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…

To the Sea! Yarrr!

This weekend, T-bone and I decided that it was high time for another of our special, boneheaded adventures. For those of you who know our relationship well, you’ll know that we have a certain, shall we say, penchant for doing dumb stuff. It’s almost an addiction – in fact, if I look back at what attracted us to each other in the first place, I would have to argue that our matching “crazy yet stupid” streaks acted as magnets.

Actually, we are completely normal.

My favourite example of a stupid R’n’T adventure occurred in India, when we decided to go hiking in the mountains without telling anyone. We kept seeing signs of bears, but Todd reassured me that “there are no bears in India.” Just before we reached our destination, a mother bear and her two cubs lumbered out of the woods in front of us. We later discovered that a villager had been killed by a bear in the same area the previous year. This is just one example of our dumb journeys.

Todd imitates Maria von Trapp in the Himalayas

So when we decided to walk to the ocean along the canal system, I had the feeling that we were heading for another special adventure.

But it’s all good, because Todd is prepared with his dog-whacker and GPS watch.

Our 10 miles trek did not get off to a promising start. We realized that we were out of sunscreen, and tried to buy some at a local store.  There were at least 20 varieties in stock, including sunscreen formulated specifically for men (?), but they all contained whitener. We bought the only one that didn’t specifically say “whitening” on the label, but who were we kidding.

All day I was convinced that my skin was glowing

Our adventure on the canals lasted all of 20 minutes. After winding its way past several people fishing and paddling in the sludge, the pathway abruptly turned into private property which was guarded by a lethargic watchdog with pendulous teats. She was too pathetic for Todd to pull out his dog whacker. We turned back to the road.

The scenic but reeking canal system

And began hiking on the highway. There’s nothing like a good highway on a hot day. We squeezed our way between the trucks hurtling towards us and the vehicles parked on the shoulder, all the while trying to avoid the random assortment of vehicles that were using the shoulder as a way to travel against the flow of traffic. After a while, this got tiring, so we stopped at a random coffee shop that sells cheesecake with the texture of lard, as well as pottery.

More specifically, Angry Bird pottery

And then we walked some more. And gazed at the disgusting canal, and walked some more. We also caught a local bus, and then it dumped us in the middle of nowhere, so we flagged down a taxi. We didn’t know how to say “ocean” in Thai, so he also dumped us in the middle of nowhere. So we continued walking.

Fishing next to the highway. Yum.

We knew we were getting close because of the smell. Not the briny sea breeze, but something far more pungent. It’s difficult to describe, but it was like a combination of fish guts, pulp mills, raw sewage, and seething humanity. My already low expectations were starting to bottom out.

After a bit off guesswork, we found a back road that wasn’t listed on the map. I’m guessing we may have been some of the first farangs to walk down that road, because we got some interesting looks. The road turned into a path which ran straight to the ocean…

The ocean.

And it was beautiful. The water was dirty, but the shore was a lovely, peaceful place. I kept wondering what the catch was – this is not how our adventures generally end.  It was a moment of feeling really grateful to call this crazy city home.

We finally had an adventure that ended well. It’s making me nervous.