Friends of the Mae Taeng
By Mike Atkins
Many an Australian will claim whingeing to be the preserve of the English. I think that generalization needs a little work: whingeing is the preserve of the English AND expats in general. Sit around chatting in any coffee shop or bar in Chiang Mai, and conversation is bound to come around to the worsening pollution in town, the prices tuk-tuks charge, the lack of water, or any one of a number of grievances. Complaining does seem to be a popular sport in these parts, and the number of people who actually take it upon themselves to address problems directly is pitifully small. Enter a couple of guys who went against the grain.
The first person to offer white water kayaking in northern Thailand, Colorado native Jason Younkin mainly runs his expeditions and courses on the Mae Taeng, a long, winding river which flows from high in the mountains near the Burmese border down into the Ping River. Over the last two years, he has seen the river’s popularity explode and new operations set up on a regular basis. Day trippers enjoy relaxing on the river, adventure tourists love the challenge the Mae Taeng presents and local villagers have benefited from the extra income generated.
There’s a flipside though - the garbage has started to pile up. Every year, as the dry season stretches on and water levels start to get lower, rubbish from tour groups and visitors becomes more visible on the banks, and rock pools act like magnets for water bottles and crisp packets. When the waters rise again, it just carries the trash on from one village to the next.
Along with friend Mark Grindley, a fellow kayaker who works in the environmental development and conservation field, Jason decided that sitting around complaining about the trash didn’t do much good to anyone. So together, they came up with the concept for ‘Friends of the Mae Taeng’ and started making plans for a massive clean-up operation. They discovered through contacts in the environmental programme at Chiang Mai University (CMU) that the Faculty of Biology was planning a river project in the area, and so they arranged to work together.
In late April, the first phase of the project kicked off. Jason and Mark drove me out to the river to meet Dr. Chitchol Phalaraksh, a lecturer in the Biology Department who explained CMU’s involvement. “Basically, the University students are teaching people from eight nearby villages how to test the quality of the water. We can tell from the type of insects we find whether the water is good or bad. We had a workshop this morning and now the villagers are testing out what they’ve learned.” Wading through the water with fishing nets and sitting on the banks examining Petri dishes were nearly thirty representatives from eight villages in the area. Chitchol went on “We want the villagers to become more aware of the river’s condition. It is central to their lives, so it is important for them to take some responsibility for its condition.”
The next day, an army of about sixty, comprising villagers, students who had camped by the river and volunteers bussed in from Chiang Mai, pulled on rubber gloves, grabbed bin liners and started to scour one of the busiest 10 km stretches of the Mae Taeng for rubbish. As we drove, handing out water bottles and collecting bulging bags of trash, Jason put the project into perspective. “We’re not going to get all the trash, and in a few months it’s going to start building up again, but we’re making an effort and hopefully an impression. I hope people will see what we’re doing today and think twice about chucking their garbage in the river.”
It certainly seemed as though the last part was working out. We watched from the roadside as the litter patrol swarmed into one of the busiest sections of the river. The stalls erected on the river banks were doing a roaring trade selling beer and barbecue and there must have been a good few hundred people splashing around or sprawled out on picnic mats, enjoying their Sunday afternoon. The volunteers were all smiles as they dug brown bottles out of sand banks and rescued Styrofoam food boxes from the grip of tree roots. People stood up to watch what they were doing and before long were collecting up their own rubbish and even taking it over to the collectors.
By five o’clock, as the last truckfull of weary, grubby but remarkably high-spirited volunteers pulled in to the gathering point, nearly two hundred sacks of rubbish had been collected, weighing in the region of half a ton. People cheered as it was hauled into the rubbish truck and were already making plans for another operation later in the year. Jason and Mark were all smiles as we headed back to Chiang Mai. “Mission accomplished,” Jason said, “well, until next time.”
