Whitewater rafting is my favorite adventure activity. We knew we had to schedule a day on the river in Northern Thailand, and it was amazing! Here’s why a whitewater rafting trip in Chiang Mai needs to be on your Thailand bucket list!
What to Expect on a Chiang Mai Whitewater Rafting Tour
As the name would suggest, whitewater rafting requires two things: a raft and a fast-flowing river. You can find a raft and a river just about anywhere, but what makes whitewater rafting amazing is the addition of great scenery, fun people, and local culture. To us, at least.
That’s where Northern Thailand comes in.
Northern Thailand (cough, cough, Chiang Mai) is a great place for whitewater rafting because it has all of these factors. Mountains cover much of Northern Thailand, which lead to incredible southbound water flow. Add a decent amount of water volume from the fall rainy season and you’re left with rivers full of mountain boulders leading to frequent Class IV-V rapids.
Rafting along any of these Chiang Mai rivers will lead to incredible views of jungle vegetation along each side. And I mean in-cred-i-ble. After traveling through every region of the world (including over 6 months through Southeast Asia) I feel pretty jaded to nice landscape. The sights along our river were so unbelievably green, however, that I must have pointed out the natural saturation to my family 4 or 5 times. And that was in late November!
To recap, whitewater: check. Scenery: check. Fun people and local experience?
That’s left up to the whitewater rafting tour company you book with.
Tips for whitewater rafting in Chiang Mai:
- Understand that the whitewater rafting will be in the general Chiang Mai area, not Chiang Mai city. You’ll drive 90-120 minutes away to reach the water, so be prepared for a long day out.
- Have a swimsuit and a change of clothes. You’ll wear the swimsuit while on the river, and change into the dry clothes when you finish.
- Wear closed-toe water shoes. This is for safety. If your raft happens to capsize or bump you into the river, closed-toe shoes will help you stay safe when in the water. If you don’t have any you will be able to leave flip flops in the transfer van, but don’t expect to be able to wear sandles in the raft!
- Only use a waterproof camera. Don’t bring a camera or phone on your trip unless it’s in a waterproof case. You’ll still run the risk of it falling out in the water, but at least it will be safe from water damage! Your rafting tour will provide a photographer to take great pictures, so don’t worry about getting shots. You need to be focused on paddling, anyway.
- The river will be more wild during the rainy season (fall), as the increase of water created bigger rapids.
- Listen to your guide. Each raft will have a personal river guide. This guide knows the river backwards and forwards, and will give a series of commands as you journey. Listen to everything the guide says to stay safe at all times. If you listen well you can avoid most danger scenarios!
- You could go swimming. It sounds fun, but this is how we say someone “fell into the water”. It doesn’t have to be a dangerous situation, so don’t panic if it happens. You’ll get a safety briefing before rafting with instructions on what to do to prevent swimming and what to do if you do get bumped out. Don’t be alarmed, but know that it is an possibility.
- Routes will vary based on the river each tour operator runs. Ours was a 10km course which took around 2 hours to ride.
Best time of year to go whitewater rafting in Thailand
The best time of year to go whitewater rafting in Thailand is the fall.
Early fall is peak rainy season, which leads to increased water flow for higher, faster rapids.
You’ll find the highest water levels (and biggest rapids) August-October, but there is enough extra water flow for almost every other month to still offer great whitewater rafting. Your tour operator most likely has a variety of equipment, so if you’re concerned about the activity level try to arrange for inflatable kayaks, instead.
The other reason whitewater rafting in Thailand is best in the fall is that temperatures are cooler and vegetation is nice and lush. When you’re spending hours outside every lower degree helps!
Our Experience Whitewater Rafting in Chiang Mai
I did a lot of research before booking a whitewater rafting tour in Chiang Mai.
Firstly, because I love whitewater rafting. We wanted to take full advantage of this incredible region so I made sure to find a group that went to an amazing river and who had great reviews.
Secondly, because this was our first time taking our 6-year-old son whitewater rafting. He’s a natural adrenaline junkie who knows no fear (seriously, this kid will probably be eaten by a bear one day) , so I had to be sure we were booking with a whitewater rafting company who a) accepts children and b) makes safety a priority.
My research led to one clear winner: 8Adventures.
Whitewater Rafting with 8Adventures
8Adventures in Chiang Mai is a tour company which offers 8 incredible activities for thrill seekers in Northern Thailand. Most of their 8 are performed on the river (whitewater rafting, kayaking, SUP, etc.), so we felt confident that they know the best way to harness to power of water.
For our whitewater adventure we were picked up at our door at 11:30 a.m. It took around 2 hours to pick up other passengers and head into the river area. We stopped for a quick break on the road, and also watched a very thorough safety video before arriving.
The 8Adventures club house is deep in the Northern Thailand jungle. Their compound is a large outdoor dining area and store, equipment storage and repair, shower and toilet hall, lockers, and more all built riverside around an open field of tents and rafts. It felt both secluded and secure, which is a total plus!
We were first offered an amazing Thai lunch. Driving through beautiful Thai scenery and being greeted by an authentic meal was a great way to enhance our cultural experience.
