Adventures of the Dragon Boat

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Chiang Mai, Thailand
By Aaron Dallek

Please quickly take the picture.
Please quickly take the picture.

I arrived by ship into the culturally amazing and absolutely beautiful country of Thailand and took a flight to Chiang Mai, Thailand. When we arrived were greeted by our tour guide, Dtaw who was awaiting our arrival in Chiang Mai. Dtaw and the drivers took us to a well-known hillside Buddhist Temple where we were able to admire the buildings and then chat with a few of the monks who studied on the grounds. It was really interesting to talk to the monks and learn more about the day to day practices of the Buddhist religion.

Dtaw then took us to the guest house where we would be staying for the night. When I say guest house, I mean nice hotel with a swimming pool, an international restaurant, a massage parlor and moped rentals. While speaking with Dtaw, our other guide, Leno arrived and equipped us for our trek. They provided sleeping bags and all of our food for the 2 days. We went to dinner downtown and the place we found was awesome and I had 1 1/2 plates of Phad Thai and had fried bananas for desert. The food was wonderful!

We woke up early the next morning to get ready for our trek. Dtaw and Leno picked us up in a covered pick-up truck that looked like a combat truck, minus the camouflage. There were two benches along the inside of the truck and we all felt like we were preparing for battle. The drive through the countryside of Chiang Mai was indescribable. The landscape was miraculous, full of green rolling hills sitting under the beautiful blue sky. The winding roads added to the scenery while at the same time made Ashley, a close friend of mine, really car sick. We had to pull over a couple times so that she could relieve herself. This was just the start to our group sicknesses. We arrived at the base of the mountain we were going to hike around 10 a.m. We walked a short while before arriving at a hot spring whose temperatures ranged around 200 degrees Fahrenheit. The steam and bubbles produced by the springs were overwhelming and provided a great introduction for our trek.

That day we hiked 10km throughout the jungle covered mountains, stopping in hillside and riverside villages along the way. The jungle was awesome – the only way you can describe it if at all was spectacular. These villages are extremely secluded and consist of between 8 and 14 families per village. The native tribes are very prevalent throughout this area. Most of the villages that we visited are part of the Karen tribe and thus speak the language of that tribe. Along with their language, they speak Thai and some English. We were informed that the tribes are getting smaller and smaller over time because as Thailand evolves into a more modern society the children in the tribes begin to desire to go to the cities to study. Once they learn the ways of the rest of the world, they tend to avoid returning to the villages thus inhibiting population growth in these areas. The main occupation of the village people is growing rice; however, they only work in order to sustain the needs of their village. The villagers rarely travel to the cities and only go into town for essentials. They raise cows, pigs and chickens, grow cotton trees and herb gardens, and have a substantial amount of water flowing in from the local streams. The most striking aspect of village life is that this is what they want. It’s not that they are poor or underprivileged, but rather that they choose to live this lifestyle because it is what makes them happy.

The second village we visited was a lot like the first. The main thing that stands out was when Meg, one of the two girls in the group, proved to the group how tough she really was! Leno picked a couple of super hot chili peppers from the field and dared us to eat them. Dan and I each took taste before figuring out how hot they really were. We started saying that we would each give 100 baht to whoever ate one of the peppers. Meg couldn’t pass that offer up! She immediately ate the pepper and won U.S. $15. As she chewed away Leno, Dtaw and the village man stared at her in utter amazement and rushed to get her water to drink because they knew how hot those peppers were. She quickly began to sweat and her eyes watered as she breathed heavily for over 10 minutes.

After a few more hours of trekking, we arrived in the elephant village before night fall where we would be spending the night. Thus were able to go swimming in the river. The thing is, Ashley’s doctor said to her, “no matter what you do, DO NOT swim in any rivers in northern Thailand because the risk of malaria is very severe there.” But we weren’t going to let that prevent us from having fun. We spent a couple of hours swimming against the strong currents of the Maetaeng River. The villagers had built a swinging bridge across the river (it reminded me of Indian Jones, it had planks to step on that were rickety and separated by spaces which you could fall right through if you were not careful), and we decided to imitate the young village boys who were jumping off the bridge. I did a back flip off the bridge and just hung and swung on it until sun set. We had a great time! Dinner, just like lunch, was delicious. We ate 4 different Thai dishes prepared by our guide with lots of rice, noodles and fresh fruits including pineapple, mango steen and other exotic fruits. We were taken care of very well.