Mae Taeng Whitewater Adventures
About 90 minutes from Chiang Mai is a little river called the Mae Taeng. Bordered on both sides by steeply sloping fields of banana trees and luxuriant jungle, it is easily one of the loveliest places in Thailand for an adventure.
But lazily watching a river go by is quite a different experience from actually being in the midst of its rushing, bubbling madness. As the Mae Taeng boasts Thailand's best white water rapids.
The difficulty of a stretch of white water rapid is measured on an internationally-approved scale of one to six. The Mae Taeng is made up primarily of rapids rated three and four - enough to produce an intense adrenaline rush.
I went with Siam River Adventures. Owner Jason Younkin has been running river trips in Thailand for 8 years, uses the best equipment and runs his company with such iron-willed efficiency that he wears a German army helmet while navigating the Taeng. Whatever his reasons, the helmet inspired my confidence. Nevertheless, Jason hails from Colorado and is also a Rescue 3, Swiftwater Rescue Instructor. I knew that Colorado-ians were experts on rocks and rivers, if not headgear aesthetics. Jason is one of the first to run all the rapids on the Mae Taeng. He promotes "Cultural Adventures" - trips for adrenalin junkies with an essence of Northern Thai tradition.
After a bumpy but scenic ride up to the rustic company headquarters, we ate lunch and then learnt the basics of whitewater rafting. Most importantly, we learnt how to synchronize our paddling so that we could maneuver the raft efficiently, and also know what to do if someone should fall into the water. Groups of not more than six per boat were arranged and each was assigned a professional rafter as a guide.
After drifting lazily down the river, we became lulled into a false sense of security. Then the first set of rapids hit. Det our guide shouted out directions and we dutifully obeyed. Though strenuous, we ultimately emerged unscathed from the rushing tumult and raised our oars in an exuberant "high-five".
The next set of rapids was fiercer, the water rushed around us as our boat pierced the waves. We were Soaked! We still had some more grade 4 rapids ahead.
The rapids kept coming, faster and more frequent. Gradually, we all fell into a rhythm and, like a well-oiled machine, forded our way over the boulders and falls, and twists and turns.
We thanked Det for taking such good care of us as we climbed out. There on the banks, it was how I'd imagined heaven to be: beer and biscuits, and hill-tribe women trying to sell jewellery.
I'd do it all over again because it was an amazingly fun trip - except, that is, for the parts where nobody realises you're panicking. Which is why I'm planning to wear a German army helmet every day, all the time. I'll sure look cool and moreover, I no longer have any fear of large rapids!
A Wild Whitewater Day in Northern Thailand
By Karen Emmons
Having a wild night in Thailand is rather easy to do, at least in Bangkok. Having a wild day, and having it with children even, takes a little more planning. But it is gloriously possible.
Certainly for early risers, it can be easy to pull together for a one-day trip out of Bangkok. Booking a seat on the 6:25 a.m. Thai Airways flight to Chiang Mai, 700 km to the north, between now and April and then contacting one of the several river rafting companies in the northern city will take you into the deep countryside and to some of the wildest white water Thailand has to offer. Light clothes for the river and a change for after is all the packing needed.
There are several river rafting outfitters in Chiang Mai, though one, Siam River Adventures, touts its American owner’s 10,000 miles of experience on North American and Asian (Japan and Lao PDR) rivers. The Mae Taeng, says Siam River’s owner and chief guide, Jason Younkin, “is pretty high quality” with good water and good rafting for eight to nine months a year, which is uncommon.” Younkin’s company also offers what he claims is the only white-water kayaking in Thailand and has cosy “homestay” lodgings amid a green tea plantation available at their river base, in case early morning flights seem unreasonable.
From June to mid-February, the rapids on the Mae Taeng can rank as high as a class 4 (out of a possible class 5). There are not many of them and while they are challenging, with names like Dragon and Khaoboy, they are short-lived. This makes a typical 10 km stretch of rafting good fun for old-hands and ideal for beginners and young people. However, Younkin recommends not taking anyone younger than 13 over the white water, though they make exceptions based on size. A 10-year-old who recently braved the hurly-burly rapids – initially with utter-terrified crying until he survived the hairiest turns without spilling out – called it “fun” and said he wanted to go again the next week.
