The valve gurgles every few minutes, as freshwater drains out from within the battered inflatable raft.
“It’s fine, only out not in”, my guide Mr Chai assures me. I’m unconvinced, looking at the 2 centimeter depth of water collecting along the sides of the raft. Under the scorching heat of the 1pm sun in a cloudless sky, my raft is drifting on a 10-meter wide river in the middle of a jungle in Northern Thailand. There’s no cell reception, no settlement anywhere for 10 kilometers, and no one else but Mr Chai, my travel companion and I. This must be what getting lost and stranded feels like.
Just slightly over 3 hours ago, I was driven out of the tourist town of Pai in a rickety truck. After bumping around violently for an hour on dirt tracks, we stopped along a nondescript section of the river Pai. Mr Chai and his friend from Thai Adventure Rafting quickly got to work, inflating the 4m long raft in just under 10 minutes. While at it, they also prepared a dry box to keep my spare clothes for an overnight stay in a jungle camp, and some ingredients and cutlery meant for the next 3 meals deep in the jungle.
After a quick safety brief and an outfield toilet break, it was time to go. With a good 5-6 hours of rough waters between us and the camp, there was no time to lose. I grabbed my paddle and sat on the left side of the front row. Behind me, Mr Chai completed a final check and pushed his paddle against the rocks.
And with that, off we went!
The route from Pai to Mae Hong Son
Most travellers are familiar with the 1841 turns that make up the road between Pai and Mae Hong Son. However, for those that get carsick easily, there’s another way to get around this – by getting seasick.
As the River Pai twists and turns its way around the same mountains that make the roads so winding, bands of hard and soft rock has eroded into boulders and sand. This creates alternating sections of rapid and smooth-flowing river, the ideal playground for thrill-seeking backpackers.
Clinging on to dear life in the middle of a raging series of rapids seems like my kind of fun, so I gleefully signed up for a 2D1N rafting adventure. Depending on the season though, the experience ranges from mildly exciting (in the dry months of December to April) to hair-raising (during the rainy season in May to October). Alas, I was in town in December, which meant the rapids weren’t at its strongest. To make matters worse, garlic farms running alongside the river were draining the river.
Mr Chai tells me that he’ll still be able to give me a run for my money though. He does this by navigating to certain spots where the water gets sucked in like a whirlpool behind a boulder. This traps the raft in a strong back-current while water churns all around. Very appropriately, Mr Chai calls it a washing machine.
It takes more than a day to reach our first washing machine, at a particularly nasty stretch of rapids. Mr Chai expertly brings the raft past the boulder of interest, and without warning, the raft is suddenly jolted backwards. As water enters the raft and fills up the interior rapidly, we stop paddling and watch our raft just stay… stationary. Like an invisible rope pulling the raft back, the washing machine refused to give us up to the current.
In a minute it was over as Mr Chai finally pushed the raft out of the shadow of the boulder. He smiled broadly, glad that his efforts were not in vain. As colour returned to my face, he asked if I’d like to go for more.
Camping with the jungle men
All overnight rafting expeditions will stop at a jungle camp located deep in the jungle. With no villages or even a fisherman’s hut nearby, this is a world away from the noisy, crowded metropolis of Chiang Mai. Cell phone reception faded out hours ago, and the only source of electricity trickles only from a small solar cell charger. Running water is in abundance, though, as handmade bamboo pipes carry a constant flow from a small stream inland.
The jungle camp is manned by a hardy trio of men who have committed to maintaining the camp for months on end. Without the convenience of modern infrastructure and commercial facilities, they live off the land. Every day, these guys head out to catch fresh catfish from the river, or search for wild fruits and vegetables in the jungle behind them. Any other vices, like cigarettes and alcohol, is provided by Mr Chai and other guides who raft in once every few days. For them, Christmas Day comes early each time the familiar sight of tourists on the bright blue rafts approach the shore of the camp.
“What happens during a medical emergency?”, I wondered aloud.
Mr Chai translates my question to the men, and they collectively laugh softly. A tad nervously, I thought.
“So far, everyone’s been fortunate that there’s been nothing like it”, Mr Chai explains. There’s no cell reception, so forget about calling for help. The easiest way would be to get onto the raft and paddle on, through the remaining rapids and until the town of Mae Hong Son. But that’s a day away, at least.
Otherwise, the nearest town is a tough 4 hour trek uphill through thick jungle to get to the nearest village, which is a generous description. More accurately, that is a few huts with limited facilities and supplies as well.
“The jungle men get their beer from the village, if they’re really craving for it”, he adds. “But tourists… will need the raft.” Which only meant keeping a close eye on snakes and scorpions, even though the place is routinely cleared by the jungle men before new tourists arrive.
Before resting, I take a bath in a jungle bathroom. The shower facilities can be described as a tub of murky river water with a small bucket to scoop and dump water over myself. The floor is built on bamboo sloping down, so all water is drained into the stream running towards the river. Even so, the bath is refreshing after a full day’s rafting. Somehow, this water still feels cleaner than some hostels I’ve visited over the years, where only brown rust water run out of groaning taps.
