Thursday, July 12, 2007


The streets of central Chiang Mai are lined with guesthouses offering a repeating menu of adventure options. There are visits to hill tribes. There are classes in cooking, language, massage, dressmaking and more that I’m not aware of. The most popular activities, however, are those that guarantee the release of high levels of adrenaline into the bloodstream.

I’d spent a week in Bangkok and then a few days wandering around Chiang Mai, visiting temples, lounging in the coffee shops, browsing in the excellent used bookstores, and eating an astonishing variety of food, from the local specialty, khao soy, to organic beet and spinach salads to surprisingly tasty and authentic Mexican food. One definition of surreal is sitting at a sidewalk table in Northern Thailand, watching the tuk-tuks roll by while washing down a spicy carnitas burrito with a cold Singha beer (I would have preferred a Corona, but what can you do?).

Pork Burrito at Miguel's California Cafe, Chiang Mai

I'm sorry. I've been sidetracked by a burrito. Back to Thailand.

I was enjoying myself in Chiang Mai, but faced with so many sporting options I decided to spend my last few days in Thailand in pursuit of adventure. I’d been hanging out at a place called the Kona Café, owned and operated by Jason, an ex-pat American whose main business venture, Siam River Adventures, is taking tourists climbing, mountain biking, trekking and whitewater rafting. We sat down and hammered out a custom trip in which I would spend one day trekking (including a visit to a hill tribe), sleep overnight at the company’s camp on the Mae Taeng River, then raft down the river the next day. Jason would then drop me off at a bus station where I would catch a ride north that would take me closer to the border with Laos.

The trek was exactly what you’d expect in the forests of Thailand in the first week of July: hot, humid, sweaty and steep. Three hikers – a Canadian couple, Mike and Maureen, in the Thailand for two weeks of business and pleasure, and myself – were guided by a young Thai man, Singh, along a track used by elephants and then up a steep ridge to a Lahu village. Singh stopped at one point when he spied a patch of wild mushrooms off the trail. He later found another patch in a field of mountain rice and ended up with about two pounds of fresh mushrooms. “These mushrooms are very expensive in Chiang Mai,” he explained.

Trekking in Northern Thailand

Singh Picking Mushrooms

The Lahu village was a collection of rickety huts and a lot of dirty children. I realize I sound insensitive with this description, but that’s what I saw. These are poor people living in a mountain village. They receive hundreds of foreign visitors a month and out appearance barely registered on their consciousness. The kids were still very cute.

The villagers had slaughtered a pig that morning in celebration something that was never clearly explained to us (an Animist ritual of some kind, or a New Year’s celebration, take your pick), and served us fresh pork soup (heavy on the grease) and a local dish that was described as “raw pork” but I suspect is a dish made from the pig’s blood. If there’s one thing I will pass up anywhere in the world, from a village in Northern Thailand to the finest restaurants in New York City, it’s raw pork.

Communal Meal at Lahu Village

Mmmm... Raw Pork

The next day I met a group of tourists at the Siam River Tours camp and prepared for a few hours of whitewater rafting. I had rafted once in my life, on a family vacation when in Northern California. I recall placid stretches of water and occasional whitewater thrills. No one got too wet and no one fell out of the boat. The worst thing that happened was the boat carrying my mother (Hi Mom!) became stuck on the side of a large rock; the look of terror on her face remains in my memory to this day.

Back on the Mae Taeng, the ten rafters donned lifejackets and helmets and were given a safety briefing by the staff. I asked whether I should bring sunglasses or a hat and was told not to bring anything that I wasn’t willing to lose. I think I’d been assuming the river experience would be similar to the ride of my childhood. I decided to forgo sunglasses and hat and climbed into the boat.

On the second set of rapids the boat tipped and I tumbled into the drink. It’s every rafters fear, and when it happens it is so fast there’s little time to think. I was on the boat one moment and the next tumbling in a froth of whitewater. My hand went to my face, and I discovered that I’d lost my glasses. I then broke the surface and gasped for breath. It was that feeling you get when the wind’s been knocked out of you, when it’s difficult to get air and you don’t know if your lungs will ever fill with air again.

So here I am, half blind, gasping for oxygen, and being carried like a log down the muddy Mae Taeng River. But I didn’t panic. I was getting some air and realized it would only get easier. My lifejacket was keeping me afloat and nothing hurt. I remembered the safety briefing and pointing my feet downstream. I then realized I was somehow still holding my paddle as well as a shoe belonging to a fellow rafter who’d also fallen in.

In fairness to Jason and Siam River Adventures, the rafts were accompanied by three staff members in kayaks, all of them trained in water rescue and first aid. In addition to the kayakers, other staff members would stand on the bank of the river with throw ropes in hand in case someone need assistance. I never felt like the company hadn't taken every precaution available.

Over the next two hours we covered some Class 4 rapids, dropping into swirling pools and bouncing off the many boulders in the river. This was nothing like the trip my family had taken. This was serious rafting, treacherous, exhilarating and everything adventure travel should be. I was upset about the loss of my glasses, but to tell the truth, they were quite scratched up and had been bothering my for the past few weeks anyway. I am now wearing my backup pair and am happy to have clear lenses again.

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