By Colin Hinshelwood
2006 – 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 descendants 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 Chinaand 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 rain forest 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.
What to Take
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!