekong to the Laos immigration center. Otherwise your international bus meets you on the other side of customs and immigration processing.
Laos and China
The good news for Laos is that everybody can get a visa on arrival. The bad news is the cost, the waiting and the chaos. It is not clearly marked, but arrivals 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 US$30 for a 30-day visa, though it might be a little more or less depending on what passport one is carrying. The visa can also be paid for in Thai money or Chinese yuan, but at an unfavorable exchange rate. There is also an one-time fee equivalent to US$1, which applies on weekends, early mornings, late afternoons and sometimes even around lunchtime.
It is a short drive from the border crossing to Bokeo Bus Station, located south of town and only one kilometer 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 throw back a cold Beer Laos. Local buses leave from the provincial bus station, but the better buses depart from the international station, with a 3pm Luang Namtha-bound bus for 60,000 kip (US$8) complete with airline seats, air-conditioning and a tiny toilet. The journey is scenic, taking in stilt-shack villages, rubber plantations, verdant jungle and the occasional overturned truck sitting roadside on the scorched red earth. It seems no one living along the road can afford the VIP bus. The 187 kilometer journey takes between three and four hours.
Luang Namtha's bus station is located far from the one-street town and its night food market. Travel agencies can obtain tickets that include tuk-tuk transfer for onward travel. Just like Huay Xai, Luang Namtha has international buses to Jinghong and Mengla in Yunnan for 90,000 and 50,000 kip (US$11 and $6) respectively. There are also long-haul buses to Kunming. The 8am bus to Jinghong and Mengla takes around 90 minutes to reach the border, and new immigration facilities on the Laos side speed up exit. In the extensive no-man's land between border stations there are casinos, duty free stores and even a cafe with live elephants. Travelers need a tourist visa in their passports 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 depending on traffic.
For travel on this whole route using public transport, it is best to start each day in the early morning as often there is only one bus each 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 opens two border crossings with China at Muse-Ruili and Kengtung-Mong La. However, with on-going conflict spreading over the border, it may be some time before foreigners can go between China and Myanmar over land. In the meantime, there is an interesting route through northern Thailand and Laos which is a viable alternative. With a Myanmar visa in your passport, you can also do the route in the reverse order — from China, through Laos and Thailand to Tachileik and then a flight into the heart of Myanmar. For a great set of free maps with attention to detail, check out the regional and town maps lovingly made by the cycle-bound folk at Hobo Maps.
Editor's note: Keith Lyons is a coffee trader, travel writer, and professional tour guide at Slow Burma Travel and Lijiang Guides. If you have a story idea you'd like to submit to GoKunming, get in touch via our contact form.
Uncredited images: Brian Krause© Copyright 2005-2021 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.