Chiang Mai ATV and Rafting Adventure

by Sioned Curoe (Ned)

Our day starts at 8 a.m. when Eric Southwick, the friendly owner and proprietor of 8Adventures, greets my mother and I at the door of our guesthouse. I’d met him a few days before when mom and I went on the 15k “soft” river paddle, and I am raring to get back on the water for something more challenging.

The ride is cool, and a half hour from our destination, the road starts to narrow and though still paved, it’s surrounded on all sides by farmland. Farmers have cleared off jungle brush to make way for banana trees, teak wood, and even coffee grown by Akha villagers.

We finally pull up to 8Adventures’ central hub, the area is buzzing with activity, guides and drivers – all of them Thai with the exception of Isaac – checking equipment and setting up for a new day.

They have the group of us sign waivers and insurance forms, then lead the group out to the first part of our action-packed day: ATV riding. Everyone is outfitted with a helmet and safety goggles, which (little though did I know at the time) will become extremely important.

8Adventures ATV

The crew at 8Adventures has two types of four-wheelers available. The first is a thumb-throttle attached to the right handle, and the second is a twist-throttle handle commonly found on motorbikes. One staff member walks us through both bikes: “this is the brake, this is the ignition, here’s how to start it, etc.” Each of us picks a bike – here I immediately leap on a thumb-throttle ATV, knowing from experience that they’re infinitely easier to manage when driving over bumps. Driving an ATV is rarely a smooth process, and twist-throttles are far too easy to accidentally gun when you’re jerking around in your seat.

Then the time comes to make our way out into the wilderness! We pass elephants with fellow tourists on their backs, as well as buffalo drawing oxcarts over a bridge, and descend down curving roads on the steep hill. Just before stopping for a water break, our group drives along a sunbathed road lined with trees, all of them bursting with bright orange flowers.

“I wish I had my camera. You and the trees would’ve made a great picture,” Mom laments when we take a break. “Better yet, I wish I brought sunscreen,” she says, grimacing down at her arms that’re already starting to redden.

We start up again, and on this second leg of the journey we’re going to drive through a remote forest. “There are villages up here,” our guide tells us, “but they only have dirt roads, so it’s hard to get cars through.” He leads us down a gravel track, out of the direct sun and eventually, into the jungle. Trees whiz by, and I can hear the warning calls of monkeys in the trees but I’m concentrating too hard on the road ahead of me to look around as much as I may want.

We spend nearly forty minutes there, rolling along branching paths up and down hills covered with trees, brush, and very red dirt. Before I realize it, our group breaks back out onto a paved road following the curve of a river. We pass through more a few more clusters of homesteads before we come back to a bridge I recognize – and a moment later we arrive back at 8Adventures just in time for lunch.

8Adventures Inflatable Kayaking (IK)

My afternoon adventure starts with the group of us – my mother, I, and four Chinese tourists – suiting up in lifejackets and helmets at the hub of 8Adventures, just off the bank of the Mae Taeng River. While we strap ourselves up properly, six guides run around the property, strapping inflatable rafts to a truck and piling paddles alongside them.

When the truck has stopped and the boats are laid on the ground, Isaac walks us through some of the basic safety reminders, including “always wear a helmet” and “don’t put your feet down if you fall in the water.”

I hear the dull roar of rushing water around the corner, and can’t stifle the few lines of “Just Around the Riverbend” that escape as I paddle forward, eager to get to the first of the whitewater. We take our boats through one at a time, with space between in case we get stuck. And get stuck we do – even with our expert guides, the water is extremely low and in a few cases Isaac has to hop out of the boat and give it a tug over the worst of the rocks.

“Okay, paddle hard!” Isaac says in more than one case, where I provide enough power to rocket us up and over a shallow spot instead of getting stuck. “Hold on!” he tells me just in time, as I’m nearly bounced out of my seat and the boat entirely. There are small moments of calm between rapids, usually enough to catch my breath and take a drink of water before we’re off again.

“We’ve finished the hard part. Do you want to steer?” Isaac asks when we hit a calm spot. I agree after a moment. “Okay, the hardest part is switching.”

“I’ll just jump in the water.” I proceed to do exactly that – the river feels great, especially after paddling for an hour in the hot afternoon sun. But another rough area is coming up quickly, so I do my best impression of a dolphin and launch myself into the back of the raft.

“Hey, that was pretty good!” Don calls from behind us. I smile but have no time to reply before we enter the rapids. Steering is a challenge – I call out directions to Isaac to go left or right, muscling around the rocks. We do get stuck once, but a little bit of jiggling shakes us free.

Mae Taeng River is an extremely popular spot on hot weekends, and the lower end even has numerous bamboo huts on stilts sitting over the river where Thai people like to come and relax for free, drinking and socializing until the sun goes down.

And then, at last, our landing. Mom and I get out, hiking up the riverbank while Don and Isaac take care of the boats. Before long we’re heading back to the hub a few hundred meters uphill, soaked to the bone and grinning.

“Did you have fun?” Eric asks when we trudge in, dropping our equipment off on hangers.