Kayaking from Hot to Tak, Thailand

Fast Facts 
Days total - 11
Days on water - 8 plus 
(first and last days were minimal, one day rest)
Distance linear - ca. 160 km.
Hours paddling: 50.5
Paddle strokes - est. 130,000 
Weight lost - 1.5 kg.


It is easy to have doubts about setting off on an adventure. Especially when steely clouds color the sky and streaking horizontal raindrops pelt the windshield.

As the bus wound its way up the foothills south of Chom Thong, I closed the window to stay dry. In my 40 kilos of baggage, including a 25 kilo inflatable kayak, I had neither a raincoat nor a tent. The rainy season had officially ended months ago. So I wasn't fully prepared for the weather on this adventure, my first long river trip.

Getting off the bus in Hot, about 100 km south of Chiang Mai, I found myself filled with indecision. It was one pm. Now what do I do? I noticed that our bus had passed over a tributary leading to the Ping river a couple minutes ago. Should I walk back to it and scout it out? Or, should I take a room at the guesthouse for a night, prepare for the journey, and depart tomorrow?

I did neither. Instead, a man who rode the bus with me engaged me in conversation, and said he would walk with me to the river, about one kilometer further on. So, as is often the case, the situation itself placed its weighty thumb on the scale and the decision was made. We walked along the road, skirting the flooded hollows. The one kilometer to the river became two, then three, as I pulled my gear on a handcart behind me.

The Ping river runs the full length of Northern Thailand. It begins in the far reaches of the Daen Lao mountains on the Burmese border and flows south through Chiang Mai. As it flows on to Hot much of the water is drained off through a series of dams to irrigate rice paddies. Eventually, at Nakhon Sawan, it confluences with the Nan river, at which point it reinvents itself as the Chao Phraya river. From there it runs through Bangkok, and empties into the Bay of Thailand. My goal was to paddle from Hot to Tak, about 150 km to the south, as the crow flies.

View Thailand kayak trip - Hot to Tak in a larger map

Crows fly; rivers flow. They meander and are sometimes dammed. Named after the reigning king, Bhumibol hydroelectric dam blocks the Ping river about 50 km north of Tak. It creates an artificial lake of unusual shape and length.

At the northern end (near Hot) and southern end (near Tak) are two large lake-like bodies, which are connected by a narrow shoestring of water with a couple right angle bends. Corners in the river, these bends let you determine your location on a map fairly easily.

But there is no sustained current to aid in conveying a kayaker southward. The remaining water in the Ping river south of Hot drains into the reservoir, like a faucet dripping in a giant bathtub.

Motorized land travel entails nothing more than placing your body in a vehicle and letting technology take over. Kayaking on a reservoir was more akin to cycling, where you had to expend energy to get where you were going; pedal or paddle. 

Many times I had stared at the map of northern Thailand wondering what this elongated reservoir held - besides water - for those who ventured along its curious length. Internet research revealed nothing. The baby blue line representing the Ping spoke to me in an imaginary way, silent as a mime, yet beckoning me with its squiggly gesticulations. It was left to me to interpret its meaning, to ball up this blue line, throw it into the air, and decipher its content once it landed. Indeed, what was it like to kayak from Hot to Tak?


In Chiang Mai I had hitchhiked from the Kayak Club to the southern entrance to the old city to catch the bus to Hot. Jesse had picked me up.

Get in the back. I go to the hospital first. Deliver some bread. Ten minutes.

At the hospital he bought me green tea, and gave me a roll filled with bean paste.

I am the pianist here. I play soft songs, for therapy. I know many songs, thousands. Beatles, Stones. That's why I can speak English. I am also the pastor of my church.

You know the end of the world is near. Last night I saw many things in my head, I hear God speaking to me, not in English, another language. I saw big fire come, destroy everything. People on their knees. He told me to spread the word. You are the first foreigner. I don't know if you tell this story. Last night I cry when I hear this story.

