White water rafting was something I always imagined myself experiencing on my 50th birthday. Not once did I think I would be in the right place at the right time and have the opportunity staring me in the eyes so early. This ended up being one of the wackiest, weirdest and wildest trips of my entire time away and every moment had me more and more sure that explaining this to all of you would be nearly impossible. I think the two days we spent away ended up being one huge “you had to be there” moment. Even so, it was the perfect end to the adventure that has consumed my life for the past five months and as my stories from abroad come to a temporary close, why not end with something you may have to strain to believe? Friends and family I give you my strangest days yet.
Everybody I talked to had recommended Thai Adventure as the rafting company of choice. They were safe, reliable and personal with their services which is everything one searches for before setting out on the rapids. I headed into the beautiful city of Pai on a Monday and planned to stay until at least Saturday morning. I had heard so many wonderful things about this paradise and every Thai local who I spoke to about traveling there just gave me a really solid “OK” sign and a wink in response. I was looking forward to its well known peace and small size that would allow me to sit back and chill out even more than I had in Chiang Mai.
I entered Pai on a minibus after driving for three hours up the windiest road I have ever experienced. This was even worse than my ride down to the Amalfi Coast in Greece which heaven knows will stay with me forever. My stomach felt ill but my spirits were immediately uplifted at the sight of this little village. One main road stretches through Pai and since we arrived at night, we were able to see the incredible action that springs to life when all goes dark. It seemed like the place to be. Every shop door was wide open selling the most unique items. Each second we drove along had my head turning both ways and the entire van exclaiming their excitement. The street food looked remarkable, the people looked down to earth and as friendly as ever. This really was a little section of Thailand that takes things right back to the beginning and I felt so lucky to have landed there.
Aside from my rafting trip, I actually spent my six days in Pai doing absolutely nothing and loved every minute of it. I explored every inch of that town. I ate at a different street food stand every day, walked down the night market streets when evening came and people watched until my heart was content. I even discovered a bookshop cafe and went to visit and read there each morning. This place was beautiful and had a very outdoor treehouse feel to it. Used books lined the shelves and they provided swings as seats in front of the wooden tables. I took advantage of their delicious tea that is said to be a benefit to your health in several ways. Being the sicky that I am (it hit me folks, it hit me), it was a tasty blessing. After a few days here, I felt as though I had been living in Pai for years. I had my favourite streets and relaxing spots to sit and blog where I’m certain they knew my face. I even ran into people I knew on the streets quite often. After meeting friends at the hostels around here, you’re bound to see them again since Pai is such a small place. Those run-ins always made my days feel extra special. Where else can you find that atmosphere?
On Wednesday, I packed my things and walked to the Thai Adventure office. The day had arrived and I was anxious and excited to see what it would bring me. I met up with five others who would be joining me on this trip. I was sure that it would be just me and three guys at first (wouldn’t have complained) but two girls joined us shortly and we instantly hit it off as one of the coolest groups of people I have ever been a part of. We just seemed to work as a bunch and carried an open minded attitude the whole way. As we sat in the back of a truck on the way to the briefing site, we shared our traveling stories and special interests. As it turned out, we all had something that was a huge part of who we were. Max carried with him a GoPro and planned to shoot the whole trip on video. Holly loves to cook Mexican food. Girl from California whose name started with a V (why can’t people just name their child something simple) is a professional DJ back home. Ben, we joked, just sits back and enjoys the ride. Victor coaches a really cool Spanish game called Paddle and then there was me, the photographer. We all had our “thing” and our story. The six of us blended together like gold.
Guy has been the owner of this company for 25 years. We were surprised to see that it was him teaching us about safety and not a hired employee. Those were the personal touches I was told about. It felt nice to get to know the owner and this man knew a lot about the history of Pai and Thailand. In fact, he rarely ever stopped talking. We were also surprised to realize our safety briefing over breakfast would be strictly verbal and consist of Guy quickly outlining and imitating what we are to do if we fall out of the raft. No videos, no dummy demonstrations, nothing. Who needs that, right? Let’s just get out there and face everything as it comes. And we did. After a short explanation by Guy, we were given helmets and lifejackets (they did spare us those) and sent into the back of yet another truck for the hour long ride to the river.
