Our wooden cargo vessel creaks and wails as it contemplates the asteroid belt of craggy outcrops peppered left, right and centre along the remote upper reaches of the Mekhong. In the dark now and with no lights, memory, moonlight and Mekhong rice whisky are the only aids available to our young boatman. My future may be wavering, but for the other passengers of the 30-foot barge this is the penultimate phase in a long but certain death. From the Golden Triangle through the bamboo curtain via a back-door trade route, go buffalo, chickens and pigs – and more than occasionally, human traffic. This is the slow boat to China – the biggest market of them all. Straddling the border of Burma and Laos without the papers necessary to land on either shore, my presence is of concern to the captain. More so it seems than the opium, meth, guns and poached fur smuggled aboard. I note that if I can make the journey as a stowaway undetected under a Hello Kitty comforter then so can anyone. I’m told it gets trickier with the Shan and Wa. And it does. The barrel of an automatic rifle appears from around the corner of the boat, and a teenage soldier in casual fatigues and his plump police friend hop aboard. The fish head supper fronted by the boatman does slow them down, but it’s illiteracy ultimately that is their undoing. As neither can read my passport and certainly can’t enter my name into the college foolscap Mickey Mouse exercise book the cop’s carrying, they turn a blind eye.