Story by Blake Cheetah
The seasonal rains and lightning storms don’t put a damper on many of the adventures (both light and heavy) to be found here. In a way, the wet season enhances them by making the waterways surge with raw power to be dammed, and electrified, but also by allowing Mother Nature to show her true colours. The greens of the forest deepen, plants and flowers go on a prodigious growth curve, fish are breeding, and the rice stalks are turning the countryside into great swathes of emerald. Which means that agro-tourism outings, or a homestay, will reap you a bumper crop of personal rewards and agricultural lessons.
For the dedicated rafter or kayaker, the rains add an element of danger to their white-knuckle adventures. In fact, the optimum time for rocking and rolling on the Kingdom’s rivers is from June to October. During these tempestuous months, when sunny days alternate with damp ones, the rivers become swollen with rainwater; and the way they roar and gush turns a rafting voyage into a rush of endorphins.
Close to Bangkok, and ideal for weekend getaways, the Nakhon Nayok River is something of a wet dream for water-sports’ fanatics. But if you really want to go off the deep end and get away from it all, Nan Province has become an adventure capital. Located some 670km north of Bangkok, and sharing a border with Laos, almost three quarters of the province is covered with verdant mountains and tropical forests. Nan is also home to ethnic tribes, like the Lawa, which have had very little contact with the outside world, and the provincial capital has centuries of history to captivate visitors.
For rafting, the Nam Wa Rivers delivers some shivery thrills and potential spills. The section of the river between Nam Pu and the village of Haad Rai is classed 3+, or moderately difficult. Another part running between the districts of Sobmang and Mae Jarim has such gushing rapids, small falls, rocky obstacles and “sweepers” (S-turns in the river) that it rates between 4 and 5; now that’s very difficult, and to tame such a monster makes for an extremely exhilarating challenge.
The easy part of the river can be traversed in about five hours, while the tough part takes about three days to navigate. A major attraction for most rafters and kayakers is to travel into the very heart of the unspoiled wilderness, where few other tourists, or even locals, have gone before. Such an experience makes for plenty of ‘mental photos’ you’ll be processing for years. And in the evening, pitching a tent out in the jungle and eating dinner beside a bonfire with sparks flying and the wood crackling, is enough to make anyone feel like an explorer from bygone days, and resurrect that Marco Polo or Indiana Jones spirit in every man.
Yet another offshoot of eco-tourism is agro-tourism. The TAT has broken new ground in Southeast Asia by mapping out 21 agro-tourism routes which span the entire country. Cycle past mussel farms on Phuket, canoe through a mangrove forest in Phangnga-Province, or walk around a durian orchard on the outskirts of Bangkok, with this handy guide.
Possibly its best feature is how it combines a variety of attractions on one route. Theoretically, you could visit the Elephant Conservation Center in the northern province of Lampang, then relax at a waterfall (they’re particularly misty and picturesque during the monsoon season), and then stop in at an orchid farm, or choose some other options, all in a single day out.
For culture and history buffs, there’s a lot of food for thought. Take Route 6 in the northeast as an experience in point. It winds along the banks of the region’s jugular vein: the mighty Mekong River. This waterway has nourished life here for far longer than the world’s oldest Bronze Age settlement at Ban Chiang, where you can admire some of the handicrafts and historical remnants of this epoch at the Ban Chiang National Museum.
But human history is little more than a blink in eternity’s eye compared to the voracious monsters who stomped through the northeast for hundreds of thousands of years. Known as Thailand’s Jurassic Park, the Phu Wiang Dinosaur Museum enthralls visitors with its displays of fossils and dioramas of dangerous, pre-human life. It’s on Route 7. Some other nearby attractions on Routes 8 and 9 are the Ban Prasat Medicinal Garden, and the Chok-chai Farm, where you can live like a real cowboy in this Wild West-style resort.
A close relative of the eco- and agro-tourism families is the home-stay. Having sprouted up all over the country, the home-stay allows you to live with a host family and learn what it’s really like to be a rice farmer, or a fisherman, or how to run a fruit orchard, while getting some hands-on experience.
Best of all, guests have an opportunity to see how real Thais live, eat, pray, shop in bazaars and fresh markets and, on the home-front, how they interact with family and friends. This profound depth of cultural immersion is not on the itinerary in the more touristy parts of the country. And in this respect, Thailand is a trailblazer in Southeast Asia.
Up north, and in the central region, you can do home-stays with different hilltribes in more than 14 different provinces. Meanwhile, down south, travellers learn how to make fishing nets, set fish traps and catch crabs in the Muslim village on Koh Yao Noi (Little Long Island) in Phang-nga Province.
Sure, the rainy season will wash away some of your plans, and being stuck in a torrential downpour in the midst of a bumper-to-bumper Bangkok traffic gridlock should be outlawed by Amnesty International as a form of torture. For all these woes, the prices are still cheaper; there’s far less tourists around; adventure is in the air; and it can also be great fun watching Thais who forgot their umbrellas walk around with plastic bags on their heads.