White-water rafting Chiang Mai
Riding the rapids of the Mae Taeng
Rafting the Mae Taeng can be a hair raising experience but it's certain to be one of the most exciting things you do in Thailand.
It’s been raining cats and Buddhas for the past three days, but today the sun is already beating down on us and it’s only 10am. But it isn’t enough sun to dry out the severe mud ruts that this old Landrover is busy grinding its way through as we patiently negotiate our way up the Mae Taeng River. To our left the gorge falls away steeply, carpeted in lush jungle, and at the bottom we catch glimpse of a ferocious river that tumbles out of the mountains of Northern Thailand.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” my companion asks sceptically.
“Dunno, but the jungle up here sure is pretty” I meekly respond, trying to change the topic. It took me half a day to persuade her to come whitewater rafting and then the floods came down from the mountains and left Chiang Mai under a foot of water. But our guide, Jason, assured us that he never rafts an angry river and that our patience would pay off. The waters of Typhoon Damrey are now down in the valley he explains and the river has dropped to a safe level. To prove his point, we stopped at one point nearer the river and we inspected the rocks.
“See this boulder here” he points out, “when this is above the water level, it’s safe to raft this river”. He’s internationally trained in swift water rescue so we take his word for it. But the sight of the whitewater and sheer force of the grade five rapid he showed off to us has left butterflies in my stomach.
The awesome force of the recent floods have left an obvious calling card, and the banks are littered with forest debris and strewn with a destructive muddy mess several metres higher than the present level. It’s difficult to imagine a river more lively than this but clearly we are seeing it in a tamer mood.
Up at the camp the river is more relaxed, and even after the traumatic preview we have no regrets about signing up for this adventure. Sop Kai is a charming little village situated on a flat part of the river, way up this snaking valley, and all around us the jungle sings with a mid-morning chorus of nature as the water glistens and the sleepy community goes about its rural business.
We’re offered some snacks and fresh mountain coffee in the cool riverside bungalow of Siam River Adventures, and left to savour the wonderful experience of being up here in the mountains. This village is far away from the tourist traps and crowded temples. It’s all part of the day’s experience, Jason promised us. I’m tempted to ask if we can skip the rafting and simply go hiking up the banks of the river, it’s so lovely here. But that would be chickening out.
A real wild one!
Before long he has us all kitted out and launches into a serious safety briefing and impromptu tutorial on how to react to an unruly raft. “Forward paddle! Back paddle! Lean left! Right! Get down!” he yells as we practice in the eddies of this impatient river. When it’s all over he offers us a reassuring; “ don’t worry, the guides will control the craft, just follow orders and you’ll be alright.” Before the safety briefing began he made a point of checking the swift water rescue gear and dispatching his staff to the most difficult rapids, so that they are ready to throw rescue ropes. He also points out that his is the only company on this river that has safety kayakers accompanying the raft to help rescue ‘floaters’, as he calls them. We feel just a little better now.
And so, with little time to ponder what we are about to embark on, the guides push us into the main current and the camp disappears immediately as gravity tugs violently at us. That initial experience of sudden unstoppable momentum is perhaps the most impressionable memory as your adrenalin gets hold of your heart. You have little chance to concentrate on anything other than the rapidly approaching water immediately in front of your craft. It’s too late to turn back now but one certain thought that screams at your sense of logic is; ‘Oh my god, what have I got myself into!’
Within minutes we hit the first major rapids. Thunderous water sounds a warning, my heart rate increases even more, and then we are on top of it. “Whooooaaah” we scream as the raft plunges headlong into the grade four rapid. The acceleration is scary, and with an exhilarating rush we splash through the bottom as our raft buckles and is thrown around. A sheer adrenalin high turns to relief as we coast out the other side and enjoy a breather on a tamer stretch.
But not for long. The gradient steepens again, we bumble over some smaller rapids and continue forward without any respite or braking.
“OK, everybody ready” our guide shouts. “Lean left! Left, left, left” he yells desperately as we all try to avoid having our craft sucked into the wrong side of an even larger rapid. “Backpaddle!” He yells even louder, as he tries to steer the craft away from the insistent drift. A big pile of debris has split the rapid, the right side definitely looks dangerous. Everything happens quickly, we’re panicking now. But instinct takes over, and water pours into the right side. Miraculously we narrowly avoid the tough route and with one final strong paddle from the guide we plunge down the correct chute.
The rapids are fierce!
My god, this is pretty stressful, I think to myself as we emerge safely below. There is spontaneously laughter and cheering, relief turns fear into enjoyment, and in a nervous sort of way I find myself starting to really enjoy this.
“Well done” the guide tells us calmly, you have passed the tough first test, those were some of the toughest, it gets easier from here” he reassures us. And he’s true to his word. Just as I was beginning to loathe any more of this, we tumble down a series of fun small rapids that prove to us that rafting this river is exciting and enjoyable.
After 20 more minutes of tamer rapids, we all - as a team - seem to have the hang of this and soon we pull up into an eddy where we are reunited with the other rafts. “Time for a breather” our guide shouts, and we all loosen our protective helmets and life jackets. The road is just above us and a train of elephants trundle by with several tourists on board. Now that’s a far more sensible way to travel, I think to myself.
Before long we set out again for the most lively stretch of the river and unbeknown to us, a nasty surprise lies ahead. We hit the next rapid, a grade five with a name that sounds like something out of a violent Playstation game. This one is practically a small waterfall and as we hit the bottom the raft flips and into the water we all go. Pandemonium strikes. I recall seeing the swift water rescue guard standing on a nearby rock with safety rope ready but chaos reigns as I hold my breath and try, in a panic, to remember the safety advice. The water is keeping me under but I hold my breath and allow the water to ‘wash me out’ of the rapid. Sure enough I find myself downstream, surfacing and trying to gain control as the powerful river spirits me away. Luckily there are no further rapids and I manage to steer myself into an eddy. Fortunately everyone has recovered and we soon regroup and rescue the rafts.
And so the day continues as we tackle one rapid after the other, interspersed with relaxing recoveries along tamer stretches of the river from where we can admire the wonderful forested gorge around us. A few more times we manage some hair raising escapes and the adrenalin rushes are addictive, leaving us nervously wishing for more. We have overcome our fears and eventually we approach the bottom of the stretch.
“Yeah! Bring it on baby” yells one of the people in our group and each time we plunge into another rapid the girls let out a loathing scream that soon turns to laughter. Even when it’s all over and we coast into the disembarkment camp we are all grinning from ear to ear, with scarcely any regret for signing up for the day’s adventure.
There’s only one task left to do, and that is to pose as a team in front of the rafts, paddles raised in victory - for we have tamed the mighty Mae Taeng River.
Whitewater rafting is offered on the Mae Taeng River by Siam River Adventures who have day trips departing daily. For more details visit: www.siamrivers.com
Or call: 09 515 1917 - trips cost 1,800 baht and can be booked at local tour agents.