Maybe he was a believer in the Mayan apocalypse, sure to arrive on 21 December. He drank his tea in two gulps, set the paper cup on a ledge and we drove off. But the gods, Mayan or otherwise, had already started their mischief. A policeman pulled us over. Jesse tried stuffing a bill into the cop's pocket. But the officer did not accept the money. A voice from a higher authority said, Next time wear your safety belt. After issuing Jesse a citation, the policeman waved us on.

I had been thinking long and hard, sometimes longer and harder, about kayaking the Mekong. Not in its entirety, but along the Laotian – Thai border, from Houayxai to Cambodia, then into the delta in Viet Nam. After all, if you have river current, kayaking is easy. As Nike implores us, Just Do It. Pop your butt in the boat and go. You don't even have to paddle. You can be like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, „drifting“ into your future self. No expertise required.

Nevertheless, a cautionary voice informed me that it might be better if first I got some experience before Mekonging it. That's what this trip was about, getting experience before drifting into the new year. And, before Pinging it from Hot to Tak, for three days I scooted around on the Ngat dam reservoir fifty kilometers north of Chiang Mai. 

Day 1 – 28 November (1.5 hours; Depart Hot)

When we finally arrived at the Ping river in Hot, I was surprised to see many people gathered at the bridge. In Chiang Mai, the festival Loy Kratong had recently ended. But in Hot, this was the main day. Dragon boat races on the river, food and drink, all to pay homage to the water goddess, Phra Mae Khongkha. I could not have chosen a more auspicious day for my departure.

The festival's officials were most helpful. They drove me back into town to buy additional provisions for the trip, gave me plates of noodles and rice, and let me prepare my boat on the bank in front of seated dignitaries. The emcee even announced my departure, and as I set off, the crowd bade me farewell. It was four pm.

My newly found friends estimated it would take me a week to reach the dam. The food I bought was  not only some of my favorite, but non-perishable: six kilos of müsli, ten tins of tuna, and a kilo of peanuts. From my map I knew of at least two villages located along the route, Doi Tao and Ban Ko, where I could stock up. Also, I had six 1.5 liter bottles of water. With cotton balls and iodine tincture, I was prepared to purify the water from the reservoir if necessary.

Dragon boat race in Hot
I set off and left the festivities behind me. A strong current pushed me swiftly along, but the river curved a lot. So, while I had the impression of moving forward, I was not gaining much ground on Doi Tao, 40 km distant by road. Still, close to the bank, I could easily check my speed. Each paddle stroke took me a few meters forward. And that is what life is about, drifting forward.

With the thunderstorm long gone, I had felt reasonably sure that I would not face rain this night. But already dark clouds were visible to the east. And soon a light shower fell, a harbinger of what the night held.

The level of the Ping river was low, which exposed many sandbars. At 5:30 pm. I chose one on the right bank. Here I set up camp. Opposite me, on the left bank, white trash bags marked a dump site. Not ideal, but it was only for one night.

I had designed a rigging for my kayak, turning it into a sailboat. The mast consisted of two aluminum oar stems; the sail was a tarp. From the main halyard I could hoist my mosquito net.

But I had not set up the mast yet, so I used the oar stems to construct a teepee structure on to which I could drape the net. It extended from the bow about two-thirds the length of the four meter long boat and was held firm at the foot by an inflatable thwart seat cushion. I could sleep in the kayak wonderfully if I deflated its outer chambers a smidgen to allow more room for my shoulders. The floor provided a comfortable air mattress. This arrangement made me glow with satisfaction.

But flying cockroaches disregarded my ingenuity. By the time I was ready to sneak beneath the net, it was already filled with these brownish, one-inch long bugs. How they managed that feat, I could not determine. They were a nuisance, in particular for the first two days on the river, but less so on the reservoir. At least they didn't bite.

As I lay in the kayak, the moon, a day past full, rising in the east, shone brightly behind me. Its northern section became slightly dimmed, as it slipped into a penumbral eclipse. To the south I eyed dozens of  orange lanterns, part of Loy Kratong celebrations, way off in the distance as they floated skyward. The wind sent them drifting. They appeared to outline the slope of a mountain. A few firecrackers shattered the silence. I watched the lanterns reach their maximum height, then descend slightly and fade out, leaving no trace of their existence.

