Oct 15, 2011

Murder Piracy Drugs and Warlords on Sleepy Upper Mekong

Is that a blatant attention grabbing blog post title, or what?


No doubt they see a lot of strange things come down the river at Chiang Saeng, but the two Chinese cargo boats rudderless, crewless, and turning with the currents of the Mekong no doubt caught the attention of anyone watching the river earlier this month. Chiang Saeng is just downstream from the border of Burma, it is what passes for the beginning civilization in that part of the Wild East known as the Golden Triangle. Competing casinos in Burma and Laos vie for the baht of eager Thai gamblers. Though no longer the center of world opium production the poppy is still widely grown and the lawless Shan State in Burma is a large supplier of methamphetamine (ya ma) for South East Asia.
Above the two unlucky boats tied up at Chaeng Saen


I have a lot of photos of this part of the river because I like to take the fast boat down from Xiengkok to where there are roads at Muang Mom. Despite what it sounds like this portion of Laos is generally pretty quiet. Mostly the river sees few foreigners, there are no roads, no ATMs, no airports, or internet. The wide photo up on the header of this blog is actually looking up the river in the direction of China from Xiengkok.




For a couple hundred or more kilometers above Chaing Saeng the Mekong runs between Laos and Burma on it's way from China to the sea.  Xiengkok half way up has a Lao border patrol man watching the river with a very tired eye. The "port" is simply a place where the rocks jut out into the river giving boats a place to anchor in slack water.
Leaving the slack water in Xienkok early 09


The Chinese blasted a channel in the rapids deep enough to run cargo boats most of the year, and it's a regular roller coster ride between the mountains. Chinese cargo boats for now are more profitable than trucking cargo the long way around from Jihong to Chang Rai vial Mengla, then somehow across the river at Huay Xai. Maybe once the bridge outside of Huay Xai is complete boats will stop running.
Chinese cargo boat exiting the rapids above Muang Mom headed upstream. "rocks as big as houses".


For the unfortunate crewmen on the two cargo boats that ride was their last, a dozen Chinese crew were tied up, executed, and thrown in the river.


http://www.irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=22255&


Above the same Lao freight boat we saw leaving Xiengkok about to enter the rapids below Xieng Dao (I think)


Newspaper accounts attribute the violence to a warlord not receiving protection money from the Chinese. They sure were quick to add a name to the crime too, but a name with freinds at the highest levels within the Burmese military. Who knows, I sure don't.


From the Irrawaddy:

Over the past two decades, three ethnic armed groups from Burma have attempted to control the Mekong River route through the Golden Triangle. The first group was drug lord Khun Sa’s Mong Tai Army, followed by the UWSA and the Shan State Army (South) led by Yawd Serk.
“All were pushed back by the Burmese army,” Khunsai Jaiyen said. “Unless they had the support of the local Burmese authorities, Naw Kham and his men could not survive in this area.”
I have a hard time keeping all the names and armies straight, all I know is that I've never had an inclination to step foot on that part of Burma. The closest I've come is fueling up on a fast boat.


It used to be that you could catch a ride on the freighters if you wanted a slow, cheap, way to go to Jihnong China that didn't involve airplanes or the long go around to Boten.


Now there is a fast ferry that looks like below.
167km from the border of China 1/09 early morning fog


In that same article a journalist tells of being extorted for money by the same folks.


“At the time, Naw Kham’s men were on three speedboats. They cut off our boat and boarded it,” he said. “They were well armed, and some of them wore masks. They made us kneel with our hands on our heads. Then they took all our money.”
The speed boats are very fast, basically an auto engine with a propeller at the end of a long shaft pushing a very light weight flat bottomed boat.
 The wind in the face is strong.


And lastly a very short video to get an idea of the speed of the things.




The striped bag is some of my new designer luggage.

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