A striking wild man figure with a heavily tattooed body, Younkin, 29, has rafted down the Mae Taeng for four years, and married into one of the families living alongside the river. His Siam River Adventures package offers “lifeguards” who stand on the river’s edge with ropes in waiting, on the off-chance that he or his “very experienced” guides fail to keep everyone in the rubber raft. “I thought the guide was very competent, and good looking,” commented Kate Gunn, an Australian who works in Chiang Mai. When halfway through the trip the guide said he made Dunkin Donuts before joining the crew two years earlier, Kate decided it might be best in the future to ask for a guide’s qualifications only at the end of the adventure. All in all, she found it an easy but exhilarating day trip. “I have been on other rivers in Thailand but this was much more challenging,” she noted.
Younkin’s says he charges slightly more than other outfitters, but he claims to offer more professionalism: “To me, professional means solving a problem quickly and in a safe way.”
In between the rapids are sufficiently long spells of quiet fresh air, pecked by the common kingfisher. Through the bamboo, banana and jungle foliage comes the occasional song of elephants trudging home.
Departure for the river, at least with Siam River Adventures, begins with a 9 a.m. pick-up from anywhere in the city, which makes it possible to head to the new Chedi hotel for a lovely breakfast tea overlooking the Ping River that flows through Chiang Mai city. The ride north includes a stop-over at the company’s own coffee house about 45 minutes outside of Chiang Mai and about an hour before the base camp. Once there, lunch is served and rafting begins around 2 p.m.
The return drive winds up back in Chiang Mai by 6 p.m., which still allows time for shopping and dining in the night market or on the ever-groovy-growing Nimanhaeminda Road, particularly Soi 1. The last flight to Bangkok takes off at 9.10 p.m., landing you weary but having had a truly wild excursion.
Recommended white-water tour agencies in Chiang Mai
(from the Chiang Mai Tourist Guide):
Siam River Adventures
with its own trips on the Mae Taeng and Nam Wa Rivers.
A trip on the Mae Taeng River with lunch 1,800 baht (USD $45); children 1,500. Also available is a five-day rafting trip on the Nam Wa River.
Tel: +66 (0) 9-515-1917; +66 (0) 6-586-5386
Web site: www.siamrivers.com
Hold on tight!...It’s Whitewater Season!
By Colin Hinshelwood
In His infinite wisdom the Creator built the world in six days. Then on the seventh day – contrary to some accounts – He kicked back with Mother Nature. She cajoled Him and whispered in His almighty ear, beseeching the Creator to give Her a little something extra; perhaps something melodious to add to the motionless, silent landscape. And so the besotted Creator karate-chopped the mountains, forming ravines and gorges, and He let water flow freely, allowing waterfalls and whitewater rivers to be born.
Yet it was only millennia later that the descendents of Adam and Eve discovered the joy of those cascading streams. As a means of travel they were useless; but as an organized pursuit and in the proper hands, whitewater rapids have now become the adventure sport of the 21st century.
Chiang Mai from late June to March
Now that the flooding has receded and the rainy season is waning, the rivers that run down from China and the Himalayas are full to the brim and ready for action. In recent years a few new adventure sports companies have opened for business in Northern Thailand, along the bursting banks of the Mae Taeng in Chiang Mai province, as well as in Nan, Pai, Tak and Petchburi.
Whitewater rafting makes for a great one-day trip. It gets you up early, out in the fresh air, and battling with the elements. The Chiang Mai area is particularly spoilt when it comes to natural beauty – the region contains all of Thailand’s highest peaks, and a tropical rainforest of rolling hills encourages rivers to wriggle into labyrinths in their downstream quest. You may hear the howl of a gibbon or spot a snake glide across the surface of the river. More likely you’ll see kingfishers, sandpipers, herons, and colorful butterflies as you cruise by. Through the dripping vines, you’ll see a flock of hornbills passing overhead. You might even be able to reach out to pluck a banana from the trees on the riverbank.
