Reality check on a three-in-one trip

CHIANG RAI, 26 March 2019:  When Chiang Rai’s governor Prajon Prachsakul endorses a proposal to develop a tour linking Thailand, Laos and Myanmar in a single day he has our attention. But it might not always be for the right reasons.

You could imagine the Bangkok Post writer enthusiastically tapping the keyboard, late last week, advising the world that a one-day tour of three countries was now  “part of a bid to develop the province into the region’s main tourism hub.”

The governor of Chiang Rai, told the Bangkok Post he is “seeking the cooperation of interested stakeholders from both the private and public sectors in Laos and Myanmar to help develop the strategy.”

If the governor or the Bangkok Post had bothered to seek private sector feedback on this latest proposal to establish a one-day tour of the three countries — a grand circle of the Golden Triangle — they might have revised the storyline.

Of course, the role of travel agents or “travel advisors” as they are now called, is frequently challenged in this era of do-it-yourself travel, but the governor might have benefited from consulting a travel agent before dropping this incredible story into the public domain.

On paper, the governor jotted down a route that would take visitors across the Mekong River bridge at Chiang Khong in Chiang Rai province and then north to Luang Namtha in Laos on highway 3 and 17A. Then the daytrippers would steer west on 17B heading for Xieng Kok a port village on the Mekong River. From there, all that remains of this marathon trip in Laos is a 15 km stretch of road that follows the river upstream to a deserted bridge that spans the river gorge to the small village of Kenglat on the opposite side in Shan State, Myanmar.

Once in Myanmar, daytrippers would head for the border town of Tachileik that faces Mae Sai in Thailand again separated by a river bridge.

There are snags that any travel agent would have warned slams the lid shut on this whistle-stop tour to three Mekong countries. 

One is the distance hurdle. Daytrippers would cover 511 km to complete the circuit with an overall driving time of 11 hours and 52 minutes according to Google Map.  Given that the Chiang Khong immigration checkpoint opens at 0600 and the checkpoint at Tachileik closes at 2100 there is hardly enough time to visit a toilet never mind enjoy lunch and dinner breaks on the way.

Then to add to the painpoints, there is the suggestion the tour could take a diversion from the Kenglat bridge on the Myanmar-Laos border and head north to Keung Tung, a distance of 167 km on highway 4.  If that sounds a mite beyond the scope of a doable diversion on this marathon trip sticking to the original game plan still leaves you with 100 km to cover to reach Tachileik where you complete the circle by heading for Chiang Rai town 60 km south of the border.

But the marathon circular route through the three countries faces another major obstacle that brings the governor’s plan screeching to a halt.

The Myanmar-Laos Friendship Bridge across the Mekong River is closed to all traffic.  Travel advisors and specialists who design tours of the Mekong Region know that and quickly flamed the governor’s plan on Facebook pages last weekend.

Even though the 692-metre long bridge opened in May 2015, travel agents confirm the USD26 million bridge remains firmly closed to both local and international travellers. It’s a bridge to nowhere.

Last November, the Myanmar Times claimed the checkpoint in “Wat Pong Tachileik, Shan State, at the Myanmar-Laos Friendship Bridge” opened in September 2018 connecting Kenglat in Tachileik district and Xieng Kok in Luang Namtha district in Laos.  That was the theory, but the report bore no resemblance to the reality on the ground. The Kenglat bridge remains off-limits to both traders or travellers.

Sailing the Mekong River upstream to Xieng Kok, rather than driving through the Golden Triangle countries, could be a more viable option. However, there are risks due to the threat of so-called Mekong pirates. Boat owners are reluctant to sail to the remote village of Xieng Kok claiming it is risky. If river travel was secure, convenient and attractively priced, then a trip covering three countries could become a reality by boat and bus, but overland by bus for the entire route? That requires a stretch of the imagination.