Travellers' Impressions
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The Mae Kok Journey

I do not claim to be a great adventurer. In fact I would much rather spend a day shooting pixilated aliens than shooting the rapids. Even though I would love to live my life in front of the good old idiot box, my parents gave me a touch of the traveler’s impulse. Thusly, I have spent more than my fair share of time traveling the western states and Southeast Asia. Over the course of two months in Thailand I learned that life was a tad different there. People smiled at each other as they crossed the street. No one was in a hurry, and if they were they still managed a smile and a greeting for passersby. But I digress.picture1

A memory of Thailand that I vividly recollect is my voyage journey down the Mae Kok River. That stifling June morning even started out poorly. Waking in the smallest room in the smallest guesthouse in Tha Thon I realized that there had to be more to see in Thailand. The morning shower, a dire necessity anywhere in Thailand, consisted of ice-cold river water that replaced salt buildup of the night’s perspiration with a film of gunk found in any major river. The look alone of the local food joints told me to wait until the next town to eat. How far away could Chaing Rai be?

Walking by some of the more destitute properties, I arrived at the dock: a slab of wood connected to the shore by a half dozen beached skiffs. How one beaches one of these half ton skiffs ten feet above the shoreline on a river will always be in the back of my mind. The exotic designs of the long tail skiffs always made me smile. Their drive train was made up of a car engine mounted three feet above the hull with a long pole reaching out from the transmission with a prop at the end. Thus we have the name long tail. I often wondered how the laws of physics skipped over this small country. A high center of gravity on a shallow boat hull has never been a design I favored. Top it all off with the high speeds achieved by the craft and you have the possibility of swimming home. The captain of this vessel looked the part of the river taxi driver. His gapped tooth grin and lighthearted antics brightened my mood a bit, but I could see from the faces of my accompanying travelers that there was still an air of doubt that we would make our destination.picture2

I expected to look into the bottom of the boat and find it half full of water, but instead I found pillows laid out across the hull. This comfort was short lived, however, as the explosion of the engine starting caused the entire populace of the shore to shoot us startled glances.

The high speeds achieved by the craft impressed me as we skipped off down the river, barely toughing the surface. Other than a few sandbars that grabbed us, the journey started out pretty uneventful. The first hour or so was like a scene out of a movie. The trees hanging low over the water covered the shore with their leaves. Their branches held unseen birds that chirped and screamed as we shot by.

Our serenity was cut short when we hit what had to be the only set of rapids on the river. Consisting of only a few small waterfalls, it was still enough for the captain to force us to trek through a village to another dock below the rapids. As we landed the entire village came running down the street holding platters of food and wares that they hoped to sell.

Breaking through a sea of people we made it to an overlook of the rapids that gave us a view of the captain masterfully steering his skiff down the twisted sets of falls. Well, it wasn’t really steering, but being pulled down the rapids by the weight of the boat as he tried to fend off the rocks. Miraculously, he made it through the horrors of the falls with little damage to him or his craft. picture3

We crammed back onto the pillows and set off down the river. It didn’t take long for another mishap to slow our venture. This time it was the shallows. The river, which had previously spread across a hundred foot channel, now stretched wide enough to fit a cruise ship, but was almost too shallow to fit a kayak. It was here that we were forced to our third grounding stop. This time, however, we were not only stuck high and dry, but our prop had been ground to a nub from the river’s gravely floor. Thinking that this was probably not an uncommon dilemma on the river I expected him to pull out the new prop, but I wasn’t expecting the means of changing the props. Armed with his two pound sledge he knocked off the old prop and jammed the next one on. He was done in twenty seconds. Correcting the grounding, however, took a bit longer. The captain forced us out of the boat again so that we could push ourselves back on course. Ten minutes and a pair of sandals later we were back on the right course. One hour later and we saw the tall buildings of Chaing Rai in the distance; it was a pleasant sight when compared to the town I had left earlier. Looking back I realize that I had done something that I will remember for the rest of my life, and though I didn’t exactly enjoy it at the time, it will always be listed as one of my great adventures in Thailand.

Sean Miller

Copyright © Sean Miller 2004