It’s the ideal site for a jungle adventure and what better way to tackle nature than in a rubber raft with a team of equally excited friends and family?
Make no mistake – whitewater rafting is a team sport, a bonding experience for everyone involved. Faced with the prospect of flipping over and doing a “Titanic”, each member of the team must prove his or her worth. Together you will face the speed of the rapids and sink or swim as one.
Of course, some preparation helps. Your tour leader should ensure that the boat is balanced for weight and paddling strength. Although the guide himself acts as the rudder and steers the vessel around the rocks, it’s the paying customer that is the “engine” of the boat, and a good team that paddles strongly and in sync will outshine any ragtag band of half-hearted sailors.
Jason Younkin has been kayaking and rafting on whitewater all over the world, from his home in Colorado to Japan and Nepal. He founded Siam River Adventures five years ago.
“In my opinion, the (river) Mae Taeng is the best whitewater in Thailand,” he says. “It’s excellent not only for experienced kayakers and rafting guides, but for first-timers as well. It’s very technical, but not over the top.”
The 10 km stretch of the Mae Taeng where tours operate includes several daunting rapids and junctions, each of which bears its own identity – “The Dragon”, “The Overnight”, “Khao-Boy”, and the aptly named “Standing Wave”.
Then you’re off! Paddling for all you’re worth, clenching your teeth and skimming down the rapids. The guide shouts “Forward!” and everyone rows as one. Sometimes the call is: “Right forward; left back!” All those on the right side of the raft paddle ahead; the team on the left side tries to reverse, and the boat spins around. And when your guide screams: “Get down!” you know you’re about to plunge into a washing machine of foam and everybody crouches low and hangs on for dear life.
Oh, the thrills! The spills! The screams of terror! It’s like a rollercoaster ride without rails. Or as one terrified Burmese student, Nay Thwin put it: “I felt as if I were riding bareback on a wild, untamed horse.”
“Loved it!” said English teacher Serin, who ironically proclaimed aloud to her fellow-seafarers that she was going to quit teaching and become a rafting guide only moments before falling out of the raft on a Grade 4 rapid and slaloming downstream 100 meters in world record time.
Oliver Benjamin from California admitted: “I’ve never been so terrified and ecstatic at the same time, until today.”
“It woke me up,” muttered Michelle James, a 21 year-old non-swimmer, who was clearly still in shock.
What everyone seems to agree is that whitewater rafting in Thailand is an exhilarating and unforgettable experience. Dangerous? Most certainly. But dangerous in the way that adventure sports are meant to be dangerous – screaming, scary, adrenalin-pumping moments of madness!!!
The key element to whitewater rafting is the attention to detail that your tour company applies. If your strapping young guide seems more interested in chatting up the blonde tourist beside him, then he is probably not concentrating fully on the balance of the boat. Firstly, the tour leader should explain the paddling techniques and emergency procedures that everyone must follow. Linguistic differences should be resolved so that every person in the boat understands the instructions and works as in unison. Everyone should have a crash helmet, a lifejacket, and a paddle.
Apart from the professionalism of the company and the guides themselves, the most essential security procedure is to have “lifeguards” posted along the most precarious parts of the river. These will usually be local lads who can throw a rope to anyone who falls out of the boat and then pull them to shore. One company may cost a little more than another because it has employed these “extras”, but that’s money well spent and genuine insurance for the customer. Children under 12 are not recommended on whitewater.
An adventurous spirit and a change of clothes are the only things you’ll need. Wear tennis shoes if you have them as flip-flops often fall off in the water and are never seen again. Shorts and T-shirts are perfect. Have a spare set of clothes and a towel waiting on dry land. Cameras are not a good idea on the boat; however, some companies include a photographer who will take a series of snaps from the riverside for you.
