White water rafting among elephants, Chiang Mai, Thailand

My eyes catch something massive crossing the river in a slow but steady pace. It is an Asian elephant carrying a man on its neck, seated in a lotus position. Fresh water from the river splashes my face and startles me. “Paddle forward! Paddle forward! Get down! Get down!”, yells our rafting guide, and his instructions are putting my focus back on the class III rapid we are descending on this white water section of the Mae river, one hour and a half from Chiang Mai, the capital of Northern Thailand.

The river gently winds itself through the low mountains which are partially cultivated. Birds hunt for fish. On calm sections, we drift by bamboo floats that are used by locals to cross and reach their bamboo houses on stilts on the opposite bank. Coffee plants grow in the shade. Elephants feed along the river banks as many elephant camps are located in this area.

I try to stay focused on the paddling. I hold on tightly as the boat hits one of the rocks rising up from the river in the middle of a significant water drop. “Go left!”, our instructor commands, his intonation revealing a mix between pleasure and seriousness. We put all our weight on the left size of the raft and avoid capsizing.

Occasionally, a mahout seating on the neck of a calm pachyderm crosses the river, heading to the jungle for a couple of days to find food. A bit further down, in a bend of the Mae River, we gently float by a group of five people who are washing an old retired elephant gently bathing.

The raft is moving fast through the class III rapids that turn class IV in the rainy season. Nice drops follow each other for a true adrenalin rush. A few young monks in their bright orange dresses are seating on a rock, laughing and taking pictures of the strange bright blue rubber embarkation maneuvered by a small bunch all-geared up in similarly bright orange life jackets!

About ten kilometres down our starting point, we see the landing beach on the left bank of the river. Rafting the Mae River is most likely the best way to explore the area while living a fun and adrenalin-packed adventure.

Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen (text & photos)

Travel tips:

  • If you feel like living this adventure yourself, we are happy to recommend 8adventures. Located along the river banks of the Mae, they provide adventurous, fun and safe ways to explore the area (e.g. trekking, zip-lining, rafting,…).

  • To learn more about the elephant situation in Thailand visit the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai.

  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!

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6 thoughts on “White water rafting among elephants, Chiang Mai, Thailand

  1. Pingback: White water rafting amongst elephants - 8Adventures

  2. Pingback: The ultimate guide to Thailand | Best regards from far,

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