Northern Thailand: A Leisurely Raft Ride and Clinging to the Back of the Truck

It seems that I have been on this ride forever!  “How long have we been traveling?” I ask SA, a co-volunteer.  SA has a long and wavy light brown hair that gives her a carefree look.  She’s very smart and has a well-thought-of answer to any questions.  “We left the guest house at ten past nine and it’s now 9:55 so we have been traveling for forty-five minutes”, replies SA.  We have just picked up another volunteer, SB whose homestay is on the outskirts of Chiang Mai.  We are traveling in a covered pick-up truck called songthaew.  The four of us are seated on the long benches inside the truck, MM and SA on the side opposite SB and I. When I see the open highway that is separated by the manicured pine trees and the bougainvillea plants in a variety of colors, I stop caring about the time or the name of the road. We are finally outside the city.  All I care about now is that we are heading northwest for our trekking and river rafting adventure.

The road twists and turns up a mountain pass for a ride that alternates between exhilarating and dizzying. Good thing that the benches inside the truck are long enough for MM, and SB who is 5’9”, to stretch-out in a lying down position during the dizzying part.  We discuss Thai culture and our volunteering activities in between the long ride.

We soon see a sign of commerce:  fruit stand and market stands with eggs being roasted on the roadside. Our truck drops us off at a small hut that serves as an open-air restaurant where a woman is quick to serve us lunch. We eat our lunch of fried rice, eggs omelet and grilled fish.  The restaurant is overlooking the river. I see pictures of river rafting posted in the restaurant - a sign to tell us that it might be the place where we will start our adventure.   Little did I realize that our volunteering organization has arranged this outing with a small independent, family operation?  Our driver is related to the couple who own the restaurant.  The woman at the restaurant who has just served us lunch is the wife of our tour guide.  Their teen-aged son will be our rafting guide.

After lunch, our guide tells us to hop into the open truck.  And this is the beginning of our great adventure!  We ride in the back of the truck, holding on to the rail to get to one of the highlights of our trip – a visit to the Karen hill tribe.  We pass a dazzling array of vivid greens and smoky grays, and a baby elephant among big elephants.  The wind hitting our face and blowing our hair in different directions is invigorating.  I tell my new found friends that I’m totally enjoying the ride.  “This is so much fun!  This is illegal in California”, I exclaim.  “Or anywhere in the US”, adds MM.  We have been riding for more than an hour without seeing even a hint of something that might suggest a speed limit. Certain lawlessness to this place is quite disturbing.  Yet, the ride is so liberating.  I feel totally free!  In between strips of mountainous terrain, the land runs flat and level with rice fields and towns with the ever-present temple.  

Our truck drops us off at the Karen hill tribe village that seems to be caught halfway in between tourism and tradition.  We see huts that serve as the market stands with a display of colorful handmade scarves. One of the market stands is manned by a woman who is also weaving a scarf.   I start speaking to her in English in sentences I thought even people who don’t speak English would understand like, “I buy.” (I did not realize how dumb it was to speak in such a manner until I heard MM repeated what I said.)  I attempt to speak in Thai to five kids who are selling handcrafted bracelets.  To my surprise, their English is very good.  Or I should have not been surprised.  Many volunteers come to Thailand to teach English to children from Karen, Lisu, and Hmong mountain tribes.  And I’m one of those volunteers.

After buying souvenirs, we walk uphill to start our trek.  The houses in this village are constructed from wood and bamboo.  The thatched roofs are made from dried teak leaves. They lined the narrow pathways that pass through them. Pigs and chickens roam freely.