It all happened so fast. One minute we were blowing up this raft by hand and the next we were floating along through the beautiful jungle and being introduced to our guide named Jaka. Let me try and explain Jaka to you. He is what made this experience what it was. This man was raised in a hill tribe. Nowadays they take tourists over to these tribes to see the long necked and big eared villagers who live there. The whole thing is actually quite sad but that’s another story for another time. Jaka was raised in the jungle and on the jungle. He knows this place like the back of his hand. He can point out every single bird or monkey in the trees that the human eye wouldn’t normally spot. He spent a lot of the time at the back of our raft imitating the birds using incredibly realistic bird calls. So realistic in fact that a lot of us were sure one had landed beside us. Jaka spoke English but in a very mumbly sort of way so you really had to pay attention when he spoke. Truthfully, he may have been speaking so quickly just to fool us. That’s the kind of person he is. I think I speak on behalf of all of us when I say this trip can be summed up into one sort sentence: “is this real life?” We never really knew when he was lying or when he was dead serious about anything. We didn’t know what to expect during any given moment.
As we all adjusted to Jaka and his bizarre ways, we were still so shocked about the sounds and sights this jungle held. At least, I know I was. I saw the brightest and bluest bird I have ever laid eyes on fly above us and perch itself on a branch. Although we didn’t see any monkeys (to my disappointment), we could hear them all day long along with the noises of many other interesting and unique animals. The cliffs and wild mango trees that towered over us were breathtaking and it took all my might not to constantly snap my camera in their direction. I needed to take time to absorb the sights with my own eyes first. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. The jungle, much like the ocean, holds an entirely different world and we were only their lucky guests.
The rapids were tame to begin with but as we moved further down the river, they began to pick up pace significantly. I think I was told we made it up to level 6 rapids towards the end which I promise you are pretty darn crazy. Jaka would steer the raft perfectly when we ran into trouble and the six of us rowed to his loud and urgent calls. My blood was pumping and it was exhilarating. I always marveled at the drastic change that occurred as we soared through a huge rapid and then seconds after entered extremely calm water. During those moments of blissful floating, Jaka would teach us a few games on a barrel using sticks and his two hands. A lot of them were tricky mind games that we all fell for but slowly began to solve. He would laugh and shake his head as we struggled to uncover his secrets. This man was definitely smarter than all of us combined.
We stopped for lunch on a little island and ate fried rice out of a banana leaf bowl. Fresh bananas followed as dessert. Jaka and the boys had a rock skipping competition where they were schooled by his ability. Of course. I even looked over to see Jaka eating raw meat straight off the plate. I guess when you’re raised off the wild, your body is accustom to things that would normally kill us Westerners. His way of life just continued to blow my mind and it didn’t stop there.
Shortly after we traveled through even bigger moments of turbulence, our raft was quickly pulled over and Jaka demanded that we all get out of the boat. In a flash, this man ran with his bare feet as fast as they could carry him over rocks, streams, sticks and dirt. I’m sure his soles are practically leather by now. Suddenly, he disappeared into the jungle and after a few minutes had passed he still hadn’t reappeared. No explanation, he was gone. We all looked at each other and burst out laughing right away. Was this going to end like lord of the flies? Was he leaving us here as a part of some sick joke? Just as we were questioning what to do next, he practically leaped out of the bushes like a wild animal and brought with him…a wild animal. In his bare hands was a dead, bright green bird. He held it up proudly and we all looked at him with a face I hope to god Max got on video. Jaka explained that he had seen a hawk fly through the air, kill this bird and watched it fall into the trees. This happened just a few minutes ago! Weren’t we all in the boat with him? Using his jungle vision, he was able to spot this, pull our raft over and locate the exact whereabouts of this dead animal. We were stunned. It was the most random and unexpected event and we had the pleasure of being a part of it. Then, as if the situation couldn’t have gotten any more weird, he placed this dead bird inside the barrel that HELD OUR DINNER and shut the lid. I think we stood there for another five minutes without saying a word before he prompted us back into our seats. Thus begins the commonly used phrase of our journey, “did that really just happen?”
