The proposal of a friend, a trip on the scorpion-tailed boat, sounds like a good idea and a chance to see Chiang Mai from a different perspective. The atmosphere changes as soon as we arrive at the landing: the slow flow of the river and the warm welcome by the business owner propel us into a new dimension. After a short wait under a pergola where we sneak a peak at old newspaper articles, photos of personalities and vintage images taken along the river, all posted on one of the waiting area walls, we climb aboard the enigmatic scorpion-tailed boat. Just after we set sail, almost opposite the landing, we can see Chiang Mai new town hall, the American Consulate where a stars and stripes flag is waving, and the Khun Nam Tok View temple.
Until the middle of the last century this river – the Ping River – was the largest and main communication route to Bangkok. It was a long journey of a thousand kilometers that lasted two to three months. Those who ventured on that trip were probably gambling the income of their family and those of others for that year. The traditional houses along the river lead us to imagine these shores teeming with life in a not so distant past. Today Chiang Mai is connected to the rest of the country with roads, rail and a modern airport. Nowadays, only a few of these boats used for tours, as well as a reasonable number of fishermen, bring life to these shores.
Our friendly guide, Khun Samak, tells us interesting anecdotes about the river, and shows us last century pictures that present facts, corners and views of the Ping River. Going downstream, we cross the ruins of a pedestrian bridge collapsed during the floods of 2011, and we are shown the spot where the river overflew. We then pass the iron bridge and sail alongside an old site where in the past timber was processed and traded before being shipped to the south. Today, the cutting and marketing of teak has virtually stopped: after centuries of forests exploitation, it is time for Thailand to save and replant its own natural heritage. Khun Samak assures us that the reforestation program is very serious and strict.
Once we arrive at the Kum Phya Dam, a dam that leads the river to a jump of five meters below, the boat makes a u-turn and begins to slowly go up-current. We observe the alternation of natural vegetation with restaurants overlooking the river and modern buildings with elegant apartments that have a view of the city all the way to the hills and down along the river, towards south, towards Bangkok. We also see the home of the last princess of the Lanna Kingdom, who lived there at the beginning of last century and often went traveling around the world financed by her father. Khun Samak shows us a photo of her aboard a side-car, almost wanting to show her as a liberated woman as well as a curious traveler.
We then come to a landing where, on the shore, a gardener is cleaning up a flower bed, in silence, in complete harmony with the peaceful atmosphere of the river. We are introduced by our guide, who also doubles up as an excellent host, inside a small botanical garden complete of fruit trees, some varieties of local rice and medicinal plants; Khun Samak gives us a comment for each one of these: cooking uses and details on cultivation. A light refreshment of mango and sticky rice topped with coconut milk and a pineapple juice are a pretext to continue to quibble with our guide, who shows us traps for snakes and eels, and other objects of bygone days .
We finally climb back aboard the scorpion-tailed boat, sail backwards for a stretch of the river and return to immerse ourselves in the modern days Chiang Mai.
For further information about cruises on the scorpion-tailed boat, click on http://asianitinerary.com/scorpion-tailed-river-cruise/
To book a tour with Khun Samak:
SCORPION-TAILED RIVER CRUISE
Contact: Hotline 24 hrs.: +66 (08) 1960 9398