Since before Northern Thailand was just a twinkle in my
eye dog-eared Lonely Planet, I knew I wanted to do the two-day rafting trip between Pai and Mae Hong Son. I’d last white water rafted in Honduras two years ago, and I was itching to get my hands back on a paddle.
So despite the fact that we were reaching the tail end of the season, and that even the woman at the sales office couldn’t muster much more than a half-hearted assurance that the rapids would be “medium,” I plonked down my 2,700 baht (around $90) and set off for two days and a night in the heart of the Thai jungle.
It didn’t take long for me to realize this was never going to be the adrenaline-inducing paddling adventure I had hoped for. Amazingly, I was incredibly zen about it — I used that whole power of positive thinking system I keep hearing about to readjust my expectations. In place of the white-water, white-knuckle experience I was expecting, I traded in for a relaxing and meditative screen-detox (ain’t no WiFi in the jungle!) with plenty of time for reflection — and floating.
And there were charms aplenty, from a riverbank lunch wrapped in a banana leaf to spotting the myriad of animals lurking nearby — from water buffaloes to electric blue butterflies to wild deer to frogs two times the size of my fist.
I also had the company of MM and our two fellow floaters — one of whom was on the Austrian Olympic Rowing Team! But what truly made the trip for me was the company of our charismatic guide, Chai. Between barking out rafting directions and showing us highlights like hot springs warm enough to boil quail eggs, he told us stories of life in rural Thailand. Stories like paying 50,000 baht for his wife’s dowry when he got married at age fourteen — “My daughter will be much more expensive,” he told us conspiratorially, followed by his signature laugh.
Chai’s been on the river for more than twenty years, and its a great job compared to the ones he worked in his youth, like cleaning dishes at a Bangkok restaurant for 10 baht a day. All that life experience led to shockingly good English — even more shocking as because he never attended school, and learned all his language skills from customers. I could see how he mastered it so well — whenever we used slang or complex language, I could hear him turning away to repeat it softly to himself, often followed up with a clarification question.
I made the mistake of showing my hand too early in a trip that some might describe as speckled with boredom — I confessed to my deep arachnophobia. “Beautiful rocks,” Chai says, paddling us toward a limestone wall. As I lean in to look more closely, the wall starts to move and I realize with horror it’s covered in thousands of black spiders, tangled together in angry knots. As the boys in the front slap their paddles against the wall to prevent the boat from crashing into it, the spiders fall off into the water like clumps of hair balls. I shriek in full-paralysis-level terror as Chai laughs manically. “You’re not my friend anymore,” I tell him.
“Not my friend,” he whispers to himself in response.
Without an iPhone or a computer in front of me I lose all sense of time, and I’m surprised when Chai announces we’re just a few kilometers away from the camp where we’ll spend the night. He slows the boat to pull over and chatter in Thai to one of the sporadic men we’ve seen camping on the riverbanks — men Chai explains are on vacation from the farms they work at. As I eye the large shotgun resting on the river bank, Chai reports that the man saw tiger tracks not too far away from where we sat — and where we would soon be sleeping.
I admit, accommodation was more rustic that I expected — the shower was a bucket of rainwater, the floors threatened to give way beneath my feet and a spider scuttled across my bed when I crawled into it. But again, I turned my attitude around by giving myself props for being such a badass camping chick — though not before snapping a terrified selfie to text to my girlfriends back home when I reached cell service.
What? I grew up in the suburbs.
By nightfall, I was feeling positively gung-ho about the whole thing! We had dinner by candlelight, marveled at the brightness of the stars, and I was so geeked out over the volume of the frogs lurking nearby I made a recording on my iPhone.
Sleep, unfortunately, was an exercise in futility — I was plagued by hallucinatory nightmares of people and tigers on the other side of the lean-to, and spent most of the night oscillating between fear and indignance (how dare all these random people sleep behind my lean-to?) Surprisingly, MM did not share my horror when I woke him up to share my annoyance.
Our second day started with the realization that this would be the longest I’d gone without internet since my trip to Koh Rong in Cambodia last year. My morning always begin with a one-eye-open scroll through my iPhone — this was a serious departure. I was surprised by how zen I felt, how patient I was to find out what was going on with my blog, my freelance assignments, my advertisers, and of course my various social media addictions.
While day one found me valiantly paddling down the crystal-smooth water, trying to inspire similar self-motivation in my boat mates, on day two I finally slowed down to the speed of the river. By which I mean I napped in the sun for a large majority of it.
So the trip didn’t serve up what I had expected — but what was on the menu was pretty damn fantastic. By the time we reached Mae Hong Son, I was practically a puddle of relaxed bliss, and I was surprised when the Olympian declared the trip “very boring.”
I guess it’s all about perspective. And from where I was floating, it hadn’t been bad.
Have you ever had to change your perspective when a trip didn’t seem to be going as planned? I admit I’m usually a champion in the complaining department, but this whole “seeing the bright side” thing seems pretty sweet too. Tell me your story!