Author Archives: Betti C.

Jungle Flight – twice in a lifetime adventure!

It was a year ago now that I first visited the tranquil little village of Baan Nam Khong and enjoyed gliding from tree to tree with the amazing Jungle Flight adventure. I got a chance to fly again last weekend and try out the longest, fastest and highest cables around Chiang Mai, a new adventure package amongst serene giant trees and bright green jungle.

The new section of Jungle Flight has northern Thailand’s longest zipline (at 300 metres), three more lines measuring 130 to 180 metres, one of them over 40 metres high, with a stunning view of the mountains. You can take it all in if you choose Package B. The weather was just right, sunny and clear, but not too hot, with brilliant lights for taking photos in the trees. Our group spent almost 4 hours on the platforms and ropes. Absolutely mindblowing and thrilling and …. I will need to get a dictionary to find more adjectives. Last year, I was left desperately wanting more, for the second time now, it was complete and well wrapped up. Just my idea of the perfect day.

Jungle Flight has made some welcome improvements. There is now a new “headquarters” in the village, a traditional wooden house, with adequate facilities for getting changed and lockers for storing backpacks. Locally grown coffee is available in the small restaurant. Otherwise, Baan Nam Khong still a simple sleepy village from the olden days, not spoilt by all the people coming and going.

We had four guides with us to take care of all the ropes, pulleys and carabiners, secure our take-offs and landings, point out interesting trees and wildlife, and tease us endlessly. It also meant that we all had plenty of opportunities for tandem flights with a guide, being able to assume some interesting acrobatic positions like the “superman”.

They are great at reading how scared or thrilled people are, engage in small talk to make guests more comfortable, and keep a careful eye on every little detail. They are also super crazy and love to glide around upside down, enjoying another day at work.

All the equipment used for the flights is imported and top grade. However, passengers rely on simple wooden twigs as brakes. I enjoyed watching the newbies’ faces when they learn about the technique for slowing down: listen to the guide yell BRAKE and pull down hard with the twig behind the pulley. If unsuccessful…. get ready to hit the treeee! On the longest zipline, I managed to accelerate to such blinding speed that no braking was strong enough and I smashed into the tree…. crushing the helpless guide (half my size) who was trying to slow me down. But experience helps, hardly any bruises this time.

Just joking. The trees where you are likely to have problems are padded.

Here are some of the highlights. A picture says a thousand words – sorry if it is sensory or technical overload for some of you.

The platforms and many of the ziplines offer a unique bird’s eye view perspective of the jungle. Sign up for Package B to get the most amazing vistas. Good news: you do NOT have to approach the first platform on one of these ladders you see! The villagers climb these to collect honey from the treetops.

The guides think it is hilarious to bounce up and down the skybridges while people are trying to cross from one tree to another.

This is a photo of the bridge taken from the treetop staircase.

Ancient trees – just the way they are. Don’t forget to look up and take in as much as you can absorb, with all your senses.

The abseils…. there are now 4 if you go for Package B. Luckily, you don’t absolutely need to go upside down…. but you can have the rope attached to your back and then ask for a fast descent. Get your vocal chords ready if you pick this option. As close as you will get to bungee jumping without actually doing it.

A couple is getting ready to fly the 130-metre cable, the longest if you pick Package A.

This one was my absolute favourite! Note the abseil down to the lower platform…. that’s the second highest abseil. Sigh.

The longest cable at the moment is 300 metres long, and it takes almost 25 seconds to glide it. Calculate the average speed for maximum jawdrop effect. There are some very nice views to the right, but you also get a different experience in the dense canopy.

This is the highest cable of all (also in package B). This one has the best views of half the province, probably. I took a video here, as a guide was alongside me and taking care of my flight and my landing so I could enjoy the view. I almost got a heart attack when I saw the movie for the first time. Check it out at the forum. The real thing was nowhere near that scary in that moment, your senses work differently, they don’t take all that space and depth in.

