Paddling the Mae Taeng, Part 2: Trip Details

**Warning! This is one motha of a photo/word bomb!**

Last Saturday, T-bone, David, and I took a 13hr “rapid express” train ride to Chiang Mai, where we would pick up the boats and gear for our 6-day paddling trip. All of us had previous paddling and camping experience, but none of us had done anything like this in Thailand. It was during new teacher orientation in July that we first started tossing around the idea of a trip – we discovered that David was a fellow adventure-lovin’ soul, and the three of us talked about an off-the-beaten track trip for months. We had a brief vision of buying a fisherman’s boat on a random river and just going, but it turns out that none of us could stomach the thought of being stranded because a hypothetical fisherman wouldn’t sell us his hypothetical boat. Plus, it turns out that the only half-decent, semi-current maps of Thai rivers are written in Russian – not great for navigating rapids. It became obvious that we needed something a little more structured, so we Todd started emailing rental companies. Turns out that most companies are strangely disinterested in renting boats to groups of randoms when they could be raking in the cash from guided tours. It wasn’t until we contacted a swashbuckling expat named Aidan that we saw any hope on the horizon. We pinned all our paddling hopes and dreams on his rental company, Chiang Mai Kayaking.

Aidan had never rented gear to independent trippers before, but he must have liked the look of Todd and his wives, because he agreed to supply us with boats, dry bags, a GPS, and transportation.

Showing the Voyageur a special northern Thai method of attaching a throw bag

He mapped out a section of the Mae Taeng river for us. The Mae Taeng flows into the Mae Ping, which runs through Chiang Mai, and our put in point was located approximately 150 km north of Chiang Mai. Aidan wanted to observe our paddling skills and make ensure that we safely got past a military compound (“don’t ruin my business by getting shot at”), so we spent the first afternoon paddling with his guided tour group. The stretch of river wound through the jungle, and though the water level was low, there were some fun features to navigate.

Just before we headed into the jungle

Once we had left the military base far behind, Aidan said “bon voyage,” and sent us on our way. David promptly used his new found freedom to jump off a tire swing into a foot of water with a group of intoxicated Thai gentlemen.

Decision making at its finest

The route

The stretch of river that we paddled alternated between dense jungle and farmland. The jungle tended to have more interesting features and swift flowing sections. It was fun in low water, but in high water, it would definitely be challenging. The farmland sections tended to be slow moving, and at times, a little dull. It was neat to observe the various farms, fishermen, and farm animals, but I kinda hate flat water.

Even though it’s serene

The cattle were a little baffled by us.

There were several dams and quite a few bridges on the route. Other than a few annoying portages, neither represented much of a paddling challenge, but they served as a constant reminder that we hadn’t really left civilization behind.

And the Country Wife can’t really leave the Voyageur behind

Portaging around the dam

We were struck by how populated the area was. I think we all naively hoped that we would experience some “real” wilderness, but even in the jungle, we were never really alone. One of the biggest water hazards were the diving fishermen – you never knew when one was going to pop up, wearing only goggles’n’ginch.

Happy monks were also a real hazard

Food and Gear

We had a motley assortment of gear going into this trip, to put it politely. Neither we nor David had brought much equipment from home, so we had to mooch some gear from friends, buy other bits, and simply go without. We bought hideous army print sleeping pads from a tourist trap, borrowed a tent from friends (abundant thanks to Josh and Jaime for saving us from spooning with Country Wife David in a 2 man tent), and discovered why flip-flops should never be worn on a paddling trip. It was a strangely liberating experience.

Trying to downsize, with mixed success.

While we brought our entire trip’s worth of food with us, we discovered that it was possible to buy supplies along the way. We bought vegetables and fruit several times, which made the packaged sauces much more palatable. We were also able to purchase water along the way, which saved us from filtering the sediment-rich jungle sludge. This was a huge bonus, considering that our back-up water plan was a charcoal “emergency filter” straw.

And the banana flower back-up plan didn’t work out so well.

