Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Chiang Mai (Part II) - Why class 4 rapids in a country experiencing flooding is never a good idea...

Team Taylor Deportation/Repatriation Countdown

Days left in Singapore: 23

Days left until arrival in the Queen City: 30

I mean, there's sexy...and then there's those board shorts.
Please don't be hatin'...
And a good evening to you from across the globe after another GREAT DAY in the Lion City.  The Bull actually took the day off from the gym today, and I have ZERO complaints.  There is always a bit of guilt when I pass on a workout during the week (especially when Muffin Puffin's not around!), but after 4 straight days of running, my legs definitely felt like they needed a break.

In work news, I decided to wear a tie for no apparently reason today, and let me tell you - YOU COULD HAVE HEARD A PIN DROP IN THE OFFICE WHEN I ARRIVED.  It should be noted that I rocked the marathon tie today, featuring lots of runners on the street.  Let's recap some of the highlights:

1. Adrian, ten seconds after I'd entered:  "WOW - that is the WORST TIE I have EVER seen."

2.  Sharyn, 3 seconds later:  "Um, that tie, wow.  Jenny's still not home, is she?"  (Sam nods) "Yeah, that explains it then."

3.  Tiffanie, 10 minutes later:  "You look really, um, different today."  (she then almost falls out of her chair

4.  Emma, an hour later:  "That tie is HORRIFIC.  Are you doing this just to shock people and leave on a note that makes them think you're a snazzy dresser?"

5.  Adrian (again) later via email:  "Your tie has given me an idea - let's have 'CRAZIEST OUTFIT DAY' in the office and see what happens."

6.  Martin (my own boss):  "Seriously - why are you doing this?  Is there a reason?"

Doctors from Raffles Hospital have reported that all employees suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder have since been released and put on a regimen of 4 Tiger beers per night until they realize how expensive it is.

But in other news, let's return to Chiang Mai, shall we? 

So Saturday we were up early, belts loosened for the American brekkie, and I'm proud to report that we slaughtered not only the "standard" breakfast but also a round of French Toast with our coffees.  We figured that we'd need our strength, as today's activity saw us picked up at 8:45 by Peak Adventures for something I was REALLY looking forward to - white water rafting!  We'd managed to add in a one hour elephant trek as well, so I was really pumped to get this party going.

The tour stated good enough - the other tourists were friendly, the guides weren't overly chatty, and most important - the drive was only 90 minutes.  On the other hand, we were WEDGED in the back like sardines (I was spending a LOT of time rubbing up against a sweaty Danish dude - not cool) and the A/C was broken, so I wasn't exactly in the best of places spiritually.  However, things were running on time, and so far - so good.  En route they told us that we were rafting the Mae Tung river, which is (apparently) the "6th most exciting river in the world" (the Colorado is #1 apparently).  With this information, as well as the knowledge that we were hitting 5 class IV's and 1 class IV+, I was definitely ready to get it on. 

So we arrive at the camp, where we learn that it was a good thing we booked in for the elephant ride, because if you didn't you had to just sit at the camp and be CONSUMED ALIVE by mozzies - less than ideal in the tropics.  However, we were one of the three lucky ones, and so Jenny and I hopped into the back of an old truck and rolled over to the elephant site.  We arrived on schedule, and there they were - pretty little Dumbo's, all in a row.  And it was at THIS point, ladies and gentlemen, that things started to go downhill.

For starters, we show up to find that the "German Centernarian's League" has commandeered all the Elephants.  I can tell that something is wrong, because there is LOTS of chatter going on in Thai.  And then they look back at us, park the car, and say - "we just need to wait 30 minutes."  I nod, realizing that we're somehow late and lost our spot, but thinking that all will be well.  However, when the guy riding with him says, "Yes, it will be only 45 minutes," I start to get a little concerned.

The Bull in deep thought (and still in those really cool shorts),
surveying the rapids he and the Striker are set to tackle later in the day.
As it turned out, it was FIFTY-FIVE minutes of waiting, because those cats had gone on the tour we'd booked in.  However, as we killed the time watching the rapids, hiking around a bit, and chatting with the German fella we'd met, I thought things would be okay.  Oh, soooooo naive.

Well, after the Gandalf club exits, we walk up to the podium, at which point there is FURIOUS chatter between the Mahouts (elephant drivers) and our guides.  After some nodding and grumbling, however, we're away, and I'm quite enjoying myself.  Elephant rides are MUCH smoother than Camels, and Jenny and I got to share a seat just behind the Mahout (you basically have to step on the elephant's head to mount him - those puppies are STRONG). 