This first night on the river was miserable, not so much because of the roaches, but the rain. On and off, all night, showers interrupted my rest. I tried covering myself and my sleeping bag with the sail, but it was too small. If I was going to encounter nightly rain, I would have to find a solution to this problem. As in life, finding solutions to problems is a big part of adventure travel. Every day on the road tests your preparedness and your wits. I wasn't prepared for the rain. How far would my wits take me?

The best solution I could think of to avoid the rain at night was to make a lean-to with the boat and sleep beneath it. This worked, but the angle I had set the boat did not leave me much room to turn over. I was, however, too tired to remedy this problem. And roaches and mosquitoes alike had free access to my quarters. Still, I got a few hours rest and the next morning I set off anew. It was nine am. A late start. Yet, I had to continually remind myself: this was not a race.

As I paddled away from the sandbar, my curiosity induced me to check out the dump site on the opposite bank. Was this the reason for the innumerable flying roaches? Though the current was strong, the river was narrow, and I was soon close enough to appease my imagination: the white plastic wrappings were nothing other than sandbags buttressing the bank.

This incident revealed a blind spot. I felt I should have known what I was looking at. Cultivated fields abutted the bank of the river; not a very likely spot for a dump site.

It also illustrated a common phenomenon. At home, in familiar surroundings, we tend to stay in our comfort zones. We go to the same Starbucks, visit with the same Chris and Mary, buy the same bag of Doritos at Costco, worship at the altar of HBO and think how fulfilling our lives are. Rarely does a moment arise that presents something really new, something we are very unsure of or totally wrong about. In short, we usually know what we are dealing with.

On the road, however, a far greater number of situations are unique; they entail something we have never encountered in our lives. We are left to come to terms with these situations based on similar experience and our wits. Sometimes we see something and must decipher it in the anxious, gut-wrenching moment, before the knife of indecision slices our neck.

Back in Chiang Mai, for example, when Jesse offered the police officer money, was that a bribe? When he told me he did not use the safety belt due to stomach pain, was that the truth? I don't know. So very often that is the answer: We just don't know. No necks got sliced here, but truth, like the 500 baht bill in Jesse's wallet, often gets tucked away, before we are sure of what we have seen.

Twelve hours ago I thought I was camping across from a dump site. I was wrong. Completely wrong. But now I knew. Maybe this is what is meant by life-long learning.

Day 2 - 29 November (7 hours) Camped just before Doi Tao

After one and a half hours I arrived in Ban Luang Hot on the right bank. It was psychologically hard to stop for a break. Impetus kept me going. One more bend. Just one more, I often thought. And the trouble of docking, keeping money handy, risking dropping something overboard - it was better to just keep going. But, I forced myself to stop, with the excuse, I needed to fill a water bottle; I was not sure how far my  supply would take me.

On a quiet street a woman was hanging up laundry. She summoned her sleeping husband to assist me. He filled my bottle, then escorted me to a restaurant, where I ordered khao phat, fried rice with vegetables. But I was not convinced that this was a vegetarian meal. The cook assured me it was; the questionable ingredient turned out to be gratiem, garlic! How could garlic look like pork? I wondered. So it came to pass that a mundane dish of stir fried vegetables revealed another of my blind spots.

Before leaving the restaurant, I asked the cook, How far is Doi Tao? By road or river? River, I replied. Oh, krai! Thai is a tonal language. Krai with a middle tone means „far.“ Said with a falling tone, the same word means „nearby.“ But more than the tones, the context and the cook's countenance conveyed the meaning: Keep paddling!

I kept paddling and finally at five pm. I stopped for the night. I had been searching for a suitable location since four o'clock, at which point the river began to broaden out. On the left side was a large flood plain: no dry land for a camp site. Only a few houseboats offered potential refuge.

I pulled up to one and at the same time a fisherman approached. What do you want? he asked. Nii baan khun mai? Is this your house? I asked. Yes. Oops! So sorry. But where is an empty house? He told me up ahead I would find accommodations. I paddled onward.