The day passed by quickly and after five hours on the water, we pulled over to a small rocky bay on the riverside. This was our accommodation for the night. A small little boy came out to greet us and happily stuck out his hands to help carry items off our raft. A man followed behind him who I presumed was his father and guided us up to our home for the night. This little camp was set up directly inside the jungle and looked like something pulled straight from survivor. I found out that this family of three (Mom dad and little boy Jai) live here eight months of the year. They share their home to visitors from the rafting company every single night which I found incredibly selfless and generous. Of course the raft brings them a few must need items but a lot of their food is taken from the trees and the river. This family lives off the resources that naturally surround them and it was so interesting to observe. I spotted Jai and his father fishing around 8pm that night. The men did most of the cooking and sat crouched on the ground with a mortar and pestle. A large pot sat over a homemade fire and popped us several big bowls of popcorn. My favourite part was watching as Jai, the little seven year old boy, made his own fun out of an empty water bottle. I watched as he threw it up the stream and waited for it to float back to him. He kicked it around like a soccer ball and banged it like a drum. To most of us, this might seem a little sad. Almost everyone reading this is incredibly privileged and has grown up to believe that we need the latest toys and gadgets to keep us amused. I’m not speaking for everyone but let’s be honest, many kids these days do not have the attention span to keep interested while playing with a piece of garbage. This boy seemed happier than ever creating his own little games. I couldn’t stop capturing his beautiful little face. His perfectly smooth and untouched skin glowed. Without fail he would flash me a toothless smile and a giggle as I clicked away and communicated with him as best I could about his life here.
The food we ate that night was out of this world. Everything was freshly picked and flavourful. We sat on a log made table lit by tall wax candles and enjoyed our feast in the dim light to the sound of the wild animals. None of us could believe how minimalist this night and day had been. We sipped jungle juice (a slightly alcoholic homemade fruit punch) while Max and Ben shared stories about their University exchange program in Bangkok. Our chemistry as a group was simple and beautiful surrounded by an atmosphere just the same.
Here’s the thing about our sleeping arrangements. I loved the natural aspect of it all and it was such a cool experience being amidst the jungle all night long. On the other hand, the whole set up was so impractical. It was a challenge that I was happy to take on but it had me wondering how this family was able to stay sane. They live in the village over the four months they aren’t here and I’m curious to know which one they enjoy more. Then again, maybe I’ve been too immersed in the privileged lifestyle myself to truly understand. If it was all I know, I’m sure this would have been more than perfect. I was reminded again of how much I really need in life.
Before bed, we were lit a beautiful fire and gathered around its warmth to socialize. Little Jai became obsessed with not my camera but Max’s. The two of them formed such a bond and wandered through the bushes taking photos together with the flash, something Jai seemed to be enthralled by. Sitting in front of a fire with a group of friends is one of the most wonderful and relaxing feelings. We stayed there chatting for hours, joking around and probably keeping up half the jungle with our loud clamour.
As weird as this next part is, I cannot write this post without including this moment. Victor is a crazy 32 year old from Madrid and was part of our crew. Around the campfire that night I began to mention something nobody seemed to think of. If any of us were injured and needed to go to the hospital, we would be screwed. None of us knew where we had been taken and we just traveled five hours along the Pai river to get to here. Wherever here was. Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned it, but the thought freaked us out and obviously sparked a few ideas in the brain of Victor. He began a long explanation about a thought that suddenly occurred to him. He seemed dead serious about the entire story and when he finally reached the end we heard him say, “maybe our guide is up in his hut plotting our death.” That launched this huge and drawn out scene about Victor believing this was one giant scam to murder us all and then turned into HIS secret plot to kill us himself. It was one big, classic ghost story and I have to give him props for the realism. He was so good at playing with our minds that we never knew from one minute to the next what was serious and what was a lie. Everyone, the boys included were seriously freaked out by it. Ben barely wanted to sleep under the same roof as him that night. Of course he was kidding. Victor is one of the sweetest men I’ve ever met but as soon as he said the words, “I’m not really from Spain, I’m from Syria”, we pleaded for him to shut up pretty quickly. Like I said, you really had to be there and before you start thinking I was on this trip with a psychopath, he admitted to the joke the next morning and confessed that he didn’t think it would have gone so far. It definitely made for one of the most interesting nights I’ve ever had and added a little excitement to our jungle stay. After all, what’s a fire under the stars without a scary story or two?