Ian, Dan and I spent some time around the campfire with some homemade rice moonshine provided by our guide. I headed to bed early being very tired after our long hike, but the musically gifted villagers that night did not head to bed, they were sing until late into the night. Our accommodations consisted of mats on the floor, a blanket, a pillow and a mosquito net in a bamboo hut on the edge of the river. I actually slept fairly well. Leno woke us in the morning to eat breakfast and get ready for our elephant ride. We watched the Thai elephant guides wash the elephants in the river before we climbed on top of the mammoth animals. Our ride took almost two hours as we wandered back and forth across and down the river for a few miles. Our elephant guides let us each take a turn riding on the elephant’s head (where they usually sit to direct the elephant). We met Leno, Dtaw and our bamboo rafts on the side of the river right before the river turned into a series of rapids.

The bamboo rafts were almost 24 feet long and about 15 bamboo sticks wide, roughly 3 feet. On the front of the raft our bags were elevated and attached to a tepee-like bamboo contraption. This was to prevent our gear from getting wet, which you will here why it didn’t work so well! There were 2 rafts with 6 people on each raft. On my raft Leno was steering in front and Dan, Ian and I took turns steering in back. We called our boat “Dragon Boat” and made up fun things to root us on as we went through the rapids. We hit our first series of rapids and made it through just fine. When we reached the second series of rapids, and our two rafts got a little too close to one another, and the other raft slammed directly into a gigantic rock and went topside over the rock. We pulled our raft over and ran along the beach to save the poor souls, they had no clue what to do. The raft snapped in half over the rock, but was held together by the strong but shattered bamboo shoots (usually they are circular pole like shafts, but the pressure of the water flattened them). I went into the rushing water and logged my self against a rock close to shore, I used the long bamboo pole which we used to steer on our boat to get the shoes to dry land which were about to float away. Then we had to throw bags over the 8ft of rushing water, which was between us and the raft/rock. Dan and I went up stream a little and dove in the rushing water to get over to the raft to see if we could help dislodge it from the rock. We quickly figured out that the rushing water that was pounding against the raft was not going to let that happen. There were people that were stuck in the middle of the river. Dan and I had to let the current take us down stream for 30 ft. until we could swim to shore where “Dragon Boat” was sitting. Seeing as no one got hurt, it really was hilarious! The guides felt horrible, but we assured them that a little bit of drama only makes the adventure better.

Leno and Dtaw then had to go back to the nearest village to buy another raft. They said that a raft costs between 800 and 900 baht, or U.S. $20. When they returned with the rafts we got back on our rafts and prepared for the next stretch. The new raft was not buoyant enough to hold everyone so we had to stop and add another bamboo shoot to the rafts to make them more buoyant. I, of course, did my best to help especially when it included using a machete. After 45 minutes, we left and this time my raft found itself much ahead of the other raft. When we got to the worst rapids, we tried to get around this rock in the middle of the river, but unfortunately the river was too deep and we couldn’t push against the bottom to steer away from the rock, so we then went top side over the rock, like the first boat earlier in the day. Instead of doing what the other raft did when they crashed, holding on for dear life, I stayed on trying to push the raft along the rock in order to prevent it from getting stuck and snapping. Ian was carried downstream holding on to all of our bags which were all floating in the water faster than you could imagine. When an under toe took him below the water, I was a little worried, but I had faith in him and he was okay. But then as the raft rights itself, I find Dan, Meg and myself are the only ones on the raft, then Dan jumps 3ft from the raft catching a bag that was about to float down river without us. I have to use my bamboo pole to make sure our guide and my two friends in the water stayed close to the raft and didn’t get taken down current. Everyone got back on the raft and we stop to make sure the raft was still in working condition.

The second raft had no idea that we had crashed, they simply thought that we had pulled over to wait for them. From that point on, everything went smoothly except for a few more close encounters and we had a blast! The whole situation was awesome and very memorable! When we got to the final village we collected our soaking wet backpacks and walked across the bridge to the little restaurant that we’d be eating our lunch at. The food again was sensational. The ride back to Chiang Mai was unforgettable. I stood on the back of the pickup enjoying the wind blowing in my face, admiring the countryside and watching the sun set behind the mountains. People on their porches would wave and give us the biggest smiles. It was like another world – a great end to a great adventure.

Check out Aaron Dallek’s Travel Blog

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