Whitewater rafting through the jungle on Pai River, Thailand

Whitewater rafting

Thrilling Class 3, 4 Fragrance rapids

Before we arrived in Northern Thailand for our Pai River whitewater rafting adventure, several other tourists complained that the water level in the river is too low for any thrilling rapids. One Aussie tourist we met while enjoying kôw man gài (chicken and rice) in Chiang Mai told us, “it’s more like a floating nature trip my grandma would enjoy.” Dramatic eye roll. He’d done it mid-February the previous year. But when I stood in front of the swollen Pai river one morning, watching the aggressive water uproot a small tree on the bank, I thought I had signed up for Death. My girlfriend, on the other hand, went, “This is going to be so awesome!”

The Pai River flows through the small, sleepy town of Pai nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas. Recently, it’s become famous for ecotourism attractions, and a number of resorts and restaurants have popped up, dramatically changing the idyllic nature of the town. The river is tame early during the year, but when the rainy season hits in July it becomes a rapids-generating monster. So, before you pay, it’s important to check with the local rafting tour providers (there are many in the area) whether the water level is high enough for adventure rafting.

We signed up for a two-day, one overnight, rafting tour with Thai Adventure Rafting, run by a Frenchman who proudly says he was the first to introduce commercial rafting to this area. We were instructed to arrive a day early in Pai town, only three hours from Chiang Mai, because the rafting trip would take off in the morning. The day after we arrived, we were picked up from our hotel by the rafting company, who took us to their base. There we were fitted into lifejackets and helmets and given a safety briefing over coffee. We would be paddling some 60 kilometers of deep jungle, our safety instructor told us, and “have fun” through 60 rapids up to Class 4. I asked what Class 4 meant. Apparently, rapids are numbered according to International Scale of River Difficulty. Class 1 is pretty much gently flowing water, the instructor was patient enough to explain, Classes 2 to 3, moderate, Class 4 to 5, tough and intense, Class 6, rare and deadly.

After the safety briefing, we were driven to where the boats were. We were introduced to our captain, Bhoo, a small man with troll-strength biceps. He taught us the basics of paddling our boat through the rapids. I took one concerned look at the Pai River, milk tea colored and flowing fast. Captain Bhoo smiled at me, clearly noticing a novice, and said, “Don’t worry, we’ll do some gentle paddling for couple of kilometers before we get to the rapids.”

My girlfriend basically dragged me onto the boat and next thing I know I was paddling through a lush, green jungle, with a panoramic view of the mountains in the distance, listening to the chorus of frogs. While we were getting the hang of paddling, a herd of wild water buffalo came down the river bank ahead of us. The adult buffalo started submerging themselves in the cool river, while the calves stared at us. We paddled some more through the greenery for about two hours before our captain said it’s time for lunch.

After a filling lunch (rice and tofu packed in a banana leaf) under a mango tree, captain Bhoo said we were about to experience our first thrilling Class 3, 4 Fragrance rapids. We were soon back on the river, but unlike before, our boats began to gather up speed, the river dragging us downstream. I could see the muddy waves with white bubbles pushing our boat forward, left and right, while we tried to keep the balance. We dodged rocks and I realized I was about to paddle my first rapid. Captain Bhoo shouted some instructions over the roar of the water, and I braced my paddle with all my might. And, whoa, the Class 3, or 4, I don’t know, rapids took us over. I could feel the power of the water beneath our rubber boat, making it buck and shake violently. We screamed, got soaked, and tried to keep the boat from capsizing. When it was all over, we kept on paddling through less forceful rapids, jittery and excited.

In the evening, we stopped by our “jungle camp,” where we were supposed to spend the night in elevated huts made of bamboo. After a very basic, yet delicious, Thai dinner prepared by our captains (yes, they cook too), we were showed a bucket of water as the “shower,” and mattresses covered with mosquito nets as our “beds.” The accommodations were a wee bit too bucolic than I had hoped for, and from the manner our fellow floaters eyed the mattresses, they definitely thought so too. A spider scuttled out of my pillow as I climbed on to the mattress. My girlfriend said, “These mattresses are so cool, aren’t they? Really gives you that jungle feeling.” At night, the wallowing of the cicadas and the tree frogs kept me awake. My girlfriend pulled out her iPhone and recorded what she termed “jungle music.”

The following day, after a breakfast of bread, eggs and coffee, we were on the river again. We navigated some more rapids, but not as violent as the day before. I was getting less and less anxious about the rapids so I had more time to enjoy the jungle backdrop. The scenery around the Pai River was impressive; we could see electric blue butterflies among the trees, wild deer munching on low branches and, of course, frogs. Captain Bhoo directed us to a limestone wall. My girlfriend, who was seated ahead of me, said “look, the wall is moving.” Several of us leaned in, and to my horror, it was covered in hundreds of black spiders, tangled in tiny knots, like hairballs. As the paddlers slapped their paddles against the wall to prevent the boats from hitting it, the spiders fell into the water in black clumps.

We stopped by briefly at hot springs before we embarked on the last portion of the trip. The hot springs were right along the river and our captain said their bubbling water could “boil quail eggs easy.”We had a lot of fun digging out mini hot spring pools on the river bank. No one wanted to leave, but after some refreshments, we were eventually on our way.

During the final segment of the trip, we paddled through the Rising Stone Rapids, ranging from Classes 2 to 3. After all the adrenaline, we had a mini-picnic and took a refreshing swim in the Pai Gorges, before arriving in Mae Hong Son, a charming farming province on the Thai-Myanmar border. We gave our enormous thanks to captain Bhoo while we waited to be driven to the airport to catch a flight back to Chiang Mai. To my surprise, I found myself telling captain Bhoo that I wanted to come back here, maybe next year. “Come in August or September, when the water levels are at the highest,” he said, with a big smile.