A couple hundred meters distant was another house. I reckoned this must be the one the fisherman was directing me to. I paddled with a renewed sense of vigor. I was beat. But luck was against me. A man sat on his porch, and he directed me further on.

Finally, I spotted a house on the left bank. I was relieved. As I drew closer, I realized my joy was again pre-mature. A husband and wife greeted me. And they too pointed in the distance. About one hour, the woman said.

One hour – another opportunity to decipher the situation. One hour in your long boat with a high horsepower engine? Or one hour in my wide, inflatable, oar-powered vessel? Or maybe her reply was culturally nuanced. Did she tell me only „one hour“ so as not to disappoint me, when in reality it was two or three? I paddled on.

Where should I stop? It would soon be dark. To the left was marsh land, to the right a high river bank. I had to make a decision before long. I could moor to the bank, but I preferred spending the night on land, because I would have more space and I could stretch my legs.

And, because of a small whole through which water entered the cockpit of the boat, I knew that sleeping in the boat on the river risked soaking my sleeping bag. I had neglected to patch the hole before setting off on this adventure.

I found my camping site about 50 meters on from the last house. The land was about half a foot higher than the river. Vine-like plants covered the ground. I dragged my boat up, and fearful of rain, made a lean-to, like last night. Loy Kratong celebrations continued into the night presided over by the moon. It loomed large, as if its fullness was somehow extending beyond a single night. This time I adjusted the mosquito net as best I could. Not perfect, but....

Not perfect means horrible. In the morning seemingly more mosquitoes were inside the net than outside. Though I covered myself with repellent, I got bites a plenty. I consoled myself with the thought that at least it did not rain.

Day 3 - 30 November (4.5 hours) arrival in Doi Tao / Camped after The Cliffs

Many years ago I realized that the most beautiful time of day is the very early morning. Unfortunately, this conflicts with one of life's simplest and most sought-after pleasures: rolling over and going back to sleep.

At eight am. the sun burned through the mist and before long the heat was uncomfortable. I cleared camp and watched my neighbor motor off ahead of me.

I rounded the first bend to see another house, but it wasn't a house at all. It was a water pump in a shack. Farmers used it to irrigate their fields. On this trip I would pass so many water pumps that I had time to read the repair manual and knew where to send away for spare parts.

Now the river was really broad, too broad with too little current to call it a river any longer. It was easily a few kilometers wide. Contemplating this vista, I found it difficult to determine which direction to head. To starboard I saw a fisherman taking in his net, and headed towards him.

I want to go to Doi Tao, I said.

He waved his arm indiscriminately. I copied him and he nodded his head. But I could not decipher the meaning of these gestures. So I approached another couple in their boat. Wearing a broad-rimmed hat, the woman at the stern paddled the boat backward as her husband measured out the net. A three meter long propeller shaft stretched out parallel to the water's surface.

This is Doi Tao, she said.

I searched the lake and in the far distance to port I could see houseboats with their red roofs. I did not think that I had already come so far. It took me nearly another hour to reach the shore. It was now 10:40. The „one hour“ to this village had taken two. I never would have found it in the dark of night.

At one of the houseboats some women were organizing their storage room. This houseboat had a restaurant. I ordered a couple dishes of food and looked forward to a break from paddling. Though I wore fingerless gloves, I was in danger of developing blisters on my exposed skin from gripping the oar. It is strange to think that such a small malady as a blister could prevent me from paddling, and turn this adventure into a failure. I didn't know yet what awaited me.

My plans at Doi Tao were to eat, buy provisions, and take a shower. At the restaurant I ordered two vegetarian meals, but when the waitress gave me the bill, she had over-charged me. In other words, she gave me the farang, or foreigner, price.

I asked her to show me the menu, and when she did, she pointed to different items matching the prices she had charged me. She did not know that I could read the Thai menu. But soon we agreed on a price, including permission to take a shower, and I went looking for Doi Tao proper.

I hitched a ride into town, about six kilometers distant. At the 7-11 I bought a sewing kit. Across the street a vendor sold fruit.

