Armed with a Chinese visa from Bangkok or Chiang Mai, it was until recently possible to catch a passenger boat from Chiang Saen up the Mekong to Jing Hong in China. However, in October 2011, close to Sop Ruak, two Chinese cargo ships were subjected to a brutal armed attack by a group of men from the Thai army. The motive wasn’t immediately clear, but thirteen Chinese sailors died in the incident, and at the time of writing all passenger services between the two countries had been suspended. Cargo shipments from China were also stopped temporarily.

This is a crucial trade route for countries that are linked by the Mekong, and in a bid to get cargo services running again, officials from China, Thailand, Laos and Burma sanctioned coordinated patrols along stretches of the river. But in December 2011, after less than a fortnight of patrols, three Burmese soldiers were killed in a clash with suspected drug traffickers, suggesting that the situation is still some way from being resolved.

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