That night and every moment that came out of it never died. We laughed and talked about it the entire next day and even shared our experience with Jaka who laughed and laughed…then pulled out the machete he uses to cut fruit. Bad idea.
I wish I could tell you that I had a gorgeous sleep under the stars that night but I didn’t. It poured rain minutes after we left the fire and didn’t seem to stop until morning. This was the night my body decided to get sick. It was bound to happen. I was sitting in sopping wet clothes all day while traveling over rough water and pushing my physical limits to the extreme. I had been doing this since day one of my travels and only ran into one brief cold. As always, my strong immune system had saved me over these past four months but it finally ran out of steam. You don’t want to have a headache and feel ill while sleeping where I was. It didn’t seem too equipped for comfort. It certainly made it an unforgettable night and like I mentioned before, it’s a story to tell the grandkids. I’ll leave it at that.
The next morning we were awoken at 7:30am, alive (Victor didn’t kill us) and ready to go on a six hour trip to the village of Mae Hong Son. I wish I had planned to stay there like most of our group but all my luggage was back in Pai. I heard it was a beautiful and secluded place. The first thing I saw while walking down for breakfast was that damn green bird fried up on the BBQ. We even had the chance to try a little piece ourselves. It really did taste like chicken! I couldn’t believe Jaka was serious about eating that thing.
After many goodbyes and a high five from Jai, we were on our way to yet another day. I still felt a little out of sorts but all was soon forgotten when we rode over rapids so rough that everyone except Victor and I fell out of the boat. The two of us high fived after everyone recovered for being the only ones who managed to stay in. I swear, Jaka was purposely running us into rocks so we could flip over and out. I saw how he manoeuvred that raft like it was nothing and he definitely had the power to steer us clear of obstacles. We were wearing helmets and lifejackets so a serious injury would be quite difficult. It added an extra thrill and I was so surprised that we only fell out that one time considering what we ran into several instances afterward.
All of us minus Victor who was steering our raft! Dear lord.
Lunch that day was held at the hot water springs! This little sandy patch held water so hot that it was close to the boiling point. The sand bubbled in various sections and was incredibly smooth. I find those hot water springs so interesting. The things that nature is able to do and produce in this world are wild. We all found a comfortable spot and rested our feet in the warm sand, swishing it between our toes while eating fresh watermelon. I loved every minute of it. We even took the time to stop at a cliff and the boys decided to bravely jump off. I was so tempted to do it myself but the water was very shallow and in order to prevent your legs from breaking, you needed to arch your body a particular way so they wouldn’t drive straight into the river floor. I love a risk but I wasn’t going to be that daring. I did, however, climb up to the peak and take a good look around me. The sight was so beautiful and the air was so clean. It was a shame to think that we were already heading home that day and had just begun to adjust to this lifestyle and to each other. Hadn’t I gotten used to that by then? Making friends and leaving friends…the hardest part about the backpacking life.
Just one small part of this world
In no time, we made it to Mae Hong Son in one piece. A very surprising factor at that point! I was drenched yet again but so happy from the days events and the bonding that we all had every stroke of the way. Things wrapped up very quickly and after a circle of email exchanges and goodbye hugs, we all went our separate ways. Those two days are ones that will stay in my memory forever for so many reasons. Our time together was shocking, thrilling, adventurous, scary, resourceful, hilarious and most of all, full of love, kindness and friendship, the three things that will stick out strong and proud. I am so thankful that I got to know these beautiful people. I’m thankful for the lessons this has taught me about necessity and appreciation. I can’t imagine what it would be like to share my home every night of the week so I’m especially thankful for that wonderful family of three. I had never been a part of an experience like that before and I think every one of us would benefit from a night living off the Earth and everything it provides. It really opens your eyes to a thing or two.
From then on I decided to take things easy until I flew home but that didn’t mean amazing people didn’t stop showing themselves. Every day I find myself meeting someone knew and learning their story. I’m hoping to take this home with me, this sense of interest in every new place and face. It will be a dearly missed emotion if I can’t recreate it.
This is technically my very last story abroad for the time being. I will be posting again in the next 24 hours as I take my big flight home to Canada. There is so much I need to say about these last five months and hopefully a big enough word count. I knew from the very beginning these last words would be hard to express. Stay tuned…