River Rafting in Thailand

“I hope you remember this,” the cheerful whitewater rafting instructor said in a Thai accent.

I hope I remember it, too. I was on a two-day adventure hike in the mountains of Thailand and this was the last adventure my dozen fellow trekkers and I were encountering: river rafting in Thailand – both whitewater and bamboo. The whitewater rafting was up first.

Whitewater Rafting

The instructor had just demonstrated how to dive to one side when our raft guide commands us to so we don’t fall out of the raft. And for the fifth time, told us he hoped we remembered what he was telling us.

Said jokingly…but not really.

I secured my lifejacket tighter and looked towards the murky, brown, and rapidly moving water a short distance away down a small hill. Overlapping green shades of the trees was prevalent on both sides of the river bank, thick and lush; demonstrating our remoteness in these mountains outside of Chiang Mai.

“Don’t worry. You very unlucky if you fall in,” the instructor added.

A minute later at the instructor’s direction and after what I thought was a much too short tutorial, I began heading down a trail made through the riverside brush alongside my five rafting buddies: my fiancé, a guy from Croatia I had become quick friends with on the trek, and a middle-aged Japanese couple. None of us had been white water rafting before except me – and that had been 15 years ago.

We reached the raft and climbed in as a weathered-looking man who looked to be Thailand’s answer to Rambo held the raft steady against some rocks. He looked tough and ready to guide us through the rapids. I felt momentarily soothed.

My leg plopped into the ice water as I climbed into the raft and I shivered despite the 85 degree weather. I definitely did not want to be the unlucky one who falls in.

As it turned out, I didn’t need to worry about that until the bamboo rafting part of the adventure came along.

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But first, I learned a few important things about whitewater rafting in Thailand:

  • Find a reputable company. Many visitors to Thailand do whitewater rafting as part of a trek, whether it’s one day, two days, five days, or more and there are many different trekking companies to choose from. If you’re staying in a reputable hotel near a trekking region, they are a good resource. I didn’t book my trek until I arrived in Chiang Mai and my host at the guesthouse I stayed at had a dozen different treks she showed my fiancé and me and helped us choose the one that was right for us. You want to go rafting with a company that follows safety protocols and has the right equipment, such as proper lifejackets and helmets. There are also companies that do multi-day white water rafting trips to really give you a sense of adventure.
  • Feet up. Shoes of any kind weren’t allowed and after a few painful knocks against rocks on the bottom as we crashed down over rapids, I was careful to lift my feet on whatever parts of the raft ride I felt like I could do so without falling out to prevent bruising a toe.
  • Leave it behind. Our trek guide told us to leave everything in a pickup truck that would meet us at the end of the river rafting. And he meant everything. Nothing in pockets; no cameras, cash, sunglasses, or passports. The latter one seemed a bit tempting fate to leave behind so I didn’t and was drying my passport pages out for the rest of the night. If leaving everything behind seems daunting, look for a trek that has waterproof compartments brought onboard the raft to house your things. Again, do your research via Internet or in town before booking your rafting excursion and you should be fine.
  • You will get wet. Which is no doubt a big reason why they advise leaving everything behind. Even before the aforementioned bamboo rafting segment came, I was pretty soaked from water fights. Our trek group broke up into three different groups, each on a raft, and after having been together for a while and gotten to know each other, we were quick to escalate the slow parts of the ride into playful splashing.
  • Listen to commands. Like I mentioned, our guide was tough. And he was not happy when we didn’t listen properly to the commands he was shouting at us from his position at the back of the raft. The first time we all messed up, he made us stop against the side of a big rock and re-explained the commands in an angry voice, which instantly made me think if he was so mad we were all on the verge of drowning. But then gave a big contradictory smile and pushed us off again into the rapids. Still, I was careful to make sure I accurately listened to all his commands after that. The rapids weren’t huge – nothing like the ones you see in ads for Colorado or New Zealand, but they were still big enough to knock one of us out of the raft if we didn’t do things correctly.
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Bamboo Rafting

I was just getting my bearings for all the whitewater rafting commands and the rhythm of the river when it was time for bamboo rafting. “Back!” the guide yelled and my fellow rafters and I began furiously pedaling backward as he guided from the rear to lead us to the side of the river.

The whitewater rafting was over. But as I was about to learn, the chaos was just beginning.

“Out. On there,” our guide commanded and pointed to a sturdy looking raft being held in place by a teen boy who was kneeling on a skinny dock. He let go of it as we floated closer and our guide maneuvered the raft so we were aside it and he could grab it.

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“We just climb from this raft onto that raft?” I asked doubtfully, looking down at the bamboo platform. The bamboo raft no longer looked that sturdy. He gestured again that we should climb onto it. I was the third to venture down. By that time the bamboo raft was already submerged about six inches under the water.

Apparently, it was not made to hold a lot of weight. The remaining two people climbed on and we sunk a bit lower, completely submerging my feet, ankles, and butt.

And that’s when the rocking happened.

“Everyone hold still,” my fiancé commanded loudly through gritted teeth as he clutched the sides of the raft tightly.

We all tried not to move, but to no avail. We began veering dangerously to the right.

“Tilt to the left! To the left!” our Croatian friend shouted from the front of the raft. We all did and for one second we thought we were safe and then…the raft toppled over and all five of us took a splash into the cold water, which came up to my shoulders.

Sputtering out water, we all stared at our guide, still safe on his whitewater raft. His face was amused and he gestured for us to get back on. “Really?” I muttered. I was starting to think this thing wasn’t made for five people.

We all heaved ourselves back on the raft – which was quite a feat in itself – and this time we were able to keep it afloat. Our guide, still on his nice semi-dry whitewater raft, floated behind us as we careened down the river still sitting – none of us dared to stand; not wanting to be the one to cause everyone to fall back in the river – and still submerged in water. I was very happy I listened about leaving my camera behind.

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My bamboo rafting experience was surprising and memorable and here are some takeaways I got from it:

  • It might not be what you think. You’re not necessarily going to be standing on the raft as the locals do. Our guide instructed us to sit, though I did see a few brave souls on other rafts stand up without toppling the raft – and the other trekkers on it – over.
  • Enjoy it. The bamboo raft did not meet my visions of careening down the river standing up as elegant as Jennifer Aniston on a paddle board, a stick in my hand as I expertly guided my way around the lazy rapids; however, after the initial shock of falling in the cold water, I don’t think I giggled that much my entire trip in Thailand. We had to have looked so ridiculous on that raft and it was so different from what I was expecting, it was easy to find the humor in it and to simply relax and enjoy the beautiful, quiet surroundings of the river.
  • Authenticity. If you’ll be crushed to not have the chance to stand on a bamboo raft and glide your way down the river, do research before arriving in Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai – or wherever you’re planning on setting off on a trek. The adventure trek I did included a rafting portion amongst a lot of hiking and an elephant ride; however there are some other – many of them longer – treks that are set up so you’ll have your own personal experience on a bamboo raft ride, standing up on it the way the locals do. Or, make friends with a local and see if they’ll let you borrow their raft for the afternoon.

Have you ever been river rafting in Thailand? Tell us about what you thought about it! Leave a comment below.

To learn more about Gina and her travels please visit her website One Day in a City.

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