Kayaking the Ping River in Chiang Mai, Thailand

So far, Jonas and I joined the paddling meetup on the Ping River in Chiang Mai twice. Kayaking in a group usually happens once or twice a week in Chiang Mai. Click here to find the information to find the next kayaking meetup, the map of the route, and some tips on what to bring/wear.

Paddling Addicts

Since we finished paddling halfway down the Danube, Jonas and I have been looking for our next paddling fix. We once paddled down the Morava river in Slovakia before drying our dear boat Zucchini. But since then, we haven’t set foot in a kayak or canoe.

We arrived in Chiang Mai on the 5th of November, 2019 from Shanghai, China. Soon after, Jonas and I spent some time on our laptops scouring the internet for Chiang Mai Facebook groups, when I stumbled on the group Chiang Mai Kayaking Meetup. YES!

I showed it to Jonas who also got very excited. Unfortunately, we had to wait for one week to join the paddling because the (bi)weekly event is held on Thursdays and sometimes Saturdays. And when I found the group it was a Thursday (the 7th of November). But we were so ready to join in the week after.

The next Thursday, November 14th, I was very ill with some kind of flu. So we missed the kayaking event. It was also the day after the Yi Peng/Loi Krathong festival ended, so we knew the river was full of trash. I later saw the photos of the event online and was really sad that my health stopped me from paddling.

Kayaking the Ping River, Round 1: Duo

A Kayak Club at a Temple

Finally!

On November 21st, Jonas and I drove our scooter to Wat Fa Ham – a Buddhist temple on the east side of the Ping River. The event usually starts at 16:30, which is pretty late in the day. We wondered why that’s the case.

The temple doubles as a rowing/dragon boat/kayak club. We drove all the way to the scooter parking near the waterfront. There are quite some dogs on the temple grounds that can be a little scary. We followed the path to the embankment where there’s a couple of sitting areas and the kayak storage. That’s where I ran into the first Russians who seem to be running the weekly event. That reminded me to restart practicing Russian on Duolingo again.

The organizer named Ivan was putting one-person kayaks onto the dock. Jonas and I spotted a nice two-person hard-shelled kayak. We really wanted to be in the same boat, just like old times. We put our phones in the waterproof cases, I put on my gloves and hat and doused myself in mosquito spray. More people joined the event – foreigners and locals alike – and we said hi to everyone.

“Grab a life jacket if you want one,” said Ivan. Apparently, these life jackets are mostly good for use as a pillow to sit more comfortably in the kayak.

We paid the ฿200 for both of us and carried our two-person kayak to the docks. There was a stack of kayak paddles, with a fixed feathering angle of easily 60 degrees. This worried me a bit. One of the Russian women took a group photo. Ivan quickly explained that we’d paddle downstream today until the iron bridge, and then paddle back to the kayak club/temple. This is kind of weird to us because we’ve never paddled back to where we started.

To the Iron Bridge

Jonas and I lifted our heavy boat into the river. A young woman who’d joined the event by herself had some trouble getting her solo kayak into the river, so I helped her get started. I got into the front of the kayak with Jonas and then we pushed off to leave the dock.

The boat is very hard to sit in and very wide. I hit my thumb on the edge of the boat on both hands during the first strokes, which hurt like hell. Jonas and I sat a lot closer together than in our own inflatable canoe, so this time we really had to synchronize our strokes. Once I managed to stop butting my thumbs and index fingers on the boat, it was a lot of fun. We were so fast!

The Ping River originates in the Thai mountains near the border with Myanmar. It flows through Thailand from north to south. At the confluence with the Nan river, it becomes the Chao Phraya river that flows through Thailand’s capital city Bangkok and into the Gulf of Thailand. My inner river geek wants to paddle the whole river, but that’s not what we’re here for.

Today, the water levels of the river are very low. There’s absolutely no current to be detected and we’re not worried about paddling against the current later. A few small sightseeing motorboats pass us and cause some wave action. The boat is much more wobbly than Zucchini, but remaining stable isn’t a problem at all.

The group of paddlers splits up and travels downstream at their own pace. I’ve only seen the Ping River at night during the Yi Peng/Loi Krathong festival eight days prior. I’m snapping some photos and taking some videos with my old little action cam.

It feels so good to paddle again. This kind of movement is very natural now despite the weird feathering angle I’m not a fan of. Jonas is also enjoying the motions while we paddle under several bridges to the unmissable iron bridge. That’s where we turn around and wait for the group to be complete again to paddle back. I measure in my OSMand+ map the distance we’ve done, which is 2.64 kilometers in about half an hour.

Traditional Trash

While waiting for the group to complete, I want to check out the river trash from the Yi Peng/Loi Krathong festival. Just eight days later, we can still find the remnants of some of the Krathongs (กระทง). Krathongs are small floating containers made of banana leaves and often non-biodegradable items to float downstream during the Yi Peng/Loi Krathong festival each year. They’re decorated with flowers, incense sticks, and candles, and many more items. Thais do it to pay respect to the water goddess and to let go of negative feelings and events of the past year.

Now that the water levels are low, the trash just lingers. I find one Krathong upside down and snatch it with my paddle to look at it. On the bottom, there are sewing pins with plastic heads rusting away in the water. We also encounter a half-eaten dead fish that’s floating proudly in the lilies. It makes me quite sad that a tradition like this can grow so out of hand that the river will probably need the whole year to recover from it. And it makes me angry that many of these floats are made with non-biodegradable items. I don’t think this is the way to worship and thank a river or its goddess.

Paddling Back Upstream to Wat Fa Ham

At the bridge, we meet the woman whose kayak I launched from the dock again. Once we paddle back upstream, we see her getting stuck in someone’s fishing line. She manages to get herself out of there, but then says it’s already the third time on this stretch she got trapped in a fishing line.