That’s it. Good luck!
NORTHERN EYE: Downstream the fastest way
Lavish rains have made the northern rivers perfect for shooting the rapids
After heavy rains in northern Thailand, conditions for whitewater rafting are now probably the best in decades. Swollen rivers run wild through the forests, sending showers of spray as they crash against the rocks, and devil-may-care rafters bob and weave through the rough waters, or rapids, in rubber dinghies.
When a river changes mood to a soft-flowing stream, the oarsmen can drop their paddles for awhile, rest their arms and watch the jungle drift slowly past. Shafts of sunlight rain down through the trees and, as the sound of rushing water fades into the distance, the calls of birds and monkeys can be heard above the rustle of the breeze.
Whitewater rafting was relatively new to Thailand, arriving just a few years ago. But it soon established itself in the North, where challenges range in difficulty on a scale of one to five.
The Mae Taeng River is one of the best-known and popular rafting routes, with rapids that vary among the first four grades. Located in a valley 75 kilometres north of Chiang Mai city, it winds down from high in the mountains near the Burmese border, through valleys and canyons, past lonely hilltribe villages.
And south of the city, the Mae Chaem runs an exciting course through Doi Inthanon and Orb Luang national parks. The mountains get dense further west towards Mae Hong Son, and the Pai River smashes an angry path towards Burma. From Ban Nam Kong, 65 kilometres from Pai town, this fierce waterway thrusts downstream through forest and waterfalls and 15 sets of rapids that test all five levels of expertise.
Go northeast and you find the Nam Wa River in Nan province. From its source in the Doi Nun mountains, it flows down through pristine forest to remote valleys and dramatic gorges. And, of course, the waters are challenging.
Most people can turn into whitewater rafters, but it isn’t a sport you can do on your own. It’s best to seek out a reputable operator with a Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) licence, guides, itineraries, insurance and all the necessary safety equipment such as life-jackets and helmets.
Experience is not usually necessary, as all participants are well briefed on safety and protection before setting out. However, it stands to reason that a decent level of fitness is required – and the ability to swim.
Age is fairly immaterial, and youngsters have been known to shoot the rapids even at the tender age of 10. At the other end of the scale, I guess you’re as young as you feel. Sixty-two year old Robert Musibvoy from the United States remarked – after his first Thai experience of whitewater rafting – “Good trip, good guides, good food and good fun. Best whitewater I’ve been on.” So he certainly enjoyed himself.
Thailand’s rainy season starts in May, but it’s probably best to wait until July before rafting – when the waters are high. Dry, cool weather takes over in mid-October, and fast currents continue to flow until February.
A Professional teams of fully trained guides and skippers are employed by the top rafting companies operating from Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai Adventure offers a one-day whitewater rafting programme on the Mae Taeng River. And the TAT rewarded it the “Outstanding Performance for Inbound Tourists 2004” award for a schedule that also includes cycling and elephant rides.
Siam River Adventures provides one-day trips down the same waterway. Mild bumps turn to gut-juggling torrents as the river descends. The water runs faster and the rapids become more frequent towards the journey’s end.
Don’t be misled by the gentle start of this company’s two-day Mae Taeng expedition. After spending the night in riverside bungalows, the morning ushers in the awesome challenge of taking on a dozen falls classed three to four.
And if that isn’t enough to churn the stomach, there is a four-day excursion down the Nam Wa River in Nan. The journey builds from an easy cruise to a daunting third day of riding 100 rapids – all classed in the upper range.
The River of Life and Det
By Oliver Benjamin
Oliver Benjamin decides to risk his life to experience Northern Thailand’s foamy and furious waters up close and personal.
About 90 minutes from Chiang Mai is a little river called the Mae Taeng. Bordered on both sides by steeply sloping fields of banana trees and luxuriant jungle, it is easily one of the loveliest places in Thailand.