All is well for about 15 minutes, until we suddenly turn around.  I'm thinking that we're going on a different "jungle path" (we'd hadn't even left the main road, for the record, let along started "trekking in the jungle"), but the guy wheels back to base and tells us to get off (we did make him take 2 photos, which he was NOT happy about.  So instead of the 1 hour elephant ride, we got a 20 minute elephant ride.  Now granted, it was still WAY better than the other touristy "rides" you get, but it wasn't what I was promised, and I intended to make someone's life hell.  I started with our guide.  The conversation went something like this:

Sammy the Bull (StB):  "We paid for an hour.  We got 20 minutes.  Are we getting a refund?"

Thai Thrasher Local Dude (TTLD):  (smiling) "No.  You go for much longer than that.  You get almost hour."

StB: (shows him my stopwatch) "This shows 25 minutes and 48 seconds - that included the loading time and walk to the platform.  You owe me at least half of my money back."

TTLD:  "No, that was the normal length of time."

StB:  "Your brochure says an hour.  That wasn't even half an hour."

TTLD:  "I don't think it says that in the brocure."

German Dude with Us (GDwU):  "Really?  Because I happen to have your brochure in my pocket.  Here it clearly states one hour."

TTLD:  (SHOCKED)  "Um, I think maybe you talk to my manager."   (YES, LA - I THINK WE WILL)

Hannibal we were not - but I was ready to go
Ghengis Khan in anger after we got short-
changed.  All the same - it was really cool.
But the debacle continues, as we then have to ride IN THE BACK OF THE TRUCK WITH THAT GUY for 20 minutes before arriving at camp, at which point we tell the manager about it.  Her response:  "We will talk later."  I already know how this is going to go, and I'm trying to remember the wise words of Tait Robinson when traveling in Asia - "just accept that things don't always work as planned and there will be nothing you can do about it."  All the same, I was pissed.

But it was then onto the river, and my spirits were lifted.  Well, momentarily.  You see, in most places, you run big water with 6-8 people plus a guide.  That way you have more weight, more strength, and generally more flexibility to move in rapids.  For these cats, however, they had FOUR to a boat.  Our boat was Muffin, the Bull, and then 2 HUGE (and not with muscles) Italians who a) had never rafted before, b) were at a ZERO level of fitness, and c) didn't speak a WORD of English.  On an 8 person boat this would not be a problem.  On a 4 person boat at flood level, however, it tends to become an issue.

The trip was a 2 hour, 10K run through an AMAZINGLY beautiful canyon - seriously some of the prettiest scenery I'd seen rafting.  Plus, the weather couldn't have been better.  And through the class II's and III's, all was well.  There was a good current, a nice breeze, and all was well.  Then, however, we hit our first class IV, and all hell broke loose.

So here's the thing - Jenny and I have rafted a lot.  She's been 10 times, and I've been 9 times, and we've hit some big water before (Snake, New, Payette, Gardiner, etc).  I am typically one of the pace setters in the front, which I like because I think you get a good chance to really feel the rush of the rapids.  However, that is with the North American style of rafting, where you actually PADDLE DURING THE RAPIDS.  You see, that's not how they roll in Thailand.  Instead, you get into the first rapid and then the guy yells GET DOWN!!!!  and you just have to hunker down and ride out the rapid whilst water PUMMELS you in the face and floods the boat.  It was an absolutely RIDICULOUS system, and going into the first class IV, I had no idea that's how they rafted. 

Well, we get into the first turn, and the guy is yelling forward, which we're doing.  We're in position, and then the guy yells "GET DOWN!!!!"  I don't know why, but I tuck in.  We get hit pretty good, and then he yells something, which I take to mean get up (as does Jenny and anyone else who's ever rafted before), so we do to start getting into position for the next section.  Well apparently he was just telling us to stay put, because we get no direction and the next then I know I am bumped halfway out of the boat, and the boat is wedged on a rock and tilting fast (because the Italian gal is probably 300 pounds - NOT KIDDING). 

I know that we're in a pickle, and I know that if I don't bail, we flip and go garage sale through the rapid.  So I look at Jenny and say, "I'm going over - see you at the end."  And with that, I fall back into what can only be described as hell. 