How much for a kilo tangerines? 25 baht, she replied.

Give me half a kilo. And a pineapple, for 30 baht. How much total?

Fifty-three baht, the vendor said. Half a kilo tangerines costs 23 baht, the vendor told me.

Forget it, I said. The pineapple would suffice.

Back near the houseboats a restaurant up on a hill was serving lunch. There I ordered two meals-to- go for 60 baht total. When I paid, the owner short-changed me ten baht.

Was this simply an honest mistake? Or, was the owner merely trying to maximize revenue? Another opportunity for me to search for meaning in the situation.

After showering, I rowed from the houseboat over to the shore, pulled the boat up on land, and set up the mast.

All the fishermen ask the same question: Pai nai? Where to? At first I would reach far with my response: To Tak, I would reply. Maybe this was being overly ambitious, I thought, so I shortened it to the next town, Doi Tao. But when a man approached me as I set up the mast, I replied, To the dam.

Can you do it? In that? His mien conveyed his doubts.

An hour later I departed. It was nearly three pm. A good wind was picking up. I rounded the first bend, headed south, and hoisted the sail. The starboard wind hit the sail hard, too hard. A storm was coming fast. I scrambled to lower it. By the time I had finished, the wind had pushed me into the vegetation along the shore.

I was alarmed when I realized I was in a thicket of thorny plants. The inflatable boat plowed through the stiff stems. Surely the boat would be punctured in several places. I cursed myself for having hoisted the sail in stormy weather. To prevent the wind from blowing me further, I scrambled to grab hold of a stem. There I remained 20 minutes.

Looking down at the water I saw air bubbles rising, clearly a sign of a puncture. I did not bring the repair kit with me, so duct tape would have to suffice. The stream of bubbles continued while I searched with my hand for the hole.

Then the boat drifted sideways. But the bubbles stayed in the same place. As it turned out, the boat was not damaged after all. The PVC material, nearly one millimeter thick, had held.

The rain passed to the north, without a single drop landing on me, and with the wind calming, I paddled onward.

Though I was a bit gun shy, I hoisted the main not long afterwards. But during the next hour and a half the sail did little to propel me closer to the dam, still several days distant. At 5:15 I headed to the western shore, where The Cliffs shone golden.

This was one of the few stretches where the banks consist of stone, not vegetation. Rocky cliffs are much more interesting to the eye than forested hillsides. The orange, yellow, and reddish hues glow vividly; the shapes, lines, and edges are more alluring, more haunting than a palette of greens.

A beautiful stretch of sandbanks was located just past The Cliffs. A few houseboats floated on bamboo lattices nearby. Though ball lightning flashed to the east, I decided the rain would spare me this night. So, instead of constructing a lean-to, I prepared the cockpit for the night.

With mosquito net hoisted, the kayak is prepared for the night
I hoisted the mosquito net on the main halyard. Cow bells and bleating goats provided the soundtrack to images of a sandy beach and colorful sunset. The late afternoon and evening hours ushered in the second most magical time of day. It felt good to lie in the boat, beneath the net, gazing at the heavens, wishing such moments would not fade.

The Milky Way was clearly visible. But this patch of sky was unfamiliar to me. Besides the constellation of Orion, I knew no others.

While the sun painted the western sky, in the east a very bright celestial body ascended, trailing the moon. This was Jupiter. I preferred to watch this show in the east, since the sunset was practically finished. But the position of the boat and the sandbar gave me a ticket to the western theatrics. Content with this show, I watched until the curtain of night had fallen.

Day 4 - 1 December (8.5 hours) / Homestay in Houseboat

This morning I literally trimmed the sail. It was too big for my craft and interfered with paddling. So I cut a few inches off the roach. I also taped four battens, made from bamboo I had found in Chiang Mai, onto the roach of the sail for support.

The mast was supported by conventional rigging: a forestay, one shroud each on port and starboard, and two backstays, which were angled far enough back so as to allow an unimpeded stroke. The aluminum oars constructing the mast were held together by a one-inch diameter pvc pipe, into which they fit perfectly.

