Grenzen | Borders

Border #26 China – Laos: The gambler border

Entering Southeast Asia through a true frontier town: Boten in Laos used to be a Tijuana for Chinese, fell into disuse after 2010 and is now emerging again.

Coming from: Mohan, Xishuangbanna Autonomous District of the Dai, Yunnan Province, People’s Republic of China
Going to: Boten, Laos
Documents required: Passport, Chinese Visa
Waiting time: 13 min (China), 5 min (Laos)
Distance from Bern: 19.884 km
Rating: 7/10
I had grown very fond of China, and I did not like to leave the country. But three weeks and a half inside one country, with no international border crossings, were quite a lot for a trip focussing on border areas. So one morning finally I took the bus from Jinghong via Mengla to Mohan, the Chinese town at the border with Laos. I lingered; Left the bus before it entered Mohan, so that I could at least stroll through that last Chinese town. I stopped for lunch – a last portion of Niu Rou Mian (beef noodles). I continued walking towards the border, which seemed so much more relaxed than Irkeshtam, where I had entered China.

Then I bumped into a Russian girl which had just come from Laos. The border had been horrible, she told me. The guards had held her up for almost an hour, so her bus to Jinghong had already left and she was stranded in Mohan. I could only partially understand her anger, given my entry into China had cost me an entire day. But they had certainly not been nice to her, so I continued my walk towards the border a bit less optimistic.

P1090830Chinese border control in Mohen

As I entered the border control building, I was already relieved to see that customs and immigration were in the same hall, and not 150 km apart as on the border with Kyrgyzstan. Customs was a mere formality, and also the immigration check took no more than five minutes. Stamp, and that was it – I was free to leave China. I crossed a little hill and spotted a huge golden pagoda: The Lao border immigration terminal!

BotenThe pagoda procedure was even easier than the Chinese check. A gatekeeper sat in front of the pagoda, and when seeing my Swiss passport, he shouted “Switzerland – no visa!” Most foreigners need to apply for a visa on arrival at the Lao border, which apparently is neither a big hassle. In my case, no questions were asked and I quickly got the stamp. As it turned out the next day, that was actually not all yet: The customs terminal is located some kilometres inside Laos, with the town of Boten in-between, all duty free. I slept in Boten and thus passed the customs only one day after entering Laos. But I was waved through anyway, so that was no issue.

P1090876Border pagoda

I was looking forward to see Boten. Some years ago, Boten had been a boom town, attracting hordes of Chinese day-trippers with gambling, massage, karaoke and dancing establishments. A Lao Tijuana of a sort. The boom had abruptly ended in 2011, when two Chinese gamblers were killed and the People’s Republic closed the border for day-trippers subsequently. Most inhabitants left Boten thereafter.

After six years of neglect in a lush climate, I expected picturesque ruins, overgrown with a first layer of vegetation. An excellent place to enter South-East Asia! But what I found was a huge construction site. Apparently, the boom is to restart – this time under Chinese leadership. Their companies are currently building a couple of high-rise buildings in pseudo-Thai style in the core of the town.

P1090902Boten, a town under construction

So I was at least not disappointed in finding in Boten a true frontier feeling. The liveliest street was Fuxing Street, a 200 meter alley between two huge construction sites. It is a row of restaurants, bars, Karaoke dens and massage parlours. It was clearly Chinese, and I was not unhappy to get a another last Chinese meal, to spend my last Chinese money. All prices in Boten are designated in Renminbi, and there are shops which do not even accept Lao currency. My hotel, which had a Chinese name, was full of noisy Chinese tourists which all boarded their Chinese buses the next morning.

But I found a little piece of Switzerland as well: One huge duty free super market had Lindt chocolate and Kambly cookies – I hadn’t seen them for a while. And they were not even more expensive than at home.

Practical Information:
Transport: On the Chinese side, Mohan bus terminal is just 500 meters past the border control, on the right hand side of the street (coming from Laos). Every 20 minutes, minibuses leave for Mengla (17 CNY, 50 min) with frequent connections to Jinghong (3.5 hours, 47 CNY) and some through buses to Kunming. On the Lao side, transport is a challenge. Right after the immigration control, there are minibuses to Muang Namtha which leave when full, maybe about three departures per day. They pass through Nameuy, which again has connections to Udomxai (pronounced “Udomsaay”) aka Muang Xay. A taxi to Nameuy costs 50.000 LAK, which can be a good option if you do not want to hang around the border for several hours. There are several cross-border buses daily (e.g. Jinghong – Luang Prabang or Kunming – Vientiane), which might sell a free seat at the border. They are also a good option if you do not want to visit the border towns. The best place to arrange transport is the entrance of the immigration check pagoda. In Boten town I made the experience that nobody had any information on Laos-bound traffic.
Accommodation: There are several hotels on Boten’s two main streets, but at the time of my visit (August 2017), only Huang Jin, a huge pink building, had available rooms (180 CNY). The other hotels are probably filled with construction site workers or under reconstruction. There will be more options soon, probably on the luxury side. Mohan has several hotels along its main street.
Food: There are several simple restaurants along Mohan’s main street and Boten’s Fuxing street, all serving diverse Chinese food (noodles, meat dishes, hotpot). Those in Boten look a bit more shabby and are very loud in the evening, but the quality is OK. I saw no Lao food in Boten.
Money change: There are unofficial money changers on the Chinese side, offering rather bad rates. In Laos, there is an exchange booth in the border pagoda, a bank on the main street, and a supermarket across the street which also changes Chinese into Lao money. Note that the currency in Boten is the Chinese Renminbi, not the Lao Kip, so don’t change all your money in case you plan to spend time there.
Opening times: Daytime, open on weekends.

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