“Shit,” I thought to myself after glancing at the 8:28a glowing in my hostel dorm bed. I had spent the previous night dancing the night away at Chiang Mai’s famous indoor-outdoor bar, Zoe’s in Yellow. A favorite for both young Thais and out-of-towners, Zoe’s is not friendly to early morning wake-up calls.
I snatched up my day pack, throwing bug spray and sunscreen in it as I attempted to shut the door without waking my new roommates. There’s not much more you need for a day lounging on a river. Alan, a Thai man who I later learned was actually an American who had returned to care for his sick father, was waving me hurriedly into the van with one hand, while stabilizing his cell phone against his ear with the other. The wide-eyed nod into the car gave me the feeling I was definitely late.
“We’re not in the US!” he shouted at me as I attempted to get in the front driver-side seat.
I had been on the road for a little over a week and was still getting adjusted to being alone and constantly meeting new people. Some took quickly to my twenty-questions style, while others took offense. I had started to slow down my rapid fire questioning and instead took to playing cards where less words were needed and more laughs could easily be had. My emotions had ranged drastically throughout the first few days and I was still getting over a few odd interactions that left me feeling unsettled and a bit rejected.
Feeling comfortable with another American, Alan and I quickly bonded over MBAs, the restaurant industry and the challenges of being a manager. I got over his pushiness quickly. He liked my questions and answered them to the fullest. I enjoyed his energy and laughed when he told me my choice to kayak was boring.
Thank God. I needed a boring day.
The pair of adventurers in the backseat, a Japanese-French-British couple, asked me if Alan and I had known each other previously, a question I frequently get after my interrogations lead to quick connections with new acquaintances. We hadn’t, but I always like the feeling that comes with the question. It makes me feel satisfied to build relationships quickly, skipping small talk and digging right into matters of the heart.
We arrived at the Chiang Mai Kayaking Office to meet the owner, Aidan. He introduced us to the river pathway we would be exploring for the day and included an in-depth explanation of different strokes and escape routes via dried up markers and a well-loved whiteboard.
Unfortunately, all I could think about was getting my hands on some caffeine and hydration. I waited patiently for what seemed like many slow, torturous minutes before asking how much the water in the glass-doored commercial refrigerator cost. “Free,” Alan told me.
A bottle of water, an Iced Americano and a free berry smoothie later (due to needing to wait a bit longer for one of the joining guests), we launched ourselves up into the songthaew. Along the way, we devoured the views and engaged in new travel friend chatter. The typical “where are you from?” “where are you going?” “how long are you traveling for?” filled the open-aired truck. Only one guest, a young Chinese man traveling on his own, decided not to partake in the conversation, instead focusing on his iPhone 6 with earbuds in. My nosy-nature, of course, had me peeking over to see who he was talking to, only to see Chinese characters that prevented my spying. He got me.
We stopped for snacks, dropped off two travelers from San Francisco who were biking first, picked up our kayaks and finally arrived at the bridge where we would begin our day on the river.
As we gathered around the launching point, I felt the fullness of my bladder. Too embarrassed to ask to pop a squat in the surrounding rice fields, a remainder of the insecurity newly built up, I instead decided to hold it and be the first to take a swim. Daniel, our multi-lingual local guide, re-demonstrated our lessons from earlier, encouraging us to immediately paddle upstream to practice a 360 degree turn and try to eddy out, skills necessary for the day.
Since I was the most experienced kayaker, Daniel directed me to get in my kayak first. I agreed and as he gave me a push out, I was quickly surprised at the force of the current. The current began dragging me away, taking control of me and my boat. I smiled, and thanked Aidan in my mind as his briefings flashed back into my head, greatly appreciative of his extensive explanations.
I quickly got the hang of my boat, remembered the strength and skill that had been hiding inside me, and used as much effort as I could muster in my hungover state to turn myself back upstream. The muscle memory surprised me, reminding me that it was there all along.
After mastering my roundabout and eddy, I laid back in my boat waiting for the rest to catch up. I felt a quick pang of guilt for telling my first-timer Japanese-British friend how “easy” kayaking was.
Now, I’m not sure if it was because he missed the lesson or because he enjoyed the feeling of getting sucked in by sticks and leaves, but our iPhone 6 friend had a rough time staying out of the bushes. In between muffling my giggle while turning to watch him try to get un-stuck and taking quick river selfies myself, Daniel humored me with Thai language lessons.
The day carried on with classic river naps, legs dangled over the plastic edges, giving just enough of a paddle to stay centered. We eventually took a dip in the water, refreshing ourselves from the mid-day heat, finally relieving myself of my beverage overdose. I sat down on the shallowest part in the middle of the river, rocks beneath me with legs spread out in front of me. While the intermittent fear of leeches poked into my mind, I was actually able to let my surroundings overwhelm my senses. The water was crisp enough to quickly cool you down, but not too chilled to force you out. And as I let the current lightly massage my lower back, I watched Daniel prepare his spear gun and snorkel mask to hunt for dinner.
I kept on, watching the leaves change from browns and light yellows to lush, deep greens as we made our way through the mountainous jungle, using nothing but a quick arm movement to propel myself forward. The collection of moments from this day, eyes closed, sun warming my skin, remind me of nature’s greatest power: to heal.
Thank you to Chiang Mai Kayaking for sharing a relaxing day on the river with me. You will always receive my honest opinion no matter who is paying.
Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai, Thailand
+66 53 814 207
There are multiple options for routes with various difficulty levels depending on the time of year.
You may also choose to do kayaking, mountain biking, or a combination.
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