Another back-up plan

Camping

We camped on a motley assortment of river banks, most of them in view of a farm. Being so close to civilization was an interesting experience, and led to some unique encounters. On our first night, we heard gunshots in the very near distance, and I convinced myself that someone was taking pot shots at our fire. On our third morning, we were awoken to the sound of two mahouts (elephant trainers) riding elephants through the river next to our camp. On our fourth night, the friendly folks across the river insisted on giving us huge pieces of hardwood for our campfire. And on the last night, we camped along an irrigation canal, and listened to the voices of chanting monks interspersed with horribly off-key karaoke music.

The elephant campground

Dead Dog flats campground

Dead Dog flats campground

Good-bye, Mae Taeng

6 days later, Buccaneer Aidan picked us up at one of the most scenic dams I have ever seen.

Wearing exactly the same clothes as the first day!

After loading our gear, boats, and filthy bodies into Aidan’s truck, we headed back to Chiang Mai. An awesome perk of tripping in Thailand are the cheap massages you can get afterwards. The masseuses made the interesting decision to put a curtain around my mat, while leaving Todd and David to enjoy a couples massage. I guess the Country Wife aura still lingers. I also got a pedicure – and yes, I gave the salon an exorbitant tip for dealing with my filthy feet.

And finally, there was nothing left to do but mow down on some Mexican food, and enjoy a heinous bus ride back to Bangkok.

It’s good to be back in Bangkok, but there is a large part of me that still wants to be out on the river. I’m already thinking about our next trip…

Paddling the Mae Taeng, Part 1: A Voyageur and His Wives

Today’s post will focus on da paddlers. Next post will talk details – river, camping, gear, surprises etc. for anyone who wants to do a similar trip.

Last Sunday, T-bone gathered his two wives, David and Ruth, and headed to the Mae Tang river. No, Todd does not actually endorse polygamous behaviour, but his favourite historical paddling heroes, the Voyageurs, sure did. Every time T-bone gets near a river, he starts dreaming of being a Voyageur, and this trip was no different. For the uninitiated, the Voyageurs were a hearty group of French-Canadians who routinely paddled across Canada in the 18th and 19th centuries to collect beaver pelts from First Nations communities. They played an important role in founding Canada, and are at least partially responsible for the fact that an overgrown swamp rodent is our national animal. They also had multiple wives – city wives and country wives. City wives were the official/legal wives, and they were fine for doing city/wifely things, but when you’re on the river for months on end, you need a husky broad on location who can skin beavers/lug your boats/maybe sew you a coonskin cap or something. The concept of a country wife was just too darned convenient for us to pass up, so we nominated David for the role.

Todd cannot believe his good fortune

The highly delineated roles of a Voyageur and his wives really worked well for our team. The tasks weren’t always traditional, but they got done with a certain je ne sais quoi that just wreaked of French-Canadian history.

Voyageur Todd: Fishing, Bannock-making, Navigating, Looking Visionary/Noble

Voyageur Todd did his best to fill those large francophone shoes by fishing and making bannock.

Sadly, he never caught anything. Perhaps this was because every man, woman, dog, child, and monk seemed to be out dredging the river with nets and spears at all times.

How can fish not want to be caught by such kindly folks?

Fortunately, his bannock making experiments were more successful. A nice hunk of beaver fat would undoubtedly have cranked up the flavour, but the Voyageur did pretty well with vegetable oil.He was also very good at gathering fire wood in his  birchbark canoe kayak.And navigating rivers. His navigation may not have saved me from flipping my boat, but it did provide some pontificating-full photos.

 

Country Wife David: Jumping off stuff, hauling wood/water/tents/boats/everything, being perpetually perky, and offering the best facial expressions a photographer could hope for

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Poses like this cannot be taught 

David had a knack for simultaneously making photogenic expressions while being ready to launch himself off the ground and haul stuff around the campsite. The perfect Country Wife.

The Voyageur doesn’t even realize what’s lurking behind him…

Mere words are inadequate.

David also enjoyed hauling boats and assorted schtuff on bizarre portage routes that he and the Voyageur dreamed up.

I won’t reveal the body of water that they decided to portage into, but let’s just say that it rhymed with “Irritation Locale”

City Wife Ruth: petting animals, conducting cooking experiments, growing algae colonies in my hair, sniffing out beverage/bladder stops

The little cow that tried to eat my arm. I think he liked the flavour of whitener-enhanced sunscreen.

I like to pet dogs, but even I drew the line at this one.

