Without a Paddle: Rafting in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Thailand is a favourite stop on the student and graduate itinerary – here's one traveller's tale of urban grit, beautiful nature, and sinking into everything-infested waters

Feature by Izzy Gray | 23 Apr 2019

Summer 2011 marked the start of my tempestuous relationship with Thailand. I had travelled there with my friend Ciara in the midst of our honours years, and after spending a couple of weeks teaching English in the rural province of Wiset Chai Chan felt sufficiently acclimatised to take on the infamous backpacking circuit.

Nothing, however, could have prepared me for what was to come – a whirlwind of bizarre and terrifying experiences, the pinnacle of which came during an ill-fated rafting experience in the Chiang Mai jungle.

The silence which followed my question of “Where are we?” sent a chill across my skin, despite the heat of the sun. I searched the faces of my companions, each lost in their own puzzle. Beneath us, the water swelled and spat menacingly. Using my hand for shade, I scanned the canopies above, as though hoping to find an answer.

Before us the Thai Highlands stood cloaked in a protective haze, stoic and enchanting. The perfume hung in the air from the exotic fruits all around, and above us, birds swooped lazily through the sky as though they had seen it all before. My moment’s meditation was pierced by the sudden eruption of profanities from the German man at the front of the raft. It didn’t take long to find out the cause of his distress; within seconds, it was lobbed in my direction. All eight legs of it.

Suddenly aware that we could be sharing the water with any number of aquatic beasties, the scene began to reflect my inner panic. All four passengers sprang into the air like a flock of pigeons dodging the eager grasp of an unsupervised toddler. The more we flailed, the more fragile our vessel became, until eventually sense prevailed and we froze, as though competing in an unsteady game of musical statues. By now, the water had absorbed the frame completely. Erratically, we looked from one to another, each set of eyes asking the same question; how had this group of strangers ended up stuck on a raft, alone and adrift, in the middle of the Thai jungle?

The day had begun on a bad note. It was 7am and the sound of ferocious banging filled my ears. Dismissing the noise as a side effect of the cocktails of the night before, I groaned and buried my head under the pillow. Still it persisted. It took several minutes to establish that this was not actually blood pounding through my temples but a fist hammering upon our door. The penny dropped. “Get up! We’ve slept in!” We flew into life, berating ourselves for challenging the fact that early mornings and copious amounts of alcohol do not mix. After apologising profusely to the (evidently cross) driver, we clambered aboard the awaiting songthaew or shared taxi, ready to begin our day trip into the heart of the Thai mountains.

The two hour journey felt significantly longer, as we perched uncomfortably and tried to avoid eye contact with the burly Israeli man sat opposite in unfortunately tight shorts. Already feeling nauseous, we nodded at each other in silent agreement; clearly, this was going to be one of those moments that would have to go in to the ‘One Day We’ll Look Back at This and Laugh’ box. Unfortunately that box seemed to be getting rather full.

From the multiple times we had seen people's stuff being stolen to the time we found ourselves in the front row of ‘that’ show in Patpong, our time in Thailand had been a whirlwind of bizarre and testing experiences.

We had experienced the sinking feeling of having misjudged our bus stop by 100km, and had learned the hard way never to trust mysterious, half-cooked sausages. We’d fended off giant rats and three-legged dogs and survived the markets of Khao San Road, and yet still it seemed that trouble was never too far behind. How we had thought that a trek into an unknown jungle would end in any way other than this was anyone’s guess.

Our day’s trekking had not begun well, and the unsettled feeling we had in the pit of our stomachs did not ease upon meeting our guides, three men who seemed to have as little sense of direction as we did, along with a worrying penchant for swinging machetes. These men, we had been promised when booking our trip, were ‘extremely knowledgeable’ locals, and yet their continual squabbling and routine swigging of whisky made me wonder if perhaps this time our bargaining skills had come at a cost.

Eventually, we reached the bank of a surprisingly wide and fast-flowing river and were somewhat relieved to see a stack of lifejackets and helmets waiting for us in the foreground of some snazzy-looking dinghies.

Making a beeline for the nearest boat, we were stopped by a guide, who shook his head and laughed. He pointed a little further downstream, to a collection of loosely-bound logs. The words ‘Traditional Rafting Experience’ drifted back in to my consciousness, and the sinking feeling in my gut began to grow. We were led away from the relative safety of the lifejackets.

“But… the rapids!” exclaimed a member of our group, gesticulating towards the water, which looked about as inviting as a Rottweiler’s tea party.

The guide’s reassuring response: “No, no, no. Be cool. Be cool.”

Reluctantly, my sidekick and I followed the German onto the most secure looking raft. We were dismayed, however, to be joined by the lovely but large Israeli man with his tiny shorts.

Now I’ve never been good at maths, but I’m sure it doesn’t take a genius to work out that balancing three average-weight adults with one of oxen proportion was never going to be an easy task.

Eventually, after much wobbling and bilingual debate, we settled on an order of lightest at the front, heaviest at the back. Our raft may have resembled a clog, but at least it was buoyant – for now. By this point we were the last to set off, and had lost sight of the others in our group. 

“Which way?,” we asked the guide, as he pushed us off from the bank.

“Be cool”, he grinned, the smell of Sangsom thick on his breath. And with that, he was gone.

An hour and several unmentioned forks in the river later and we were, well and truly, lost. With our raft grumbling and groaning beneath us, it was only a matter of time before we succumbed to the water.

And yet, despite the situation, it was hard not to be consoled by the beauty of our surroundings. That’s the thing about Thailand; no matter how hard it tries to test your patience, there’s always something redeeming waiting to restore your faith, like the gold peak of a temple through the dirty, grey skyscrapers of Bangkok or the smell of incense trickling through the busy markets.

It’s a land of extremes and contradictions, and it’s hard not to have conflicting emotions when faced with the beauty of the country’s heritage and its desperate attempts to appeal to a Western market – believe me, the last thing you want to see when you arrive in a foreign city is a twenty-foot billboard of Wayne Rooney’s already enlarged features…

There were certainly moments during our trip where I had felt more afraid and more uncomfortable than I have ever done before in my life, and yet there were moments when I had felt the happiest; watching the sunset on Koh Lanta, learning Tai Chi from the local children, walking through the gardens of the many beautiful Temples that we had stumbled upon by accident. For every bad experience we had shared, we were given equal opportunity for hope. As our raft began to dissipate and our heads bobbed upon the surface of the water like corks, I could only hope that this would be one of those moments.

Ahead, the water stretched on for what seemed like an eternity. All was disturbingly calm. Then, as if from nowhere, we came upon a fisherman, his waders on and net out. He looked at us, his expression changing from perplexed to amused, and uttered the four words which I will never forget and which will forever find home in the ‘One Day We’ll Look Back at This and Laugh’ box; “Well hello, log submarine!”

Izzy Gray survived her jungle ordeal, and has a degree in English Literature. She plans to teach English as a foreign language in Tanzania later in 2014.
Originally published in The Skinny Student Handbook 2014