2005 – 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 Riversmashes 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 can do it
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.