I conducted a variety of culinary experiments that ranged from successful to highly dubious and borderline poisonous. Fortunately, the Voyageur and Country Wife were a willing test audience.

I knew that banana flowers were edible. Unfortunately, I forgot which part.

Fortunately, some of the recipes worked out well, so I could hold onto a bit of City Wife cred.

Roasting eggplant, red pepper, and garlic in the coals. The hair/algae colony is only on day 4 at this point.

Sister wives can be friends!

The trip wasn’t quite full of enough hardship/misery/beaver fat to make Todd’s Voyageur dreams come true, but at least he nailed the wife bit, and got to bellow his favourite paddling song whenever the urge hit.

Next up: The River!

Yaarrrrrr! Off on our river adventure

We’re about to embark on our one week kayaking trip – just enjoying one last breakfast and googling “does Thailand have wild crocodiles?” Whatever the answer to that question, we’re about to be dumped at the side of a strange river with a random assortment of gear that we scrounged from teachers, students, market vendors and 7/11. It’s gonna be good. I’ll be out of blogging range for the next week, and I’m looking forward to sharing our adventures with you when we get back. If we get back. (I’m joking, Mama Jan).

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Todd and David sort food

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Waiting for the train to take us north

Trains, Jungles, and Creepy Neighbours

Sorry for the long gaps between posts, folks! I’m sure you’ve all been waiting with bated breath for the latest episode of “Ruth’n’T-bone do life.” Not to worry – after weeks of assorted traveling, I am back with a vengeance.

The day after I arrived home from Cambodia, we flipped a u-turn and headed back to the airport to pick up our most favourite Jenny’n’Sean(y).

Lookin’ stunned and stunning after an afternoon at what may be the world’s biggest outdoor market

These renaissance souls are on their way back to Canuckistan after spending a year in India working at assorted NGOs. They rightly concluded that nothing would soothe their dithered souls like a week spent in the presence of Pure Sanity (ie: Me and T-Bone). Our time together began with a 20 hour, non-AC, urine-scented train trip. We learned that this particular train always runs 4 hours late – changing the schedules to reflect this would apparently ruin the beautiful mystery that is Thai train travel.

Livin’ like locals. Except that all the locals opted for either the comforts of AC or the cheapness of regular seats. They may be on to something…

The four of us headed up to Chiang Mai, a city in Northern Thailand. Being the precise planner that I am, we had no clue what we would do when we got there, but we knew it would be good. The first day involved a lot of eating, and not much else.

Starting with breakfast, stopping never.

Our eating habits were threatening to blow our budget, so we booked a three-day jungle trek. This involved a highly sophisticated selection process of flipping through brochures at our guest house and choosing the cheapest option. The trek began with a quick elephant ride.

The smiles are hiding sheer terror. The top of an elephant is a long way up.

Well, hello there, Dumbo!

Our first night was spent in a straw hut in a hill-tribe village, complete with spiders and other critters.

Our trekking crew in the middle of a sophisticated Thai game that involved painting unibrows on each others’ faces with charcoal.

The next day involved swimming in waterfalls and jungle trekking.

Finally, a shower with actual water pressure!

Trying to remember how to swim.

It also involved numerous, numerous random stops by our guide, who was determined to carve cups out of bamboo for all of us, whether we wanted them or not. This involved many, many carving breaks. We passed the time by doing stupid stuff.

Like playing Tarzan

And wrapping our lunches in banana leaves.

And introducing my pet crocodile to assorted dogs.

The second night was spent in a dark hut in a dank jungle on filthy beds with filthy blankets. It was a moist, clammy night. I dig authentic travel. After a 30 minute rafting trip (yay budget travel!) led by guides of unknown certification, we piled into a Song Taew and headed back to Chiang Mai for one more night of extended eating.

We were feeling melancholy about the end of our trip, until we received an unexpected early morning wake-up call: the Germans next door to us brought a couple of prostitutes back to the hotel, and engaged in Cacophonous Copulation for what seemed to be hours, then spent additional time haggling over the price.

Try that again and you’ll be meeting my javelin.

With that, we decided we were ready to leave Chiang Mai after all. Back to southern climes!

Officially creeped out.

And one bonus photo of a jumping jungle spider. Much smaller than the one that was crawling on the floor of our straw hut.