By Oliver Benjamin
2005 – 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 email@example.com 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.