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!
I know you didn’t quite appreciate the trip and it seemed quite dull compared to what you expected, however it looks very appealing to me. Calm waters and casually rafting down the river with so much beautiful scenery and animals. Looks amazing.
I appreciate the sleeping in the jungle experience was questionable and your face on that picture is priceless!
Oh no, I loved this trip! If I didn’t convey that properly than that is my failure as a writer 🙂 It wasn’t what I expected, but I absolutely loved what it turned out to be.
You might have mentioned that you earned your arachnophobia honestly by nearly dying from a spider bite.
As for going with the flow when expectations are not met…I find that works well in all aspects of life.
I think language barrier might have kicked in somewhere around “anaphalactic shock!” But yes, should probably open with that next time.
You look like you are having so much fun. I want to start all over again!! Happy travels, Auntie Lo
Never too late to start again! 🙂 Thanks for reading.
I couldn’t have done this trip, because I would have died sleeping in those accommodations haha, but the rest of the trip looked and sounded AMAZING!!!!!!!!
Yes, it certainly took a great deal of good humor 🙂 Actually it wasn’t so bad for one night… and longer and that bucket shower would not have cut it!
Wow, what an adventure! This may have to go on my bucket list. Though I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to sleep either – I’d be too busy keeping an eye out for spiders!
Luckily you’re pretty exhausted from the sun and the activity of the day by the time night falls… sleep comes pretty easily 🙂
Oh so many! My life (and travels) is all about adjusting my perspective and realising (amazingly!) that the world is not here to meet my expectations. Letting go and accepting the perfection of each moment makes everything so much easier. This trip sounded lovely 🙂
Sarah I love that and I’m going to repeat it to myself next time I feel my patience thinning — “The world is not here to meet my expectations.”
Ahhhhhh the spiders! I would have jumped out of the raft. And then not been able to sleep in the bed. Awful.
Otherwise, it sounds relaxing and lovely, but I will definitely be packing the bug spray!
I was definitely seconds away from raft evacuation! 🙂 Luckily the boys in the front saved the day.
Love photo of you ‘terrified’…LOL. Great recounting of your trip. Like the comments on the guide. An industrious guy.
I’m sure you saw that face every time you told me to clean my room…
I’m willing to bet that you spent the night holding your camera like a teddy bear. This looks like so much fun!
Ha, despite my nightmares we were actually hundreds of miles from civilization! I was probably safer there than more guesthouses 🙂
Alex in Wanderland terrified and annoyed in Hong son land..LOL!
Only terrified at the spiders and only annoyed at the mosquitoes 🙂
Sounds like a perfect trip! sometimes trading in exhilaration for a sunshine induced nap is a great swap!
I don’t know if any of your other (10000!!) readers have mentioned but it is snowing in England… in friggin March! I want to be in South East Asia BAD.
Sometimes I get a bit homesick, picturing my imminent return to New York in late May… then I remember it is NOT late May, and there is snow on the ground!!! That gets me back on track 🙂
Cool post, this white-water rafting adventure looks like my kind of travel…nature, some wildlife, some adventure! Although I’d prefer ‘big’ rapids instead of medium ones, haha…
Me too 🙂 Ah well, I’ll have to come back in high season! I think it would be a crazy trip when the water is rushing like mad.
You are afraid of spiders??? I remember you staying pretty calm while I melted into the floor!
I love your description of how Chai learned English. I could see it. Very nice writing.
I have this character trait that if someone is totally breaking down, even if its something I would normally break down over, I am somehow able to remain calmer. I guess its a survival mechanism? But ugh, spiders….
What was inside the banana leaf?! You look ready for battle with that oar!
Some very very yummy fried rice! Actually the food on this trip was absolutely delicious… I was really impressed with what they could whip up in the middle of the jungle!
Oh you are far heartier than I, it looks like fun but a bucket for a shower!
Um, yeah…. maybe this is where I should confess that I didn’t actually shower 🙂
Right on lady! Although I’m not sure I would have signed up for the 2 day rapids trip knowing that it would be super hardcore for that long! 😛
Um yeah, I definitely didn’t really realize the bucket situation until I got there! Oh well, in this case ignorance was bliss — at least it got me there!
I love these sorts of trips. A little out of the comfort zone is always a good thing in my books 🙂
Agreed… but for limited time periods 🙂 I’m sorry, I love my hot showers!
I have been wanting to do this trip for a while now. To be honest I’d prefer it being a slow paddle rather than a manic raft. With surroundings like that you need some time to appreciate where you are I think.
Tammy just be careful about what time of year you come then! I’ve seen some photo/video of the river when its high and WOW! Looks mad.
Who was the trip with? It all looks amazing, can’t wait to be there, only 1 1/2 months to go! Also when is the high season?
Hey Sarah, I went with Thai Adventure Rafting! To be honest I’m not super familiar with the best seasons for rafting and I think they change often. You’d probably be best contacting the company directly. Best of luck!
Hey I’m going up to chiang mai tomorrow and think of doing this trip in a couple of days. Question: do they take your rucksacks etc in a bus to meet you there? Also I will most likely being doing it alone, do you think this would be ok? Thanks:)
They do indeed bring your bags and have them waiting for you in Mae Hong Son! And there were quite a few solo travelers in our group, I think it would be a good way to meet people!
Hi There! You’re my favorite travel blog-writer. I love reading over your adventures 🙂
We are going to Thailand and Cambodia in December-Jan. (I know…tourist season, but best time to take the teen out of school). It’s our second time to Thailand, and we are going north for a spell. Dropping the kindlet off in Chang Mai, as her best friend moved there for a year, and wanted to go? This rafting trip sounds amazing, which company did you use? We have about a week to be alone, before picking up both girls and heading to Cambodia (yay!!). Okay…sorry for the long winded question 🙂
Thank you for writing such a fun travel blog!
Sounds like an awesome trip! And in my mind… there’s never a wrong time to take a trip to Thailand 🙂 Unfortunately I cannot remember the name of the company we used, we just walked into a random shop in Pai and went for it! I was a bad blogger back then with jotting down details, sorry! Wishing you a very excellent trip!
Love this post Alex. I’m thinking about doing this in a few days with similar expectations. What company did you go with?
Sorry, Alexandra… I don’t remember! I know where they were, though — ha. If you’re coming out of Breeze of Pai guesthouse and turn left onto the main road at the temple, they were almost immediately to the right. They were the only dedicated rafting company at the time, from what I recall. Pretty sure it’s the one at the website thairafting.com!