On a few lines, you are offered the option to be attached to the cable using the carabiner on your back. Being Superman is actually not totally straight-forward, as you may start spinning around. Approaching a platform head first is also quite scary but of course
the guides help you and the rope rises sharply in the very last moment. Don’t miss it.

There is a 580-metre stretch of suspended walkway. It is steep uphill, and gives you yet another nice perspective of the forest without having to cut through dense foliage at ground level. It is manageable for reasonably fit people, and you don’t need climbing shoes.

Can you spot the crazy guide in this picture? This is the last platform – “happy ending“. I was one of the first to descend, and I loved collecting the soundbites from people once they had solid ground under their feet. “I will never do this again!” topped the list. That was when I remembered that this is exactly what I said the last time…. but my memory had deleted it, fortunately. You could try asking for a parachute, they didn’t give me one, so I guess this is the way down!

“I am scared of heights – should I go for it?”

I am definitely more of an armchair adventurer myself. You should have seen me the first time I was hanging on a rope. Even though I had been dreaming vividly about flying for decades, I thought cranes and heavy equipment will be needed to get me down the second tree. Then it got better. It is definitely acquired taste. Just relax and let it happen, spread your arms and fly, holding on the rope makes it worse. Screaming definitely does help. If it is only a yelp initially, then set your mind to it and scream intentionally. And, most importantly, don’t listen to the guides suggesting you need to look down to overcome the fear – that is a set-up :-) Look in the distance, admire the trees and the mountains and the amazing jungle.

Told you not to!!

Currently, Jungle Flight offers two flights:

Package A with 22 platforms, 14 flights, 3 abseils, 2 bridges, 1 staircase, longest line 130 metres. This is the original adventure as it was a year ago.

Package B with 33 platforms, 21 flights, 4 abseils, 3 bridges, 1 staircase, longest line 300 metres, suspended walkway, more views of the mountains, truly amazing.

There are promotional prices at the moment, which you can check out at the Jungle Flight website. Both packages include snack, drinking water, lunch, round-trip transport, a visit to the hot springs on the way back, and a visit to a small waterfall in the rainy season. It is possible to change your mind halfway through and switch to Package B – quite a few people do so.

Some practical advice:

You can take along your camera easily if you wear a small shoulder bag. Carrying it around in a hand or pocket is quite clumsy.

The adventure takes four hours or longer – especially if it is the rainy season and there is enough water in the waterfall to deserve a little side trip from the ziplines. A snack and plenty of drinking water is provided at rest stops, and guides take good care of anyone who needs help. However, make sure you eat and drink enough for breakfast because it is a long day before lunch, and it may not be a bad idea to carry a bar of chocolate or some glucose candies. I guess dehydration could be a real problem in the hot season if you don’t take care of yourself, even though the altitude helps and it does not get as fiercely hot in the real jungle as down in the concrete jungle.

I would like to thank the owner of Jungle Flight Mr Songsai Mangklad for inviting me again, and our guides for taking care of me (and all of us!) so considerately.

Loy krathong – searching for a moment of peace

As the fireworks and firecrackers are going on non-stop for the third day running, and the city is celebrating with the biggest and most colourful parade of the loy krathong festivities, I am at home listening from a safe distance. I feel full, saturated with images and experiences, enough to last another year.

Yesterday I decided to drive all the way to Lamphun (28 kms) to check out the parade and the activities in this little town. I was hoping for less crowd, less noise, something more inspired, I’m not sure. Maybe just something different after all these years.

I arrived shortly before sunset, when the krathong and fire lantern sellers and the little food stalls were getting ready. Lamphun does get a steady trickle of foreign visitors, I was one of about two dozen on this day, a novelty enough to attract the attention of the vendors. They were all happy to pose for pictures, eager to ask a few questions, welcome me – it doesn’t happen any more in downtown Chiang Mai, of course.

