Out on the water, deep in the jungle ... but just don't expect peace and quiet when you're rafting in Pai, writes guest blogger John Borthwick!
First we hear them, then we see them. As our raft bounces down the stairs of a river rapid in northern Thailand, the following raft starts shrieking with terrified delight. And they’re still on flat water. Noi, Cherry and their Bangkok office pals are at large, hooting all the way from Pai to Mae Hong Son.
Our put-in point on the Nam Khong River is well past Pai, west of Chiang Mai. Ahead of is a day and a half, 45-kilometre journey. With six passengers per raft and a Thai boatman, we drift down a water alley colonnaded by giant bamboo, mango and teak. Silence is a concept admired in the abstract by Buddhist Thais, but in practice it is much less sanuk – fun – than making noise, lots of it. So we stroke and holler through both rapids and calms.
The water is clear and warm. Which is good because water fights with other rafts are always part of rafting. We drip dry, only to be drenched again in the rapids. The thrill is amplified for some of the Thais by knowing that they can’t swim. There are 15 rapids on our run but as this is January and the rapids are moderate. In September they were raging.
Come late afternoon we stop at a jungle camp to pass the night. We’re deep in the Lum Nam Pai National Park but on the bank there’s a sheltered sleeping platform with bedding and mosquito nets. Stoves are lit, pots simmer and soon there’s a feast. After dinner, with a million stars snagged in the trees and frogs burping in the blackness, we share that true wilderness pleasure — sitting around a campfire, yarning with friends.
Next morning we’re back into the boats, stroking through the river mists as the jungle’s stained-glass ceiling closes over us. “There’s a hot spring — pull the rafts in,” says our guide, Pu. We hop ashore and dig troughs in the sand, trapping the hot water. Soon we are wallowing in warm, muddy baths, happy as pigs-in, with me slowly turning into tom yam farang soup.
We paddle on, reaching the confluence of the Nam Khong and Nam Pai. From here, the rapids double to around one-and-a half metres. So to does the squealing from the Bangkok Ladies Boat. We dig deep now with our paddles, slamming and slewing and broadsiding. And then, mid-afternoon, we round a bend to see a building. No! Hong Son already! There are sobs of mock despair, and not just from Noi, Cherry and their crew.