From the hill tribe, we walk downhill and follow a rocky route where we find a river and watering holes.  We linger a while on top of the ‘big rock’ by the watering hole, watch the luminescent blue-green dragonflies, and listen to the soothing sound of the rushing water.  The whole place gives us a cool relief from the warm and humid afternoon.  I pull out my camera and start to film MM as she tries to cross the very narrow bamboo bridge.  She is followed by SB and SA respectively.  After crossing the bamboo bridge, I hand my camera to SB and tell her that I’m going back to the other side of the bridge so she could film me as if I was crossing the bridge for the first time.  As I walk back, I hear SB say, “Totally going…”  MM then makes a comment, “You’re supposed to wait until she gets to the other side of the bridge.” SB replies, “I know, I know but…”  I welcome this kind of exchange and conversation.  It gives me the opportunity to get to know my fellow volunteers, the people that I enjoy hanging out with.  Each has a great personality in her own way.  MM who’s going to medical school is so precise and very good at following instructions.  I’m sure she’s going to be a great doctor someday.  On the other hand, SB the professional photographer and journalism intern would not miss out on the opportunity to capture in a photo or in film an interesting moment.  She speaks intelligently and comes up with sophisticated words.  At the same time, she said, she has a mouth of a sailor.  She calls everybody ‘babe’ or ‘sweetie’.  She has a warm personality that's endearing.

After crossing the very narrow bamboo bridge, we continue our trek through farmlands: cornfields and rice fields. We cross a few more bamboo bridges to reach the narrow road that leads to the entrance of the Maewang Waterfall.  The entrance to the waterfall dips to narrow steps. It takes us a few hundred steps to get to the waterfall.  The Maewang Waterfall has one-level drop and may not rival what I’ve seen in Costa Rica, Hawaii, and the Philippines in scale, but the humongous protruding boulder from the side of the river gives it an added charm.  We linger by the waterfall and watch some men display their pecs, and bravado by swimming in the deep pool and cool water.

Soon I hear the motorized sound of our truck’s engine.  Our truck is waiting for us by the waterfall entrance to take us to our next adventure:  River Rafting.   Once again we ride in the back of the truck to get to the riverside where a few bamboo rafts are waiting on the far bank of the river.  A young man gestures out toward the long and very narrow bamboo raft.  The four of us get into the raft that is supposed to be good for 3 rafters only, but before we could settle on who’s riding where the raft starts to slide into the current.  

My energy level has dropped after trekking under a hot sun and humid air, or perhaps from the exhilarating ride in the back of the truck that our ‘River Rafting’ turns into a leisurely raft ride. Our rafting guide, who looks no more than 14 years old, tries to make our adventure exciting by leaning on the edge of the raft to tip it off, and announce when the raft is about to hit a roaring rapid.  At one point, he gives me the bamboo paddle to steer the raft, but I’m not good at it that I bring our raft to a halt. Good thing that there are no tall drops or large boulders.  We hit three or four roaring rapids, but the river flow is mostly mellow allowing us time for reflection and relaxation.

After river rafting, SB and I change to our dry clothes.  SA and MM decide to go back to Chiang Mai in their wet clothes.  On our return to the city, we transfer to the covered-truck that we used earlier.  I sit inside the truck.   SA and MM who are hanging off at the back of the truck to dry their clothes off are joined by SB.  I pull out my camera to film the girls who are having so much fun clinging to, hanging off, holding on at the back of the truck.  I don’t see any signs of any traffic rules or rules prohibiting the practice of clinging at the back of the truck while traveling on the highway at whatever speed.  It occurs to me that the places and the adventure tours offered in Chiang Mai are not really that extraordinary, but the absence of rules allowed us to forge our way into having an unforgettable adventure and to understand the Thai phrase, “Mai Pen Lai/Sabai Sabai” in a meaningful way.  I enjoy this day so much that I don’t want it to end.  Another way to put it is a quote by Coco Ginger, "I never want to arrive.  I love the ride." 

Note: "Mai Pen Lai" (Never Mind) describes the Thai value that is focused on now and enjoying the moment.  Don’t worry about the future, it is unpredictable. Here in Thailand, nothing is taken too seriously, and anything worth doing should contain some element of sanuk (fun)!


  1. Love this, Alexiam! I especially like the "I buy" part. Hilarious! Also, love how you're using the present tense here -- I'm really in the moment on your trip.

  2. What a beautiful flash back!!! Transported me there completely!


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