Saturday, February 14, 2009

Riding down a river on a pile of bamboo (Feb. 12/09 - Chiang Mai, Thailand)

When we crawled out of bed this morning, it was cold enough to see your breath! That said, it was hard to bring ourselves to put on wet swimsuits and shorts for our morning trip down the river. Bamboo rafting is one of those "must do" things in northern Thailand, and for good reason! Each raft is built by lashing 15 pieces of bamboo together, each about 30 feet long, using reeds to tie them together. Not a single nail or scrap of synthetic material is used. Bamboo floats really well because inside are a series of hollow compartments, and the "wood" (it is actually a grass) is impermeable enough that the inside doesn't fill up with water. We were counting on it, anyway, as our packs were suspended from a bamboo tripod near the bow, and six of us piled onto each raft. It was a flip flops and shorts kind of deal though, despite the cool morning, as water washes over the deck of the raft - especially in the rapid sections! We were pleased to learn that this business of cutting down a dozen bamboo trees every time they want to float a bunch of tourists down the river is actually a sustainable practice. Since we hadn't seen any indication that the bamboo was trucked back upstream to be reused, we assumed it was ditched at the end and essentially wasted. But our guide explained that most if it is actually put on trucks and exported for use in the construction of bamboo furniture. So we are basically riding Thai logging trucks down the river!

We stood single file down the middle of the raft, with the front person and two back people (the men!) holding 15 foot long bamboo poles that they pushed into the river bottom or off logs, rocks, etc. on the banks to steer. The three of us girls had the difficult job of kicking back and enjoying the scenery. For the most part, the river was about 80 feet wide, relatively calm, and with lots of gentle corners. The guys got the hang of steering pretty quickly, just in time for a couple sections with small rapids that involved a little rock dodging. The raft sailed along surprisingly well, and since it was so long it was very stable. The jungle-covered hills rose on both sides of the river, and orchid vines and banana trees trailed right down to the water. We meandered past the Karen village we had lunch at yesterday, past the elephants hobbled on the riverbank, and onwards to the Lahu village we stayed at the first night. There, we picked up lifejackets for the rougher second half and then carried on. There were a few sections where we were told to sit down, which was refreshing since the midday sun was beating down and sitting on the raft basically meant getting soaked up to your waist! Some rapids probably counted as Class 2, where the guys had to be on their toes to keep us from slamming into a rock. Exactly that happened at one point, as we were flying through the whitewater and hit an exposed rock square on. This brought the raft to an abrupt stop, sending anyone who was standing flying forward. In another section, it was rough enough to make half of us get out and walk around it. One of the ladies on the other raft managed to clothesline her pole on an overhanging branch and do a backflip into the water, but otherwise we managed to avoid any incidents. We floated past a few hilltribe people foraging on the riverbanks, and then past a series of riverside huts that were clearly built for tourists. A couple whitewater rafting places were set up closeby, which head downstream into the rougher parts of the river. This was where we ended our river journey, thankfully, as these bamboo rafts probably wouldn't fare too well on Class 3 or 4 rapids! It was a beautiful trip though; relaxing, peaceful, and occasionally exciting!

We had some lunch and then piled back into the truck, stopping briefly to walk up to a waterfall that was really not much more than a dribble thanks to the lack of rain. Ken was brave enough to go for a dip in the pool at its base, and even took advantage of the natural waterslide into one of the lower pools. It was a quick, breezy drive back to Chiang Mai, where we found a room for our last night in northern Thailand. We loved our little trip up into the mountains, got a taste for the landscapes, the culture, and the people, and are now ready to venture south tos ee waht Bangkok has in store for us.

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