Still, the kayak had no skegs, and of course no keel. So I could sail forward only with a tailwind. I was hoping I would have a quality opportunity to test the sail on this trip.

Last night was fabulous! No rain. No bugs. And, it seemed as if the moon was prolonging its fullness night after night. In Haruki Murakami's novel, 1Q84, the heroine, Aomame, finds herself in a mystical world where she sees two moons. My world was not quite so mystical, but in addition to my blind spots, it revealed its own magic.

It was a world of minimal elements: water, mountains, sky. This reservoir created a world apart: No traffic, no television or communication signal, no advertising, no products to buy. It was a world that provided an Aussteiger lifestyle to those few people who chose this as their home. And now, for a limited time, I was one of them, creating my own new comfort zone with the few items I possessed.

As I left camp, a forceful wind picked up, but it was a headwind. If it is impossible to sail into the wind, it is quite difficult to paddle against this nemesis. It took me two hours to reach the entrance to the next narrow stretch. On the map this distance is almost nothing. But in a slow kayak against a headwind, the repetitive motion of paddling eats into your muscles and psyche.

I eyed each spit of land as a short-term goal. Before me was a spit about twenty minutes away. On the western hillside overlooking this entrance was a wooden building, with the national flag flying outside. Was this the HQ of a national park? The Ping River National Park borders the reservoir to the east, but few visitors would have access to that building. I didn't stop to visit. Instead, I reached the spit, passed it, and eyed the next one.

Moored to a cliff for lunch
For lunch I moored to a cliff on the right bank that offered shade. A commercial houseboat drifted by, pulled forward by a tugboat. Tourists rent these floating party hotels, bringing their own food and drink. Thais prefer whiskey.

Karaoke shattered the serenity. Few took notice of this Aussteiger in the red kayak. I chowed down on the second of the two meals-to-go I had bought yesterday. I had left it on the sandbar over night and the ants had gotten to it. But this morning I had returned the favor: I had gotten to them.

A cramp developed in my right trapezius. While paddling I stretched my neck to the left, relieving the pain. At least it did not not hurt constantly. Whatever you do, if you do it for hours on end, you have to find a way to make yourself at home, create your new comfort zone. Paddling was no different. 

I had to be particularly careful with my hands. Due to gripping the oar so long, after a few days my fingers began to swell up. In the evenings I had difficulty making a fist. To remedy this problem I altered my grip on the oar, at times using only one finger and my thumb at a time to control it.

After lunch a fisherman approached in his boat from astern. When he reached me, he lowered his rpms and cried out, Where you going? He was one of the few boatmen who greeted me first.

I replied, To the dam! Then he made a gesture of sleeping. At the time I did not understand him, but later I imagined that he wanted to ask where I slept. Why didn't he simply ask me? He possibly assumed I would not have understood his language. And he probably would have been right.

Paddling solo I had lots of time to think. With the US elections recently held, I wondered what could possibly convince people to vote Republican. If the compelling reason was not racism, what was it? Lindsay Graham, the conservative senator from South Carolina, said it best: the Republican party is not sustainable. Not enough angry white men. The conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks put it differently: Everybody but the GOP has entered the 21st century.

White men were angry because they were losing their grip on power. The browning visage of America cut to the heart of their identity. An angry white man might think, If I am not top dog, who am I?

And who was I, a middle aged white man, paddling on this seemingly endlessly long reservoir? Did I have something to prove? Was this show a mid-life crisis, physical theatrics to fend off the specter of death?

The easy answer was, It was more exciting than another day in Mae Sot. But, yes, I did want to test my physical ability, and confront my fears. If it is hard to stomach failure, living without having tried burns deeper.

But to pass the time I also sang a few songs. Up Around the Bend, by Credence Clearwater Revival was my favorite. I didn't know all the lyrics. So I repeated the first verse, hummed a second, and paddled on.

At four pm. I glided by a houseboat to starboard. Each time I passed one, I wondered if I should stop and chat. This time a young woman was hanging out her laundry. Then she went into an open room to rock her baby in a hammock. We greeted each other with smiles and I continued past the house. In an adjacent room I saw a half dozen large fish basket traps. Had I only thought to buy a camera in Chiang Mai, I thought, this would make an excellent photo.