While we were eating the managing owner, Eric, welcomed the group and gave us a safety briefing (the second so far). We liked him immediately and felt like we were in great hands! We later learned that Eric has employed all local Thais, and we saw him talking with his staff about their plans for the rafting trip in Thai. I love supporting a company who makes such an effort to enhance local life!
We used the large shower stalls to change into swim gear, left all our other belongings in a locker, and were soon back on the bus to get to the starting point of our whitewater rafting adventure.
While driving the 10km (roughly) to the starting point we passed the river we would soon traverse. It was wild and bending, and I was chomping at the bit to get started. We heard our third safety briefing while in the transfer van, but I was more interested in watching the elephants pace up and down the riverbank.
Once we arrived the group was fitted for PFDs, helmets, and paddles. They treated our son with such care, and were sure to find gear that would fit him comfortably and safely. Yay!
Before heading into individual rafts our group gathered around a marooned raft for our fourth safety talk. As opposed to the two videos and one speech we had already received, this fourth message was a live demonstration. A Thai man with excellent English told us what to expect and showed us how to act out each call from our rafting guides. He used a member of the audience as a model, and it became a hilarious demonstration as this poor New Yorker tried to figure out the moves in front of a large crowd.
When it was time to hit the water enough rafts were brought out that we didn’t need to be too crowded. We usually raft in groups of 6 or 8, but these rafts were smaller and only fit 4 guests + 1 guide. Since our family already had 3 people, we and a guide had an entire raft to ourselves. Score!
Our guide kept up paddling in circles around the entrance for a while to make sure we understood each safety and rafting command, and then we were off.
Whitewater Rafting in Chiang Mai with a child
Our whitewater rafting ride was 10km long and took around 2 hours. During the course of our trip we passed 4 Class IV rapids, many Class I and II, and 3 Class III. The rapids were well-placed on the route, with the majority of Class IV in one section of the river.
Our 6-year-old loved the water roller coaster of the rapids from the very beginning. He’s an adrenaline junkie by nature, so the bumping up and down never phased him. We even used it as an opportunity to teach him about how rapids are formed!
When we got to the middle 2km with the most concentrated rapids we asked our son if he wanted to stay with the raft or exit to the tracking van to meet us later. We expected him to be forced to leave, but our guide said that he wasn’t worried about our safety because we were able to follow instructions well. I’m sure it’s much more dangerous and there is a higher likelihood of “going swimming” if the guest paddlers aren’t well-coordinated!
Whit chose to stay in the raft, so our guide pulled our raft aside to add extra straps for our son to hold on to. He was told to stay down and not move until the guide said it was alright to get up. He got down, held onto the extra straps, and braced himself.
Each raft took the big rapids one at a time, with ours being last. The first Class IV was amazing! The water level isn’t as high as it normally is, but we still bounced a lot with a decent drop. We three adults were whooping and hollering, and our guide asked for a paddle hi-five when we came out of it. When we drifted to the pack of waiting rafts we heard the other guests clap and yell for us, proud that our 6-year-old made it through his first big rapid unscathed.
Whit had stayed perfectly still and safe during the ride, but was a bit shaken up from the pummeling of water he received. He loved the rocking but hated the cold water, so he asked to leave the raft and meet us when our next 3 rapids were finished.
8Adventure took really good care of our son while we were rafting! The transport van was occasionally in view on the road as we rafted, and he was brought down to wave to us at each rapid with the photographers taking pictures of each group.
Why we loved rafting with 8Adventures
- We saw a thorough safety video twice, got a safety briefing from the owner, a live demonstration, and in in-water test before heading out on the river. That’s some decent preparation.
- We were fitted for PFDs and helmets by the professional crew who made sure everything was tight yet comfortable.
- Our group was followed by emergency responders in kayaks, placed around each rapid in case anyone needed immediate assistance
- One of the only whitewater rafting groups in Chiang Mai to accept children. They have a system in place to take children off the water at dangerous points when needed.
- The guides were patient with our son, making sure he was comfortable, safe, and understood what was happening at all times
- A photographer rode ahead of our rafts in a van and was always in position to take action shots of our biggest rapids. the pictures are posted in a slideshow at the clubhouse once you return, and are available to purchase afterward.
- We take rapids one raft at a time, so each raft is not only well watched for safety but also the only one visible in pictures
- Guides wear GoPro cameras to take video of the experience
- They have GoPro mounts for helmets available at no cost for anyone bringing their own camera
- Every employee really loves their job. We heard them joking and playing around, and they were always nice and kind to us.
- Our guide was very friendly, spoke English well, and answered all questions to keep us well informed
- We were seated at small tables outfitted with fresh watermelon and pineapple. We were then brought fried chicken cutlet, rice, salad, and curry. It was all amazing!
- Free hot drinks are available at a separate station for anyone interested
If you’re looking for adventure activities in Northern Thailand you must take a whitewater rafting tour in Chiang Mai! And don’t let having a child stop you!
*Our whitewater rafting trip in Chiang Mai was provided by 8Adventures in exchange for an honest review*