Wat Phrathat Haripunchai, in the middle of the activities and on the bank of the Kuang river, was surprisingly abandoned, with only a handful of monks and worshippers. A young couple was walking around the scaffolded golden chedi holding lotus flowers and candles quietly. As it was getting darker, dozens of fire lanterns appeared in the sky. It was as close as it gets to an uplifting experience – a moment of peace.

At the river, a few youngsters were helping people push their krathongs further into the current, wading in the water. A little boat was taking more krathongs to the middle. As always at this spot, there were fish up for sale, many like to make merit by releasing them. More and more people were firing firecrackers over the water. I loved the scene of a thousand fires in the water and in the sky but it wasn’t my moment.

I had spotted some floats on a road near the temple and followed the queue to find out which way the parade was heading. The atmosphere was visibly building up, people lit rows of candles in front of their houses, gently placed the old folk in chairs to watch the spectacle, kids were playing with firecrackers…. and then for an hour, nothing happened. The candles died. People were puzzled. The parade started very late in the end – from the number of police attending, it looked like some important local figures were leading the procession of local people carrying krathongs down to the river.

There were fifteen floats in all – not quite as creative and sophisticated as the ones in Chiang Mai, but all nicely done and accompanied by a large number of average people dressed up in beautiful Lanna outfits, school marching bands, members of a farang association, reflecting more the actual local population. Not everyone in Thailand is glamorous and princess-like, as you would think in Chiang Mai. Too bad only the princesses get enough floodlights for my camera to manage….

The parade went round the tiny old city and arrived in front of the temple, at the river, very slowly. The crowd was building up and the firecrackers were getting louder and louder – thankfully, only over the river. It was getting too much, “my” quiet little town was shattered into pieces, and it was getting late anyway.

The old Chiang Mai – Lamphun road was illuminated by tens of thousands of candles, like a tunnel leading home. It was scary and comforting at the same time.

After getting back to Chiang Mai province, I found a little rural road to get me down to the Ping river. I passed by and squeezed by large fairs, small markets, loud shows, illuminated temples, hundreds of krathongs floating down, hundreds of fire lanterns in the sky. A whole world still awake late at night and partying as if it was the last day of the world. I enjoyed watching from the sidelines.

After a bend in the river and in the road, I saw a little platform balancing over the water. I saw that the krathongs go a long, long way from there, they don’t get stuck in the nearest bunch of weeds. I remembered what I was asked to do, I lit a candle, pushed a krathong away, thinking of people who are not here this time. I watched it float by.

I was feeling drained and relieved, was ready to collapse and pass out.

At three in the morning, I sat up in bed with a start. It was different – it was quiet. I got my moment of peace at last.

Loy krathong – thoughts on the day of the lantern parade

I moved to Chiang Mai the day before loy krathong four years ago – I always think of this holiday as my anniversary.

Chiang Mai is famous for going way over the top with parades and holidays, loy krathong probably being second only to the week-long songkran festivities. Temples, businesses and public buildings are decorated with saa paper lanterns, banana stems and leaves and lots of candles once the night comes. Firecrackers and fireworks have been going on for over a week in my neighbourhood. Little workshops prepare thousands of paper lanterns, waiting to be flown into the skies. Nights are already a little chilly, especially in the suburbs. The rains have stopped. There is change in the air – the atmosphere building up to explosion.

As for explosions…. just as songkran gets crazy with water-throwing totally out of control for more than a week, loy krathong is also known for the industrial amount of explosives being fired over the river, hurled into crowds, and sometimes exploding in people’s hands. Forget the serene and peaceful scenes suggested by postcards: it is loud, crowded and in the late hours of the night, when the lads are fuelled by too many beers, dangerous. When I “risked my life” taking a two-minute video from Nawarat bridge last year, my brother left a comment on it: “whoa! if I didn’t know any better, I would think this is footage from Baghdad!”