Soon afterwards I met a couple in their longboat paying out their net. I asked them, How many days to the dam? Five, the man replied. And how many hours to the next village, Ban Ko? The woman repeated my question to her husband. He said, One. It was just past four pm. Luck was with me. I could make it to the village before dark.

Onward I pressed. Then a slight tailwind on starboard hit me. Hoist the main! the captain cried. I fumbled around at the mast step, tying down the tack, shifting the water bottles to clear the halyard. Soon the sail was up – and soon it was down. The wind died with barely a whisper. And I dipped my oar in the water once again.

Looking at my watch, I saw it was now past 5 pm. I was beat. But I kept on. I was quickly losing hope of arriving in Ban Ko before dark.

Up ahead was a house. If no one is there, I will make myself at home, I thought. In any case I will talk with the residents. Maybe I can moor to their floorboards.

A fishing boat sped towards me. When they were within talking range, the man said something to me. I replied, OK, but I had no clue as to what he said.

And as he sped off, I realized I had been slow on the uptake. This was the same couple I had just met. How did they get ahead of me? Was I daydreaming when they passed me by? I wondered.

The house I had set my sights on was across an open stretch of water. Psychologically, open stretches are the worst. With shores distant, it is difficult to discern forward progress. I looked at the wake of the bow for confirmation. Indeed, I was going forward, but slowly. To the right was an inlet where two houses were moored to towering, branchless tree trunks jutting from the brownish-green water.

Finally, I reached the house. One room had fish basket traps stacked high, just like the other house I had passed not long ago. And here, too, a woman was busy with household chores. Then she walked to one room to rock her child in a hammock. As Yogi Berra might have said, it was deja vu all over again.

I hadn't been going forward at all. Mistakenly I had doubled back! When hoisting the main, the boat turned 180 degrees and I had not noticed. At that point the cliffs were high, and the river narrow, so I could not see much sky. And it was late in the day, so the sun was not visible behind the cliffs.

Excuses, excuses! Plain and simple, I had gotten disoriented.

Woman rocks her child in hammock
As the woman rocked her baby, her husband arrived in his longboat. Perhaps he was a bit anxious about my being there. He refused to let me moor to his house. But he suggested the two houses I had seen in the inlet. One of them was vacant, the owner gone, he said. He motored ahead. And when I finally arrived he introduced me to my neighbor for the night.

Darkness was soon upon me, so I hurried to prepare for sleep. I laid out my sleeping bag and strung up my net. This house, like others on the reservoir, was constructed of teak planks and bamboo and was little more than a shack. The floor plan included one miniature room, an adjacent covered area, and another unsheltered deck. Behind the roofed area, trash was piling up. The outhouse was around the side. Fishing nets hung from the rafters. A bucket sat on the bamboo deck.

But no sooner had I finished hanging the mosquito net than I realized this house had a roach problem. These were the big, black ones, already scurrying on my sleeping bag. And there was no way of keeping them out, since they could crawl in from between the floorboards.

I did not want to sleep on this houseboat. The only other option was the kayak, so I prepared it for the night.

Neighbor looks for snakes
On the porch I sat and munched away on muesli. My neighbor silently paddled over to chat with me. He perched himself on the bow of his boat, inches above the water's surface, and rolled himself a long cigarette. He had a tremendously powerful hand-held light, hooked up to a massive 12 volt battery, with which he could easily illuminate the mountainside 50 meters away. He shone it beneath the house. Then he switched it off and then repeated this action.

I poured out some muesli for him. He remained squatted, with the muesli in his cupped hand, while I thought of things to say to him. Where are you from? Tak. And where do you sell your fish? Doi Tao. What about drinking water? Silly question. He looked around at all the water. Drinking water, obviously. He then looked at the muesli in his hand. After a long silence he said, I can't eat this. He put it back on my plate. Few Thais have eaten muesli.

