River Raft Jungle Adventure

Esther Jones

© Copyright 2005 by Esther Jones

While teaching English as a Second Language in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1996 I had a interesting touring experience.  One weekend I actually booked to go on a jungle river trip to Kanchanaburi.  I usually did any touring in Thailand by myself as I had no one to go with me. This made any trip an adventure in trying the bus routes out. So to make this one safe, I decided to go with a group and play tourist for a change.

This particular episode happened to be in the beginning of the rainy season and I had forgotten what that was like. (This was my second trip to Thailand as an ESL teacher.) The rainy season  comes roughly during summer in June/July but keeps going till October.  Thailand is hot (about 93 F/35 C ) and humid, in addition to generous amounts of rain.  The only consolation about it is that the rain is warm and that made doing anything in the rainy season bearable for me. I booked a weekend at a tour place in Khaosan Road. KhaoSan Road is where a lot of the backpackers and other economically-challenged travellers from the West stay, eat, shop and do touristy things. They were all tourists on this trip-I was the only working traveler present. This gave me the advantage of being a little more familiar with Thailand than most of them, although I likely had more limited funds. Among the group were two Australians, and two Scottish doctors.  I completed the international flavour by being a Canadian. I am not sure where the other girls were from.

This trip included a visit to a waterfall and hot springs, a trek along a very muddy jungle path to an isolated village and a river crossing--all in varying degrees of down pour.
Our trip out to the waterfall was an adventure in itself as it is anywhere where you don’t truly know the system. We took the van some hours down to the waterfall and then walked.  We walked along a trail and the waterfall itself was as pretty as we expected. There were a lot of people there, both locals and tourists, sitting on the rocks, enjoying the stream as it rushed past them.  It was in a heavily wooded area and I soon realized I needed to use the bathroom. Where to go?  There were no facilities; I don’t know what anyone else in our group did.  I had to find somewhere alone and that meant, I thought, crossing the river to the less populated side. I told someone in our group I had to cross the river and not leave me behind. (This was a good idea as I didn’t fancy trying to get a ride home from wherever we were.) Then I tried to cross the river. Even in shoes the footing was not easy.  I wouldn’t have dreamed of going barefoot. It was fast and shallow; perhaps knee deep at most, but fairly strong and there was always the place that had a hole right where you stepped. You carefully found the bottom with your foot and then it just kept going down.  So I gingerly tried to cross, and accepted some help from someone else. When I had finished my errand, I tried to cross back as quickly as possible but it was difficult and it all took longer than expected. When I did get back, I had trouble finding my group again. They had almost left me behind after all and I wondered how close I came to missing my ride back.

We went back in the van down a few hours to the river where we got on the waterlogged raft. This was a standard bamboo raft – absolutely no frills on this trip. It was tied together and there were no sides, or seats, just bamboo poles for us to sit on. This posed a dilemma. Should I bring my camera and risk it getting wet and ruined or just bring it and hope for the best? I did bring my camera but I had my doubts about the stability of that raft. It wasn’t a dry raft either as one could see the water seeping through, even under normal floating conditions. Thai guides had no problem with a little of the river water seeping in through the poles. The Thai don’t mind getting wet and not being a water person, it took some getting used to that attitude on this particular trip. The Australian guys had fun dangling their legs over the side and occasionally jumping in to do something fun.

Eventually we left the peaceful floating part of the trip and began our trek in earnest-a very waterlogged trail that was almost knee deep in mud that went on for a couple of hours at least. No mention had been made to me about trekking in mud. I should have expected it in the rainy season. Thai, like many Asian folk, do not  give any warnings or cautions beforehand of any problems that may crop up.  The Boy Scout motto of “Be prepared,” is a foreign concept to them.  They just deal with life as it comes. The Thai guides kept up a chatter and were pleased with the little Thai I did know. The foreigners chatted among themselves a bit but as most of the going was muddy it was difficult to slog through the mud in the rain and do a lot of talking at the same time. We eventually arrived at a small but fast-slowing stream and the nimble wiry guides easily took our stuff across on their heads. The current was so swift it was very intimidating to cross for us and even though we linked hands and tried to cross in a line; there was one point where my group got stuck. The river was flowing so fast the footing was not too secure and we weren’t sure we wouldn’t be swept away. We just stood there in one paralysed line until the guides came back to help the poor helpless foreigners who didn’t know how to cross a tiny stream. One of the guides came back and helped us in the end. It made me wonder about the trek back!

Of course we hadn’t been told we’d cross a river in our clothes, that might have sounded like a silly question to the guides. Besides, we’d have had to carry any extra stuff anyway.  We finally arrived at our domicile for the night- a village of one of the guides. The guides dashed off for a shower – we found out he meant a nearby stream and we hastened into some clean and dry clothes (especially socks, as I was sure they’d never be white again.) I had worn a pair of running shoes and it was a good thing, anything less sturdy would not have fared well.  They also bore the stains of that trip to the end of their days. The house was a typical Thai affair with steps up as it was on stilts.  The stilts are a very useful feature in flood season. The village was set in the middle of a very lush jungle which was incredibly green on account of all the rainfall.  It was the kind of green that boggles your eyes, it was so strong and intense.  Growing up on the Canadian prairies does not prepare you for that kind of jungle green as the prairies don’t have that kind of moisture and humidity.  They fed us a Thai supper and we were glad to sit down and relax and sing songs for a while. The room we stayed in was just boards on the floor.  There were no mats or anything like that provided, we had brought sleeping bags for ourselves. (Safely carried across the rushing stream by our guides.) We hauled out our sleeping bags and slept all in a row. I happened to be at the end near one of the guides who promptly made a pass at me. I just turned over and ignored him and he took the hint.

The next day we started our hike out and it was raining again. The river was much bigger than before, in fact we had to use elephants to take us across. (I suspect this had been arranged but how well-arranged it was hard to guess.) There was a crude basketlike frame on top of the elephant, we boarded two at a time and the two elephants took us across the river in several trips. The river came up fairly high on the elephants and I know we never would have made it otherwise.  Looking at the photo I have of that crossing makes me shudder at the strength of that river and the height of it on our strong beasts of burden.  The strength of the river never seemed to bother them, which was very reassuring. They just plowed their way through to the other side of the raging muddy brown waters. The trek back through the jungle seemed less long, although no less wet and when it was over, we huddled in the vans trying to dry out.

At a stop at a dam, we managed to do the Thai-thing and changed under towels or sarongs, again, into something warm and dry. I had never felt so wet in all my life as I had during that trip.  The trip to the dam was interesting as there was a bunch of monkeys determined to make our acquaintance. They swarmed up and down the cliffs and over the sign, which proclaimed the dam’s name (in Thai of course.)  The day was gray and foggy itself and although the view was nice it felt very moody in that weather. We rounded off the trip by going to Kanchanaburi itself and walking across the bridge. We admired the view and I tried to imagine what it would have been like when the prisoners were building the bridge years ago during the Second World War. The bridge we saw was not the original of course, but it was fun to cross it and read the placards in Thai and broken English. There were the usual vendor set-ups on either side of the railway and we didn’t visit the war museum, as it was not a part of our tour. It wasn’t a long stay- a couple hours but long enough after the busy weekend we’d had.
If nothing else, that trip was a good thing to use in my teaching classes.  I had to take over for one of the teachers who had to be away and I used the story of my wet weekend to see if my grade two students caught on to the theme of wet. They did.

Esther Jones lives in Calgary, Alberta, with her husband and four year old daughter. She has taught English as a Second Language for about 10 years.

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