About 90 minutes from Chiang Mai is a little river called the Mae Taeng. Bordered on both sides by steeply sloping fields of banana trees and luxuriant jungle, it is easily one of the loveliest places in Thailand for an adventure.
But lazily watching a river go by is quite a different experience from actually being in the midst of its rushing, bubbling madness. As the Mae Taeng boasts Thailand's best white water rapids.
The difficulty of a stretch of white water rapid is measured on an internationally-approved scale of one to six. The Mae Taeng is made up primarily of rapids rated three and four - enough to produce an intense adrenaline rush.
I went with Siam River Adventures. Owner Jason Younkin has been running river trips in Thailand for 8 years, uses the best equipment and runs his company with such iron-willed efficiency that he wears a German army helmet while navigating the Taeng. Whatever his reasons, the helmet inspired my confidence. Nevertheless, Jason hails from Colorado and is also a Rescue 3, Swiftwater Rescue Instructor. I knew that Colorado-ians were experts on rocks and rivers, if not headgear aesthetics. Jason is one of the first to run all the rapids on the Mae Taeng. He promotes "Cultural Adventures" - trips for adrenalin junkies with an essence of Northern Thai tradition.
After a bumpy but scenic ride up to the rustic company headquarters, we ate lunch and then learnt the basics of whitewater rafting. Most importantly, we learnt how to synchronize our paddling so that we could maneuver the raft efficiently, and also know what to do if someone should fall into the water. Groups of not more than six per boat were arranged and each was assigned a professional rafter as a guide.
A Rapid Ride
After drifting lazily down the river, we became lulled into a false sense of security. Then the first set of rapids hit. Det our guide shouted out directions and we dutifully obeyed. Though strenuous, we ultimately emerged unscathed from the rushing tumult and raised our oars in an exuberant "high-five".
The next set of rapids was fiercer, the water rushed around us as our boat pierced the waves. We were Soaked! We still had some more grade 4 rapids ahead.
The rapids kept coming, faster and more frequent. Gradually, we all fell into a rhythm and, like a well-oiled machine, forded our way over the boulders and falls, and twists and turns.
We thanked Det for taking such good care of us as we climbed out. There on the banks, it was how I'd imagined heaven to be: beer and biscuits, and hill-tribe women trying to sell jewellery.
I'd do it all over again because it was an amazingly fun trip - except, that is, for the parts where nobody realises you're panicking. Which is why I'm planning to wear a German army helmet every day, all the time. I'll sure look cool and moreover, I no longer have any fear of large rapids.
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