At night, everyone sits at a long dining table in almost pitch darkness and Mr Chai and the jungle men trade jovial banter. Two large candles provide the only illumination there, while the glowing embers of the once roaring campfire tell us where not to step into.
The four gentlemen have whipped up a feast fit for royalty, and my friend and I are only able to finish a small portion of it. There’s chunks of chicken cooked in green curry, two plates of fresh vegetables and carrots just harvested in the morning, and a tube of sticky banana rice inside a section of bamboo. As we show signs of defeat, a huge platter of fruits is brought forth from the darkness of the cooking table.
“Don’t worry”, Mr Chai assures me. “The jungle men don’t waste food. Eat what you can, and they will save the rest for themselves tomorrow.” I’m sure a lot of city folks around the world could do with a stay in this humble place, and learn a thing or two about reducing wastage.
A soak in an unexpected hot spring
The tour itinerary cheerfully sells a soak in some hot springs on the second day. After a cold night wrapped in a sleeping bag, I was all ready to thaw myself. So we set out for another day of rumbling waves on the meandering river, headed towards Mae Hong Son.
In my head, I was already imagining what the hot springs would be like. Is it a swimming complex, like the famous Széchenyi Baths in Budapest? Or a deep sulphurous pool with multi colored mineral rocks like those in Yellowstone?
After a few hours on the river, Mr Chai stops the boat and drags it to a rocky shore. There’s nothing here, even as my eyes scanned the treeline for any animal or interesting plant.
“Can you smell it?”, Mr Chai asks.
I can’t at first. But eventually I get a whiff of that characteristic rotten egg scent of sulphur. Mr Chai smiles knowingly, and points to a small opening in the ground. With water seeping out, followed by wisps of steam rising from it, this is the long-anticipated hot spring.
Mr Chai gets to work immediately. He takes his paddle and starts shovelling sand, heaping them on top of each other. I help out with my own paddle and slowly, the shape of a raised barrier takes form. There’s no pool in sight, so we’re building a pool for ourselves!
Once the dam is sufficiently sturdy, Mr Chai digs deeper to collect more hot water. With the eye of a civil engineer, he also opens a channel at the other end to let water flow out. Slowly, hot water accumulates in a shallow pool. Using an empty dry box, Mr Chai scoops up a load of cold river water and pours it into the pool, instantly cooling it down to the right temperature for a comfortable soak.
For the next hour or so, I alternate between lying down in the pool, getting up to dump in more cold water, and dining on a packed lunch of fried rice and a slice of watermelon.
Eventually we have to leave, though. With a heavy heart, I break the sand walls and hot spring water gushes into the cold river, returning everything to its natural state. This hot spring took a lot of hard work, but damn it was worth every gram of sand shovelled.
Reaching Mae Hong Son
Finally after 2 full days of furious paddling and holding on for dear life, I see signs of civilisation. First, garlic farms appear by the river banks. Then I hear the familiar whirl of water pumps. Mr Chai manoeuvres the boat to a pier, and warmly greets his friend waiting by the river bank. At last, we’ve reached the National Park Headquarters just slightly after 4pm.
With practised ease, both men carry the dry boxes and rafting equipment out, followed by the raft. I have a bus headed back to Chiang Mai to catch, so Mr Chai urges me to wash up and shower first. Unsurprisingly, the basic shared toilet facility felt like a luxury hotel bathroom after a night in the camp.
In less than an hour after disembarking at the pier, the truck is speeding down to the bus station. (Prempracha Transport runs this service, and the last 5pm bus ticket can be bought from the Chiang Mai bus station beforehand). After a hasty handshake and a quick photograph, I throw my backpack into the minivan and bid Mae Hong Son a fond farewell. Alas my time here is too short, but that leaves me with an excuse to revisit this quiet town once again in the near future!
Organise a rafting tour
If you’re keen to go on this tour, you’ll need to hop on a minivan or bus to Pai. Contact Guy (he’s a cool Frenchman dude who first pioneered this activity here decades ago!) at Thai Adventure Rafting. Send him an email at email@example.com, or call ahead at 66 – (0)81 993 9674.
The tour company is well equipped, professional and keenly observes safety procedures. My guide, Mr Chai, is exceptional in his knowledge of the river, and I never felt uneasy at any time. Also, after the tour is over, all his photos taken on his GoPro is available on their YouTube page, unlike some tour operators who insist on earning yet another quick buck by selling photo packages (stares hard at skydiving operators and their expensive videography packages).
Accommodation in Pai
I stayed in Juno hostel, which is located just 5 minutes away from the walking street. The dorms are clean, with individual curtains and electrical outlets for each bed. There’s also a small table stocked with bread, coffee and water available 24/7. Check here for latest rates and bed availability.
Visit Booking.com for more rooms and beds. These are the latest deals:
Getting out of Pai
After Pai, you can continue your journey to Chiang Rai, or head back south towards Bangkok. Chiang Mai also has several interesting sites to explore just an hour outside the city. Check out my itinerary for spending 2 weeks in Thailand!