Nevertheless, I love loy krathong. I have learnt where to go and when to find what I need out of it: the colourful parades, music, dancing and activities at the temples, a little quiet section of the river, a viewpoint for seeing hundreds and hundreds of lanterns at night, painting and releasing a fire lantern with my children at school. I admit I launched my last krathong in 2003, but friends are trying to persuade me to float one this year, who knows, it may get rid of all the junk in my life. I am skeptical. I like to be an outsider.

The actual full moon day is on Monday, but Chiang Mai’s celebrations are already underway with the lantern parade tonight. Small krathongs follow tomorrow, and the festival concludes with the biggest, most extravagant big krathongs parade on the third day (Tuesday). The lantern parade usually starts from Thapae gate and proceeds down Thapae road, turning right into Changklan road. It is still not too late to set off :-)

These are all photos of loy krathong preparations and lantern parades (day 1) taken in previous years. UPDATE: There is a thread at the Chiang Mai forum with some pictures taken this year.

Road to Pai: Pong Dueat geyser

There are dozens of hot springs around Chiang Mai, some are well-known and extensively developed like Sankamphaeng, others are only just more than small pools of water in the forest.

Pong Dueat is on route 1095, one of the attractions we visited when we went to Pai with my friend in September: we were both intrigued by the signs saying “geyser” in English. I had never seen a proper natural one before. (In Samkamphaeng, it is pumped into the air artificially.) It would have been quite impossible by public transport for sure – though the road threw some surprises at us.

My big city friend wanted to turn back when we bumped into this spectacle, he was even considering reversing a few kilometres back to the main road. But eventually, we squeezed by the cattle, which refused to move even when the rear view mirror was scraping a bum. For a moment I thought it would poop on the windshield.

The “adventurous” rural road, paved but a little rough (ok for a city car), is about 6 kms. Then you pay (and bargain) the entry fee to Huay Nam Dang national park, and leave the car in the parking lot.

The geysers are about ten minutes walk on slippery elevated wooden platforms, we needed to be very careful to stay on our feet. The land below the platforms looked almost impassable, a bog, thick water-logged jungle. We did not really consider taking off on the clearly marked nine-kilometre nature trail as we had left our machetes at home. Soon we arrived at the hot springs.

Under high pressure, the water reaches a temperature of over 150 degrees under ground, and pushes up to the surface at boiling point. The fountains are said to reach about 2 metres when there is more water. The sound of the boiling water gushing forth is eerie in the otherwise quiet jungle. There are several springs in a small area. Obviously, they are fenced off as you can end up with nasty burn marks if you go too near, but, surprisingly, there was no guard around. Not many visitors, either. Unlike other hot springs I have visited, you cannot buy eggs and boil them in a side stream. It is a powerful site to hang around and consider the amazing forces of nature – never mind the food.

The hot water is channeled into a little stream (no concrete), and you can catch up with it about ten more minutes downstream (walking on more wooden platforms, like in the photo above). There are bungalows, private and public pools, a restaurant and a small massage parlour here, over a steep hill, in a landscaped area (lots of slippery steps!). According to a sign, you are supposed to pay extra for swimming in the lukewarm pools, but there was nobody around to collect the fees. As usual, Thai visitors were taking a dip all dressed up and we did not stick out. There is a paved route all the way back to the parking lot from here.

Pong Dueat is definitely not a world class attraction, but it is a beautiful, little-visited, quiet rest stop on the way to Pai. The hot springs must be a real attraction during the cold months, when mornings are positively chilly in the mountains. Also highly recommended if you want more scenery than concrete to go with your hot spring experience.

The hot springs are six kilometres off route 1095 to Pai, 56 kms from Pai, 42 kms from Mae Malai and 80 kms from Chiang Mai city itself (it is in Chiang Mai province). Entrance fees are 100/50 baht for foreigners, 50 baht for cars.

I marked this location on the Chiang Mai and Northern Thailand map, which was updated last week with lots of attractions and photos in Mae Hong Son province.

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.