This is something we were really worried about on our Danube trip but didn’t happen at all. It also didn’t happen to us on the Ping River so far, though we have seen that there are many fishermen on the shores constantly. We suggest her to paddle closer to the center of the river to hopefully dodge the lines better.

We now understand why the kayak meetup happens so late in the day; it’s quite hot during the day and the sun casts long shadows over the river after 16:30. Now it’s 17:15 and we’re paddling in the shadow without the need for sunglasses. The sun is settling in for the night and the sky turns into those pink and orange dusky colors. We arrive back at the docks but I feel like I have the energy to paddle much more. Jonas paddles 100 meters upstream with me past the dock and then we turn around to land our kayak. It was much faster than our inflatable canoe, but also much less comfortable than our trusty and squishy Zucchini. I miss our boat.

Back on land, we chat with a few people including the cool lady with the fishermen problem. She invited us to join a social event the next Saturday.

Kayaking the Ping River, Round 2: Paddling Apart Together

Return to the Ping River

Two weeks later on the 5th of December, we join the paddling party again. Ivan had canceled the paddling on the previous Thursday, hence the delay.

This day, I wanted to paddle by myself without Jonas in the back. I’d begun working on my kayak book and I realized that I’d never paddled in a kayak or canoe without another person. Very strange!

We arrived a bit earlier from driving around the city and eating noodles. Ivan was there to greet us at the scooter parking lot. Most faces of the other paddlers were new to me, besides Ivan and a few Thai people who run the club. We dressed up in our paddle gear and the provided life jackets and then helped bring down the stuff to the dock. Just like last time, we took a group photo, received instructions to paddle to the iron bridge, and then took off.

Today, the water levels seemed a bit higher than two weeks prior. I could even faintly see a downstream current on the surface. Though it’s the dry season now in Chiang Mai and it hasn’t rained in a month, it must have rained somewhere in the mountains or in a tributary of the young Ping River.

I get into my small one-person kayak with help from Ivan. I take the backpack in my boat and Jonas only takes his bottle of water. It’s a bit weird to be in the kayak by myself. I wait for Jonas to come but he’s still finding his rhythm. So far, I haven’t hit my fingers on the edge of the kayak; it seems like the one-person kayak is narrow enough to avoid bruising my nailbeds between paddle and kayak.

It’s very pleasant. Of course, being in control of the direction I’m taking is fairly new to me, but it’s not that hard to maintain my bearing. I make sure to give enough space to the little sightseeing boat that overtakes us traveling downstream and play with its waves. I try to be vigilant of the fishing lines, as I still have no desire to catch one with my face.

Before I know it, we’re at the Iron bridge again.

Blisters on the Return Trip

We wait for the rest of the group to arrive. I missed Jonas’ company and we decide to paddle closer together upstream. But first, he wants to try to paddle as fast as he can to see if he can cause a cutting splash with his bow. I follow him at a similar pace until I can’t keep up.


By the time we’re parallel again, I notice the pain in my hands. Oof!

I see that my kayak gloves don’t protect my thumbs well enough from the paddle. Especially my left hand – the one that moves more around the paddle – is severely damaged. The paddles here are also a little thicker than the ones we used on the Danube kayak trip. Not once did I develop a blister on my hands on those 1250 kilometers paddles. And now I developed something very ouchy in just three kilometers.

I grab the sock that I use to carry my action camera in and put it over my left-hand thumb. I’m paddling next to Jonas and once we synced up our strokes, it’s not hard to paddle apart yet together. Sometimes we switch sides when our boats pull too much into a collision course.

Once back at the dock, I notice the extent of the damage done to my thumbs. It’s really bad… almost down to the bone bad…

I guess next time I’m joining Jonas in one two-person kayak again so he can take over when my fingers start bleeding. I also just missed the company—it’s just not the same as being in the same boat.

Ivan tried to gauge if there’s any interest in going out to dinner as a group, but most people were already gone. I wanted to join the week after again, but my plans changed very drastically that week.

We got back onto our scooter while the stray-ish dogs were being fed by a monk. An excellent time to drive away from the kayak club and the temple without getting chased by barking dogs.

How do I Participate in the Next Kayaking Meetup?

Just go to the Kayak Meetup Chiang Mai Facebook group and press join. Look for the next event created and press ‘Going’ if you intend to go. There are limited spots available for a maximum of 16 or 17 people.

Map of the Usual Route


What to Bring to Chiang Mai Kayaking Meetup?

These are the items that are mandatory or highly recommendable to bring to the paddling:

  • ฿100 (~€3) per person
  • A small backpack to carry your stuff
  • Half a liter to one liter of water per person
  • Mosquito repellent
  • Sunscreen
  • A (cape)hat
  • Sunglasses with UV filter
  • Waterproof phone case

Optionally:

  • (Kayaking) gloves
  • Waterproof action cam
  • A dry bag for your other stuff
  • Snacks

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During our 60 days in Chiang Mai, Thailand, we joined the (bi)weekly kayaking meetup twice. It's a leisurely paddle session downstream and then upstream on the Ping River. #ChiangMai #Thailand #PingRiver #River #kayak #canoe #kayaking #paddling #paddler #travel #southeastasia #asia #kayakclub #Thai #experience #loikrathong #yipeng #celebration #ChaoPhraya #BangkokcOnce or twice a week, there's organized paddling you can join in Chiang Mai on the Ping River. #ChiangMai #PingRiver #Thailand #WatFaHam #Temple #Buddhism #southeastasia #Asia #travel #journey #Thai #loikrathong #yipeng #chaophraya #Bangkok #digitalnomad #river #kayak #canoe #kayakclub

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