Rafting on the Pai river

(no, that is not me!)

Some people say they admire my adventures – but there is nothing adventurous about me, I am just a lazy traveller.

I first went rafting on the Pai river in May or early June in 2002, when I had got so badly sunburnt I literally couldn’t walk. I thought sitting in a raft would be a nice way to spend time, given these unfortunate circumstances. At that time, the river was so low that we were constantly scraping rocks. It was a tremendous, overwhelming experience. I had been planning to go back to the river ever since.

My determination was more than slightly shaken when I got to see the brand new promotional video in the rafting company’s office in Pai. There was lots of water – waterfalls and rapids and cascades and tidal waves – ok, almost. People were being catapulted out of the raft going through the rapids like they were mere shadows. I was wavering. Then I was told the river was surprisingly low at the moment for this season, and none of the rapids are bigger than class 3. After all, what could be difficult about it, just sit, paddle, hang on, and scream when it comes to the worst. I’ll survive. I will get to the end somehow.

We had an amazing team, two hilarious hilltribe guides full of fascinating stories, and a bunch of young or young at heart world travellers. Every minute with them was sheer joy. It does not happen all the time when you go on trips these days.

The rafting trip has changed since I last did it in 2002: they moved to the Pai river (before it was on the Khong river and the Pai river). The route is 65 kms, about 9 hours rafting in total through the jungle, in an area with no access roads, under towering cliffs, surrounded by wildlife.

The route starts near soy fields and villages about an hour’s drive from Pai. The only way out is downstream… you cannot change your mind. At the beginning, we saw several villagers carrying guns, or floating around on bamboo rafts. Then gradually we were in the middle of nowhere, with kingfishers flying around rapidly, glittering in the sun, monkeys jumping around on giant trees, a bunch of wild buffalo gazing at us from the banks – sorry, no photo of that.

There are lots of fun class 1 and 2 rapids to start with, and also at the end of the second day – obviously, I can only show photos of quieter waters, and also I didn’t include photos of people whose consent I don’t have, only the guides. So, rather boring photos this time, I guess. But if you google “Pai rafting”, you can find very nice photos of the rapids and even videos on youtube.

One of our front guys bounced into the very first gentle but long set of rapids we hit and got dragged along quite a few rocks before he was rescued. Some places you can float down for half an hour without hurting yourself on the rocks. There are also class 3 rapids both in the morning and afternoon of both days. Lots of them. It took the others a while to get used to my screams. I just didn’t want to hold back the rush of adrenaline. I told them to look for me when they didn’t hear me scream, that would be a sure sign I was in trouble.

On the first day there is a little waterfall where you can slide down (wearing a helmet and jacket) much like in a fun park. There is a bit of a whirpool at the end… need to swim so you don’t get dragged under. Here we also learnt how to grab people by their jackets and pull them back to the boat.

it’s all bamboo!

We spent the night in the jungle camp – there are simple bamboo huts with mosquito nets. The full moon was very very bright and we didn’t need the flashlights. The guides and the jungle staff cooked us delicious dinner on an open fire, as well as fresh coffee. We had a campfire after dinner. An old man who stays at the camp all the time was always shrouded in smoke and was gazing into thin air. But after dinner, he took his gun and went out hunting. He came back with the corpse of a monkey the size of a squirrel. The guides ate it for breakfast, hands and brain and all. It felt all right for me, jungle people eating jungle animals, sometimes jungle animals eating jungle people…. but one girl freaked out.

(no photos of the monkey!)

At the campfire, our guides told us about growing up in little villages, trying out their first bamboo rafts, previous trips on the Pai river, how they build the jungle camp from scratch every year, a the tiger carcass they found on the banks, the great flood on August 13, 2005 – which washed away much of Pai town itself, and the camp. They were stranded with a group of rafters for 2 days in the jungle, watching debris float down. All their words and moves reflected real understanding and passion for the jungle, the river, something old and maybe on the verge of getting lost forever.

On the second day, we paddled on. We got stuck on rocks in the middle of very fast rapids twice and we had to bounce and shift around to get the stranded raft moving. Once we had a head-on collision with a rock – I will never forget the guide’s cry: “Get ready to hit the rock!” Looking back, it was hysterical – these rafts are so strong and flexible at the same time, we just all flew forward to crash into the rock, and then bounced back like a harmonica and quickly floated on.

We had lunch at the hot springs on the banks, sometimes sinking knee deep in the hot mud. Then I fell in the biggest waterfall – about 2 or 3 metres down. Or maybe it wasn’t so tall, but I would definitely make a national heritage site with entry fees in the country I come from. I indeed did not scream and everyone immediately turned back to see where I was. The guide also lost balance and we bounced down some huge rocks together. We had been told not to lose the paddle and I was desperately holding on to it as I was tumbling down the rocks, one hand holding on to the chicken rope around the boat, trying to keep my head above the water and not breathe in the murky water. The only thing I remember is when I eventually did let go of the paddle. It came back with a serious bend in it. I banged my nose, my hands, got some cuts and scrapes, and swallowed lots of water. Luckily, it is not a long series of rapids, just a single big one, so I was out quickly. But I don’t want to go rafting again when the water is so high. I enjoy the scenery and the smaller rapids a lot but as I said, I am not adventurous enough.

Then we got to a rock where the braver members of the expedition jumped into the river – that is the first, attention-grabbing photo at the very beginning. Watching is as adventurous I will ever get.

We passed through some spectacular canyons before the end, quick and long little rapids. Absolutely amazing. There was another section suitable for floating downriver…. and then there we were, around 4 o’clock, in the outskirts of Mae Hong Son, at Namtok Mae Surin national park headquarters. We had a quick shower and took the company’s songthaew back to Pai – I was dropped off in Soppong. All those bends in the dark…. that was scary. For a while, I wished I was back on the rapids.

At least two companies based in Pai and one in Soppong offer one to three-day rafting and kayaking trips on the Pai and Khong rivers, sections and length depending on water levels. Prices range from 1500 baht to 3000 baht. It is said to be one of the best stretches of river for whitewater rafting in all of Thailand. Definitely recommended that you give it a try when you are in the area.

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