But lazily watching a river go by is quite a different experience from actually being in the midst of its rushing, bubbling madness. As the Mae Taeng boasts excellent whitewater rapids in parts, I was able to discover this fact firsthand.
The difficulty of a stretch of whitewater rapid is measured on an internationally-approved scale of one to six. The Mae Taeng is made up primarily of rapids rated three and four – enough to produce an intense adrenaline rush.
I went with Siam River Adventures. Owner Jason Younkin has been running river trips in Thailand for six years, uses the best equipment and runs his company with such iron-willed efficiency that he wears a German army helmet while navigating the Taeng. Whatever his reasons, the helmet inspired my confidence. Nevertheless, Jason hails from Colorado, and I knew that Colorado-ians were experts on rocks and rivers, if not headgear aesthetics.
After a bumpy but scenic ride up to the rustic company headquarters, we ate lunch and then learnt the basics of whitewater rafting. Most importantly, we learnt how to synchronise our paddling so that we could manoeuvre the raft efficiently, and also know what to do if someone should fall into the water. Groups of not more than six per boat were arranged and each was assigned a professional rafter as a guide.
It’s been said that until you’ve stared Death in the face, you haven’t truly lived. Well, I was already staring him in the face: “Det” happens to be the name of our river guide. This is, of course, how Thais pronounce the English word “death.”
He seemed like a nice guy and bore no visible signs of previous injury. However, he did have a mischievous look in his eye and seemed to wield his oar like a scythe.
A Rapid Ride
After drifting lazily down the river, we became lulled into a false sense of security. Then the first set of rapids hit. Det shouted out directions and we dutifully obeyed. Though strenuous, we ultimately emerged unscathed from the rushing tumult and raised our oars in an exuberant “high-five”.
The next set of rapids was fiercer, and this time, we got stuck atop a medium-sized boulder. The sudden deceleration made us all tumble into one another, all of us but Sara, who tumbled directly into the river.
As we struggled to free ourselves from the boulder, we kept an eye on Sara who seemed to be waving at us and laughing as she rushed by the rocks at high speed. Fifty yards down or so, safety personnel tossed her a rope and pulled her back onto dry land.
When we finally made it down over to her, she was still laughing, but we could see that she was a little shaken up. Luckily, our safety vests had padded flaps in the back that help protect the head and neck as one drifts in the rushing waters.
“But you were smiling and waving to us,” someone said. “No I wasn’t,” she yelped, “I was making the signal of distress!”
We had forgotten our lesson: waving your hands in the air while in the water meant you were freaking out. Oh well. Sara was still raring to go, and we got to enjoy the excitement of her mishap.
The rapids kept coming, faster and more frequent. Gradually, we all fell into a rhythm and, like a well-oiled machine, forded our way over the boulders and falls, and twists and turns.
We thanked Det for taking such good care of us as we climbed out. There on the banks, it was how I’d imagined heaven to be: beer and biscuits, and hill-tribe women trying to sell me jewellery.
I’d do it all over again because it was an amazingly fun trip – except, that is, for the parts where nobody realises you’re panicking. Which is why I’m planning to wear a German army helmet every day, all the time. I’ll sure look cool and moreover, I no longer have any fear of Det.
TIGER AIRWAYS FLIES BETWEEN CHIANG MAI AND SINGAPORE FOUR TIMES WEEKLY.
Getting Wet and Wild
Siam River Adventures, tel: +66 (09) 515 1917 or (06) 586 5386, email reservations to firstname.lastname@example.org or submit online form at www.siamrivers.com. Cost is THB1,800 (SGD84) per person for a two-hour journey on the river, about 10 kilometres. Rapids vary from class 1-4.
What to Bring:
Sport sandals or trainers, shorts and/or bathing suit, T-shirt, sunscreen, a change of clothing, small amounts of cash (baht) for extra purchases. Sweatshirt or jumper (November to January). Non-waterproof valuables such as cameras or watches are not allowed.