Travel news - Activities in Thailand

Dancing with danger

Discretion, they say, is the better part of valour, but to this bunch of rafters the thrills and spills of the Nam Wa proved too strong to resist.

News of typhoon Damrey had all of us worrying. The storm would head west after hitting Vietnam. If it stayed true to what the weatherman had forecast, Damrey would hit Nan over the next four days. That exactly was the window we had if we still persisted with our plans to tame the rapids of the Nam Wa River.

"Nothing is for certain yet. The storm is still a long way off. We can safely sneak in and get out before it arrives," said Samoon Mulma, our tour leader and guide as we headed north to Ban Spun to begin our rafting expedition "We will abort if water level rises dangerously fast."

Famous for its fierce current at this time of the year, the Nam Wa attracts rafting and adventure buffs with rapids that rate one to six on the difficulty scale.

The river's upper section, a 40-kilometre stretch with several rapids, runs through valleys and gorges characterised by steep drops, while the 80-kilometre-long mid-section is full of rapids that rank three to five and are relished particularly by hardcore rafters because they get the adrenaline pumping.

It's a challenging exercise not meant for the faint-hearted and very different from what is usually available to rafters in other parts of the country. It takes four days to negotiate the upper and middle sections.

"Relax and enjoy yourself," Samoon said to soothe our fraying nerves. "Just paddle hard when told and the rest will take care of itself."

That was our briefing. He seemed to make it all look so easy.

Snaking through deep valleys, the upper section of the river was quite narrow. Nam Wa welcomed us with easy level one to three rapids. We paddled at gentle pace for what seemed like hours before taking our first break.

At Wang Plian I noticed that the river had narrowed considerably and the current was stronger. Samoon warned us of a steep drop ahead. Arriving there, I saw the river drop some four metres so we got off our rubber rafts and walked to a point beyond where the river formed a pool. The rafts were allowed to go into a free fall and ended up in the pool where we retrieved them.

Next up was level six rapid, the Wang Kok, where the river was sandwiched by huge rocks that reduced its passage to only two metres. Afraid that a slight error could result in the rafts getting stuck in the passage or crushed by the raging current, we decided to haul them over the rock.

"We have to be on constant alert because the river can never be trusted," warned Samoon.

We paddled on and after a while my raft got caught in a whirpool and before we could wriggle free we were swept by giant waves.

At noon on the second day, we reached a point where the Nam Wa was wide and we knew had successfully negotiated the upper section of the river.

When I asked Samoon how many rapids had we crossed, he said some 200, maybe more, which translated into a rapid every 200 metres. He also disclosed that the middle section, although longer, didn't have that many rapids, only about 140.

Samoon likened rafting on Nam Wa to motorists driving on traffic-clogged roads of Bangkok. In city driving, where you must know how to weave your way through traffic jams, here on the river the catch was to find your way around obstacles such as rocks, fallen trees, whirpools and the raging current.

The difference isthat the rubber raft is not equipped with 3,000cc engine but powered by a seven to eight-man crew who need to paddle hard to get past rapids. The other point is rafts, unlike cars, are not fitted with brakes and they go with the flow of the current.

The mid-section of Nam Wa River is characterised by fierce rapids punctuated by calm stretches, particularly at the bends. The river was distinctly muddy red, while the deafening roar of the gushing current a constant reminder of its lingering fury.

The main highlight, as it turned out, were the level five rapids of Sop Huay Dua and Phi Pa located next to each other. Samoon warned us of the danger here: "If you mess things up at the first rapid, it's unlikely that you would be able to redeem the situation at the next one."

In other words we had to paddle hard and fast to prevent the raging waves from throwing us overboard. Which we did, and all the rafts negotiated the rapids safely, barring the last one which capsized throwing its occupants in the swollen river. They were plucked out of harm's way by a rescue team.

The same raft, later, was involved in another accident at a smaller rapid. This time its occupants drifted a good 500 metres downstream before help could arrive. By the time they were rescued, cramps and panic had got the better of them.

Clearly shaken by the ordeal, an eerie calm replaced the buoyant mood and we paddled in silence for a while, with rain falling.

I used the time to soak up the forests and mountains on either side of the river. The rain had toned down their hues to dull green and the river was a silvery sparkle of millions of tiny droplets.

The rain also seemed to have a calming influence on panicked hearts and minds. Courage returned with the sound of laughter gradually substituting the melancholy and gloom.

Thereafter, we made our way without further mistakes. We tamed the Pha Ki Nok, a level five rapid, that looks modest from far but is menacing once you get close, its two-metre waves striking fear into the hearts of rafters.

Equally deceptive were the Krok and Pha Rod Mail rapids, both innocuous-looking but capable of inflicting great harm. We passed them in silence, apparently tired after the day-long action.

At the campsite that evening we recounted the ordeal earlier in that day and even cracked jokes about it.

The next day we steered past level three rapids without fuss like battle-hardened veterans, not awed by the waves making great noises or crashing against the sides of our rafts.

But at the back of our minds one thing kept pestering us: storm Damrey.

We switched on the radio and learned that the storm had hit Vietnam and since changed its path. It would now reach Nan after a detour via the Northeast, which was good news because that gave us more time.

It rained all morning but we kept paddling. The raging river and tall waves rekindled fear in the hearts of those who were thrown overboard the previous day but they showed no sign of panic, although some of them clutched the rope with all their strength every time the raft passed a rapid.

Without incident we negotiated level four rapids Sua Ten and Mai that connected with Yao which ran hundreds of metres further downstream.

When we reached the end of the expedition, I was overcome with a sense of relief and achievement. I took off my helmet, and then sitting by the Nam Wa a thought crossed my mind: Had I really tamed the rapids? I asked myself.

I had done it, there was no doubt about that, but the sight of one of the rafts thrown overboard, its occupants tossed into the river and at the mercy of the raging waves was something I hadn't bargained for. It could have easily happened to my raft and me. Was I lucky? Yes.

And then the truth dawned on me: you can't conquer Nam Wa. I merely survived it.

As I prepared to leave Nan, it started raining and didn't stop until the following day flooding the provincial town. Damrey had arrived.

Samoon, our expedition leader, was spot-on with his calculations: we had sneaked out just before the storm.
Bangkok Post October 2005

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