Bamboo Rafting in Chiang Mai

Guest Testimonial: Bamboo Rafting

It’s not the first time I’ve been bamboo rafting, but today I’m back for more. This afternoon is perfect for it: the sky is blue and cloudless, and it’s hot, so hot the dogs are panting in the shade and the elephants are constantly spraying themselves with sand to cool down.

 It’s sweet relief as we set off in the back of the pickup and the wind rises, ruffling my hair. We sweep round the curves of this mountain road, snatching glimpses of paddy fields and cultivated rows of plants, elephants grazing and little roadside stalls selling grilled meat. The trees around us give off a sweet smell in the sun; cicadas thrum, unperturbed by the wheezy engine of our drive.

 Too quickly, we arrive at the jetty and are submerged in forested shade as we drop down to the river. We jump out of the truck. I know our guide, and practise my rusty Thai on him: “Sawat dee kha, Pi,” I say - Hello, brother. He smiles and greets me in return before ushering us down to the riverside, where a huge pile of rafts lie waiting.

 Bamboo rafting couldn’t be more different from its white water equivalent. The rafts are not the fluorescent, bobbing crafts we are used to, but graceful constructions built from the materials found right here in the jungle, and driven with poles, like punts. Long sturdy pieces of bamboo are tightly bound together each morning and undone each night when they are collected at the bottom of the hill. Traditionally, they were bound with thin strips of bamboo: this is a laborious process, as I found at one kids’ camp, and while it creates the most beautiful rafts, it is tough on your hands. Today raft builders often use rope and recycled tyres to bind and stabilise.

 Our guide points out our raft and with his help we heave it off the pile and into the water, where he straightens it and directs us to climb on. Despite plenty of yoga, balance is a challenge for me: this is a little tricky! I slip off my shoes for better grip and wobble on to the raft nervously. The guide giggles. My friend hauls on a cooler box and settles into a cross-legged position. We spread our weight across the raft.

 Some people, when they do this, like to challenge themselves to stay standing for the whole ride, ducking branches and staggering hilariously when the raft hits rocks. It’s fun, and a bit of a workout. That was me the first time. Today, I’m happy to sit and wallow in the inch or two of water that covers the raft, letting the water lap my legs and cool me.

It’s going to be a slow journey downriver. It’s hot season and the water is low: we’ve got time to grab a beer out of our cooler and relax. And if we’re lucky, our guide will let us swim off the raft when the water gets a little deeper.

 I lie back, close my eyes; the sun flickers through leaves, making patterns of dark and light behind my lids. It’s very quiet: all I can hear is birdsong and the quiet splashes of the pole the guide uses to propel the boat. The gently tugging movement of the raft lulls me.

 I love this. It’s a beautiful opportunity to switch off, unplug. There are few moments I’ve felt further from the stresses and pressures of my life. The daily grind, the commute, the money stresses - I feel it all lifting from my shoulders, an almost physical sensation of relief. My friend nudges me and passes me a beer. Perfect.

 In another couple of weeks Songkran will hit Thailand and this area will erupt with hedonistic Thai tourists seeking joyful moments away from the crush of the city. Then, the river will be full of rafts, end to end, with giggling boys and girls calling, falling, playing… the whole valley will sing with laughter and terrible karaoke. It will be busy and wonderful. But this moment, this is my favourite. The calm before the storm. When the whole river is quiet and sleepy, and even the water moves sluggishly.

 Too quickly, the leisurely journey down the river is almost over. We pass Chai Lai, the shouts of mahouts and gleeful sounds of guests echoing down the water. We wave to the Chai Lai staff, young women who’ve become friends of mine over the times I’ve stayed here.

 And then it’s over. The last few yards gives us a little buzz, as we fly over a rapid. Our raft joins a crowd of others, all painted with each company’s colour, like a herd of sheep. We jump from raft to raft to the shore to thank our guide. Then it’s the walk back up the hill to Chai Lai, past the rafting stations where the guides are beginning to wind down with a beer. Cooking smells drift through the gathering evening and I realise, with surprise, that I’m hungry.

We walk contentedly, perfectly at ease.