A River Less Travelled

"Every day I saw something new on the river, a new boat, someone selling something. I began wondering where all the water came from,"

By | Thu 29 Mar 2012

In his book ‘Slithering South’, awarded by The Nation as the ‘best travel book ever about Thailand’, Steve Van Beek recounts his modest one-man-journey in a canoe navigating 720 miles of river from the Golden Triangle to the Gulf of Thailand, in 1988. Reading this unique tale and meeting in person with the author was the inspiration for one Chiang Mai expat’s own intrepid journey in a self-made 20 foot long sail boat through the Mae Ping National Park to the Bhumibol Dam in Tak Province.

For no other reason than the love of boating and a burning curiosity to explore some of Thailand’s more unchartered and scenic terrains, Patrick Lemmon a veteran Chiang Mai expat of 22 years, decided to take a trip from our city down to the Bhumibol Dam in a hand-made boat. Lemmon is an experienced boat maker and sailor, hailing from a fishing community in Nova Scotia, Canada. Together with his friend Neng, an artist and craftsman, he made a sailboat from scratch, designing, ordering wood and fibre glass, buying an engine from Bangkok and assembling it, taking six months and at a cost of 250,000 baht to complete. The ‘sherpie’ design accommodates four.

Lemmon’s inspiration, acclaimed writer, filmmaker and river explorer Van Beek began his fascination with Thai rivers after he spent 11 years living in a house on stilts on the Chao Phraya River in Thonburi, Bangkok.

“Every day I saw something new on the river, a new boat, someone selling something. I began wondering where all the water came from,” Van Beek told Citylife.

After being unsuccessful at finding any comprehensive information about the Chao Phraya, Van Beek became fixated on discovering the river for himself. Consequently he planned a journey from the source of Thailand’s most famous waterway, beginning at the Ping River, one of the four main tributories of the Chao Phraya, here in Chiang Mai, to its mouth at the sea.

Friends warned Van Beek about the dangers of travelling alone through such wild territory. He was especially cautioned because the launch date for his adventure coincided with HM the King’s great royal pardon just before his 60th birthday, when thousands of prisoners were released. Van Beek was told that the area he was about to travel through was known as a hideout for these ex-inmates, criminals on the run, poachers and drug dealers. He was recommended to take a friend, though no Thai or foreigner dared go with him. Finally he took a friend; a nine millimetre friend. In spite of setbacks and scares, Van Beek persisted with his 58 day journey, paddling down the Thai river system.

“Rivers take you places roads don’t. They introduce you to people that are still unchanged,” continued Van Beek.

Echoing Van Beek’s story, Lemmon confirms Van Beek’s descriptions of the risks that lie amongst vast stretches of unchartered wilderness lining Thai rivers, much of which is isolated and inaccessible by dry land.

“When you’re sleeping at night, you can see men in boats with flash lights, sneaking around the water system; poachers, out to catch wild animals,” says Lemmon.

“I grew up around boats. My father is a commercial fisherman, so I was confident in my skills. The trip wasn’t really a threat, it was more the fear of the unknown,” he continues.

Lemmon and his two shipmates, Jeng and Jatu who had previously been a first mate on a sailing ship in Singapore, set sail on New Year’s Day 2012. Similarly to Van Beek’s friends’ dire warnings against his journey, Lemmon’s Thai friends also warned him that this was a very unlucky day to make any kind of journey in the region of the Bhumibol Dam. Not only is it common superstition that you are not supposed to launch a boat or begin a long journey on a Friday, but if you recall there was a huge news outbreak about the area’s villagers’ obsession with the prophesy of ‘Dek Chai Pla Boo’, an ominous superstition which at the time was spread throughout the north of Thailand. Dek Chai Pla Boo was a five year old boy who died 38 years ago in Chanthaburi, on his death bed he had predicted that an earthquake would cause the Bhumibol Dam to flood on the 1st of January 2012.

[Dek Chai Pla Boo’s father has now been charged with causing panic and damaging the province’s tourism industry. He was sentenced by local court to a suspended jail term of five months.]

Ignoring such balderdash, Lemmon’s set off down the Ping River, sailing down through the Mae Ping National Park, a journey that very few people are able to experience.
In spite of local superstition, Lemmon’s journey was successful, the dam never flooded and he completed the 150km round trip in six days. In fact he says he enjoyed the tranquillity of the trip, soaking in the solitude, perhaps because of the dam scare.

“The only real hitch was when we first launched the boat, it nearly capsized, we had to unload everything and fix the problem then set off again,” says Lemmon.

“We cruised through steep gauges. Heading towards the dam the water was the highest it’s been in 40 to 50 years. It was so high, it’s like you’re sailing through the tops of mountains…There was no-one there, so it was a kind of special time.”

Lemmon describes sailing through wide lakes. On the way the crew saw small wild cats and monkeys in the surrounding jungle.
Although they used the engine and sails of the boat when travelling and going upstream, Lemmon informed me; “We are more into floating.”

The few people he did come across were those being pulled on floating guesthouses wailing into karaoke machines and plied with alcohol. As well as the foremen at the dam who kindly showed the group around the local area and took them into town to get supplies.

“We also passed a monastery deep inside the forest, and some floating villages where people live on simple platforms and hunt and fish to survive. We saw a floating school and grocery store,” says Lemmon.

Lemmon and his two companions plan to take another trip around Songkran time, from Nakornsawan to Bangkok and then possibly further into The Gulf, which should take about two weeks.

Often travel stories are focused on the destination rather than the journey, though the boat journeys of Van Beek and Lemmon both drew significance from the expedition itself. Van Beek reflects on his journey and draws parallels with dealing with life; “You encounter a problem, you deal with it, you solve it, then you go on to the next thing. Sometimes life pings you and dings you, so.”

Lemmon advises others that a small boat can bring out tension in people, so if you go on a boat trip, make sure you already know the people you are going with.

Self-guided river expeditions maybe a little too adventurous for some, though I am told boating in the north of Thailand is growing in popularity. Those interested in this kind of trip may also like to take a guided boat trip in a group.