China on the Mekong: trade and tourism

Photographer Jack Kurtz documents how Chinese commerce is replacing heroin traffic in the Mekong’s Golden Triangle

A river freighter flying a Laotian flag chugs gently upstream towards China as the morning sky erupts in colour. It’s the start of another day in the “Golden Triangle” at the nexus of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos, just south of China on the Mekong River.

For years this part of Asia was famous for its heroin, made from opium grown in Laos and Myanmar and trafficked through Thailand to the world.

Business now is driven by its proximity to China. The Mekong River starts on the Tibetan plateau and winds its way south-east more than 4,300 kilometres to Vietnam and the South China Sea.

See our special report: Forging a new course for the Mekong

The river is the artery that carries the economy of the Golden Triangle. Cheap consumer goods made in China, like toys, are carried south down the river to the ports in Chiang Saen, Thailand, where they’re sold in the markets or put on trucks for shipment to the world. Those same boats load up with cars and computers made in Thailand, and food grown in Thailand, and return to China.

Thai Highway 1290 parallels the Mekong River from Chiang Saen to the Golden Triangle. China’s importance to the region is seen at every turn. You can see globalisation in action at the new commercial port in Chiang Saen. Lao freighters are taking on computer parts. The labourers loading the boats are Burmese, the crewmen on the boats are Lao, the computer parts were made in Thailand and the customers are in China.

During the dry season only the smaller Lao boats use the port because it is not deep enough to accommodate the larger Chinese boats that ply the river.

In a scene that probably hasn’t changed in hundreds of years, every single item is loaded by hand onto the boats in the Chiang Saen port. There are no cranes or containers. Everything is broken down to human-sized, portable loads and carried down to the boats on men’s backs (all of the labourers are men). 

The river carries more than cargo to and from China. Increasingly, Chinese tourists are a part of the Mekong’s flow. In 2012, a Chinese movie called Lost in Thailand, a slapstick comedy about three hapless Chinese men lost in Thailand was released in China. The movie was filmed in Thailand, shattered box office records in China and triggered an invasion of Chinese tourists.