So I have debated how to write about the next minute of my life because, well, I can say with complete honesty that it was the most frightened I've ever been.  EVER.  I feel I can write about it honestly now that a month has passed, I'm back safely from Chiang Mai and Railay, and my parents know I'm alive and well and safe in my condo in Singapore.  But in that moment, things were scary.  Mom and Dad - I'm sure that it wasn't as bad as you're about to read.  However, to quote Pip in "Great Expectations:  "I'm not going to tell it the way it happened.  I'm going to tell it the way I remember."  Look away for the next little bit if you need to. :-)

I've been knocked out before, once in a class III and once at the tail end of a class IV, but those were NOTHING compared to the washing machine I fell into.  I knew what to do (feet first, face up, find the rapids), and I did it, but the churn and size of the whitewater was enormous, and getting my head up for air was a challenge.  Suffice it to say that twice I was under longer than I wanted to be, and I was definitely knocked around through what felt like the longest rapid of my life. 

Finally I heard whistles, and I looked up to see the rope in the middle of the rapid.  I managed to grab it and hold it, although the rope burn from the current pulling me away is STILL MARKED on my hand over a month later.  My boat did managed to bump me over to the side, where I was finally able to put some VERY shaky legs to the river bottom.  Jenny looked at me and instantly knew that something was wrong, as I was not sporting the usual "WHEW! Let's do that again!" look.  There's no other way to put it - I was rattled.  And I was scared.

Truth be told, I'll have no idea how long I was in that water. It was probably 45 seconds to a minute, but it felt like an eternity.  And I'll never know how long I was under each time between breaths, but it was definitely longer than I wanted.  Suffice it to say that, when they returned my paddle 15 minutes later, I'd just stopped the bleeding on my legs and was really on the fence about whether or not to continue.  I knew the drill now - STAY DOWN. 

One of the class III's we rafted - this was near the end (and
I was NOT complaining about getting out of the boat by that point).
The rest of the rafting passed without incident (but to put it into context - a guide who said he'd never been tossed got launched on the next set of rapids), but I was definitely shaken.  It was the first time I've ever been scared rafting, and it's the last time I'll ever raft in the third world.  We got pounded TIME AND TIME AGAIN by each rapid, and one time so much water came over that Jenny was coughing and choking whilst our guy was ordering us to paddle (which was odd, since 99% of the time we were supposed to just hunker down).  On the whole I'm really glad I did it, but I was REALLY glad when we saw the hut.

A celebratory beer - Chang NEVER tasted so
good - and ridiculous tiki umbrellas with
cheesy plastic lights never looked so majestic.
Of course, once it was over, it was back to arguing about the elephant ride, at which point the manager said, "We'll speak when we get back to the office."  And what made it MORE awkward?  They'd changed vans on us for the ride home, and we were a seat shy.  Who didn't have a chair?  THIS GUY.  So where do they put me?  ON THE DRIVER'S CONSOLE BETWEEN THE DRIVER AND THE MANAGER WHO REFUSED TO SPEAK TO ME.  So I'm sitting there, WITHOUT A SEATBELT, with my face almost pressed against the rearview mirror, easily a foot taller than the driver and the manager, and my head hits the ceiling every time we hit a bump (which, I'm here to tell you, happens A LOT in Thailand).  And it was amidst all this chaos that the driver turned up the radio, and he and I did a MEAN duet of "Numb" by Linkin Park (which perfectly described my legs from sitting on that damn console).

We were let off an hour later, with the manager saying, "I'll call you later."  I wanted to make a smart ass remark, but I was just so glad to be alive, an $8 elephant ride (and $4 if I just demanded half) didn't really seem like that big of a deal. 

It was then a shower and over to John's place, which was this really cute rooftop bar.  We caught half of the Chelsea - Arsenal game (it's the one where the Gunners won 5-3), and we even got the rare treat of seeing HUNDREDS of lanterns floating in the night sky.  They were a beautiful orange, and it was just really spectacular. 

After that we rolled to a place down the block that Jenny had discovered before - a restaurant that actually just sets up tables right on the street and cooks the pad thai out of a rolling cart.  It was AMAZING, and the meal was just $1! 

This was just before the "Swensen's fantasy" moment...
And we even saw the Belgians from the cookery school there and ate with them.  During the meal, we learned that they'd just discovered Swensen's ice cream shop, and they were now "Members" of some discount club.  Jerry (the guy) couldn't stop raving about it.  His best quote:  "You can get anything you want there.  I got to Swensen's, and I can just fulfill my fantasy."  I almost PISSED MYSELF laughing.

It was then back over to the Chiang Mai saloon for a night cap (don't worry, T-Rowe - I didn't betray you this time) before heading home and CRASHING, a day of adrenaline, adventure, and misadventure in the books.

Okay, that's all the news that's fit to print.  Chat tomorrow!


Sam and (enjoying her last night with Mel before RETURNING TO SINGAPORE TO BE REUNITED WITH HUSBAND BEAR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) Jenny

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