An eye for an “aye” : The Mae Kok River

All Watted out after our exertions in Tha Ton, it was time to get the river boat along the Mae Kok to the provincial town of Chiang Rai.

The boat departs each day at 1230 and is a simple, narrow, and elongated craft whose passengers sit upon cushions along the otherwise bare track of hull..

A typical river boat passing under Tha Ton bridge

A typical river boat passing under Tha Ton bridge

Accommodating a maximum of around a dozen adults positioned with backs to the hull on alternate sides of the boat all the way from the cockpit to the bow, the four-hour trip was going to be less than appealing to someone over 6ft tall as it allowed for very little in the way of room for leg extensions nor other cramp-aversion manoeuvres.

This mode of transport was clearly one designed for vertically challenged locals such as our pilot.

The vessel is powered by a sizeable outboard motor fastened to the rear of the craft and sat high enough to offer the pilot a vantage point over the heads of his passengers.

This high centre of gravity behind a low slung hull is a fine proposition for navigation, but surely less of a sound idea when it comes to bouyancy.

I was also somewhat disturbed to note that our pilot was not only short, but short of something I deemed important to his vocation given the meandering course of the waters and the rapids that lay in wait.

Our one-eyed skipper in his cockpit

Our one-eyed skipper in his cockpit

Indeed, our skipper for the day was missing an eye.

In a way it struck me as fortunate he was employed in Thailand and not in the UK as the predictable catcalls of “Eye Eye Captain” would no doubt have become painfully tedious after a while.

Released of our mooring lines, we set off to follow the course of the river and I was surprised at how low I was positioned relative to the water level.

The surface was flat here, but in the knowledge that we would soon enough be encountering rapids I calculated this could get a bit lively  or worse, a bit wet.

The first hour of the journey was spent serenely gliding around the meanders of the broad Fang valley where we passed steeply cut riverbanks above which one could make out clusters of farm workers tending crops.  The waterway itself was pretty quiet apart from the occasional fisherman or passing longtail.

Farmer, Mae Kok river

No? That's not? He's not? Is he?

As we reached the next massif of hilly terrain that surround the Fang region, we entered a landscape that was vaguely familiar in the sense that it reminded me of the upper Afan or Neath Valleys on one of the five hot summers days in Wales.

Verdant hillsides stripped of their original forestation now played host to farmland and secondary forest as they descended to the narrow valley floor along which we travelled.

Children playing on the riverbanks waved as we passed.  Lone fishermen perched mid-stream upon their own boulder-island watched us glide by.  Even the buffalo taking in a post-lunch drink seemed welcoming of our presence.

Mae Kok river boat journey to Chiang Rai

"I was going to the worst place in the world and I didn't even know it yet. Weeks away and hundreds of miles up a river that snaked through the war" - Apocalypse Now

The scene recalled many I have seen in the generation of “Nam” movies from my youth.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say I expected to chance upon a Kurtz-like character on this stretch of river (especially given that it was filmed in The Philippines) nor little less was I expecting the apocalypse now, tomorrow nor any time soon given the general calmness of the waters.

Every so often the channel would narrow and a distinct ripple could be seen on the surface ahead.

Nothing to worry about with immediacy, but still distinct enough to provide a hint as to what lay ahead.

Using his one good eye, the skipper skillfully guided us through each turn using his full weight to haul the rudder to port and then pushing back to starboard in order to ride speedily out of the choppy waters.

Mae Kok rapids

The 0.5 and "The Boy" before riding the Mae Kok rapids

Rapids are caused by the river running a relatively steep gradient, resulting in increased velocity and turbulence.  Each drop in the river bed was now greeted by a splash, sometimes wetting the faces of those sat to the fore of the boat, occasionally giving a Mae Kok shower to those like myself were sat towards the aft.

As the minutes passed, each set of rapids seemed to become more severe. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not talking white water adrenaline sports here, but when you are carrying over a grands worth of electronic equipment whilst strapped to your waist is a one year old entirely ignorant of the front crawl, then it becomes more of an issue.

Then we hit it.

One eyed captain, Mae Kok river journey

An eye for the unexpected. At least up until this point on our Mae Kok river journey...

I can only speculate as to whether El Capitano took his remaining good eye off the ball for a split second, but the outcome was a bubbling skin of froth rapidly approaching, with our boat accelerating as if being involuntarily sucked into this most vicious part of the river.

The bow rose and then fell rapidly back, and is it did so a sizeable wave came from the starboard bow and zeroed in on my effectively paralyzed self.

It would have been exactly the same outcome had the 0.5 scooped up a bucket load of Mae Kok and poured it over my head.

Soaked to the skin and in need of dry underpants, I had done the manly thing and taken one for the team.

Having used my sizeable frame to shield “The Boy” (and my laptop containing day-pack) from an unexpected cold shower I was the laughing stock of the boat, including the grinning skipper who may have lost his right sided field of vision, but certainly hadn’t lost his sense of schadenfreud.

I’m sure that one day “The Boy” will thank me for this act of selflessness.

Today though, he just kept on sleeping…


About misterkelvin

I searched, I failed. And then I accidentally found one in Ubud.
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