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Bamboo Raft Adventures on the Mae Kok River

One of the early Siamese aviation pioneers and a certified mechanical engineer, Khun Luen Pongso-bhon used his spare time to economically produce countless western inventions in the country. A very useful example of his ingenuity is the long-tail boat. Today, throughout Southeast Asia where water transportation is essential, villagers use this mode of travel either in the countryside or in the big cities taking commuters to and from work. But here in the north visitors prefer to take a ‘slow boat' which is why bamboo rafting is popular. This simple means of transportation sailing on a peaceful stretch of water is the way to take in the natural heritage of northern Thailand.

By the way, there is a "long tail" boat service from Thatorn which propels passengers to Chiangrai in approximately six hours. But bamboo rafting is one of northern Thailand's best draws, enjoyed by both Thai and foreign tourists equally. A popular (though certainly not sole) stretch of river for a raft trip is the Mae Kok River, which flows to the north and west of Chiangmai and Chiangrai Provinces respectively. Most Chiangmai travel agencies offer this trip and supply all the primary necessities: sleeping bag, food and ice. Is fishing your thing? Then definitely bring a fishing pole. Some may consider mosquito repellent a nonnecessity but bring your own as a safeguard, though breezes on the river keep most mosquitos away. In addition to light comfortable clothing that can be changed easily without hoping for too much privacy, swimming suits are advisable for an occasional dip. The only privacy offered on a bamboo constructed raft is a small toilet room tied to the rear of the raft which simply has a hole in its floor. Luxury rafts have not been introduced.This trip is definitely not for pansies.

From Chiangmai, a tour agency will supply a van to take adventurers to the city of Faang, a 2.5 to 3 hour drive north of Chiangmai city, then another 24 kilometers north, to the small river bank town of Thatorn. The more economically minded, however, my opt to catch one of the frequent, inexpensive intercity buses straight to Thatorn. This small village now boasts a number of cozy guesthouses where one can spend a peaceful, restful night. Make some time to take in the impressive Wat Thatorn Temple sitting on the very high hilltop.

Both large and small size rafts are found in Thatorn. A large raft will take about 8 persons, while the small version will take 5. Visitors enjoy the convience to leave all details and the cooking to a guide. Incidentally, on a raft, weight must be distributed equally, so all should be prepared to shift around ever time a single person moves about. Rafts are constructed entirely of bamboo and have a thatched roof to shade all except the oarsmen, who stand outside the thatched area wearing wide brimmed hats. The floor is cushioned with soft bamboo mats and bamboo railings along the sides serve as backrests.

Recently, I joined a group. My fellow "rafters" numbered seven (including our guide) and we were distributed evenly over the long "deck" of the bamboo raft. A "pole-man", fore and aft, completed the complement; I felt guilty (but not too much!) as they were out in the open while the rest of us relaxed under a shady thatch. Food and lots of ice for cooling the drinks was provided as was a sleeping bag for the overnight stop. Fortunately I wasn't wearing my Gucci gear (I'd been forewarned!) so I didn't worry about getting wet. Initially, I thought we were seated perilously close to the water (and sometimes awash) but we had plenty of buoyancy and, anyway, the river isn't very deep.

So off we floated, at a very gentle pace, until the current took us and the "pole-men" were using their poles to steer rather than propel. It was very leisurely as we passed hilltribe villages, some elephants (most likely the transport on a jungle-trekking tour) and several resort properties. The guide was a wealth of information about the river, pointing out what to watch for and the area in general. He also had a guitar and serenaded us right royally. "This is the life", I thought. Sometimes a long-tail boat would zip past leaving us with its spray and wake, locals would wave from the river-bank and, at one point, an exciting cascade of rapids captured everyone's attention so we tended to hang-on more than was actually necessary. It was splashy and wet but certainly not white-water rafting. I saw the movie "Deliverance", years ago, and I'm definitely not into that sort of thing!

The overnight, and on board toileting, were simple and basic; I had a splash in the river before sliding into my sleeping bag and stretching out on deck. Our guide and "crew" stayed in a tent on shore so that the rest of us had more space - and sleeping mats provided a welcome softness. On board toileting? Well, let's say I'm not in love with squat toilets and if the toilet is moving slightly, as the raft bobs along, then you have an extra challenge! What the heck!! At least it was at the after-end of the raft and screened for total privacy!

Along the route there is also an exciting expanse of rapids although not so tortuous as the white-water kind. "Do-it-yourself" rafters have had little success negotiating the way alone. A prior knowledge of the channels is required and, of course, oarsmen are a necessity. The rapids are not dangerous for those who know them So don't let this frighten you. Rafters, if they wish, may even take a turn at guiding the raft through the less swift sections of the river journey.

At some time during the following afternoon, we drifted into Chiangrai after some 100 kilometers of river rafting. I was a little damp, slightly tired and certainly looking forward to a hot shower and a seat which wasn't moving. But I'd thoroughly enjoyed myself, thoroughly enjoyed the camaraderie of our little group and I'd seen heaps of the country. This river-rafting trip, from Baan Thatorn to Chiangrai City, is "soft adventure" but I felt I'd done something out of the ordinary - and that was reward in itself.

Although it is an adventurous trip, on account of the relatively primitive living conditions, rafting on the Mae Kok River is quite safe. The local police provide a river patrol of long-tail boats which frequently passed up and down the river. Long tail boats, in fact, which are not as noisy as one might expect, are also available to tourists who don't have the time for a leisurely 2-day journey. Rafting is one of the genuine adventures of northern Thailand, and if one has any chance to try it out, then don't hesitate. For everyone, it is truly a memorable experience.

As long as there are streams or rivers in the north, bamboo rafting is always possible. The adventure can take 3-4 hours or throughout the night. More rafting sites can be had at Mae Tamaan and Mae Waang rivers on the outskirts of Chiangmai while Mae Ngao river in the south and Pai river in the northeast area of Mae Hong Sorn are other possibilities.

Rafting trips down the Mae Kok River, from Thatorn to Chiangrai, may be booked in Chiangrai (or Chiangmai) or directly in Baan Thatorn. The price can be from 2,500 ฿ to 4,000 ฿ per head depending on group tour, honeymoon couple, or average lodging as well as luxurious resort for overnight stay on the Mae Kok River bank. If you're not a shrinking violet then give it a go!

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