When he shone the light beneath the house again, I had to ask him. What are you looking for? His reply was short: snakes. Oh, really! Poisonous ones? I asked. It depends what kind they are, he replied. He excused himself and in the stillness of the night returned home.

Afterwards, as I drifted off to sleep, I thought, How should I interpret his snake hunting? Was he being protective of me? Or, was he trying to instill in me the heebie-jeebies? I figured it was the former, but I would never be sure.

During the night, no snakes visited me. I slept in the kayak, waking every few hours, checking the water level along the side of the floor. It was leaking to starboard, where the hole was. I sponged it out a few times in the night. At least I stayed dry.

Day 5 - 2 December (5.5 hours) Ban Ko / Camped at Cow Corral

It took me two and a half hours to reach Ban Ko. It was 9:30 am. as I docked at the first houseboat. Workers were repairing the roof. They stopped to watch my arrival. An old lady greeted me as I docked.

Pai nai?

To the dam!

She indicated the passage to the west, towards the next stretch of shoestring. Then, without my inquiring, she told me that restaurants were located around the bend to the east. So I paddled that direction and stopped at the first one. I placed my order of phak phat luam, fried mixed vegetables, and sat down to write.

A houseboat docked next to this one to let its anglers disembark. I wondered if this restaurant would try to cheat me as in Doi Tao. It is a never-ending story. Pay the farang price. Already the owner had informed me I wouldn't be getting plain water with my meal, a courtesy in almost all other restaurants in this country.

The sun burned off the haze. My body ached a bit, but not nearly like I had imagined after eight and a half hours of paddling yesterday. Frankly, I didn't understand how I could paddle for so long. Four more days and I would be at the dam.

I finished my breakfast, paid the bill, and paddled back westward around the bend and dragged my boat on shore. I walked up the small hill to what looked like a park office, offering information on houseboat rides.

Two men were repairing a weed-whacker. I chatted with them and one offered to take me on his motorcycle into town, eight kilometers away. This offer turned out to be genuine, no farang price; in fact, no price at all. And soon we were skirting potholes as we wound our way towards Ban Ko proper. I was in search of fruit.

It was a bountiful trip. The first store we stopped at had apples and pomelo. The next had more apples, pineapples, and pears. I bought plenty, but wondered how long the fruit would last in the heat. We returned to the dock where my driver dropped me off and I ambled to another houseboat for lunch and a mid-day rest.

I ordered five lunches – one for now and four to go. My appetite was growing for something other than what I had in stock. The owner let me use his phone to call a friend. My phone, with the service provider TRUE, did not work here. I was anxious to depart, but decided to rest a bit to avoid the mid-day sun and read The Word, by Irving Wallace.

A group of local policemen came to eat lunch. One took an interest in me as I prepared to leave. He checked out my boat and said, No engine! I rolled up my sleeve and showed him my delts.

Then I reached for my soap in a pocket of my backpack and took the dish from the plastic bag. Suddenly, the policeman said, Oh, what happened? I looked at my finger and saw it was bathed in crimson. I had cut myself on my razor in the bag with the soap. But once would not be enough.

The cut, small but deep, delayed my departure 20 minutes. It finally stopped bleeding and I dressed the wound. A band-aid alone does not work in a wet environment. Duct tape is indispensable.

I would not have cut myself had the policeman not been there, I thought. I would have reached for the soap in a different manner. I would not have been distracted.

But can we really parse events of our lives so finely? If I had reached for the soap in a different manner, maybe I would have cut myself more severely. We never know what would have happened along the road not traveled.

At 2:30 pm. I said good-bye to the policemen. They had invited me to eat with them, but I had already finished my lunch. The generosity of many outweighs the connivings of some.

From Ban Ko the shoestring of water runs roughly east-west. It took two hours to complete this stretch and enter the narrows running south. I sprinted part of this distance after starting out slow.

As I rounded the bend I hoisted the main, but the wind died a moment later. When will I get to sail? I wondered. Next time I will journey south to north, from Bhumidol dam to Doi Tao. This will assure me of a tailwind. And, I will have my back to the sun.

It was time to search for a camp site. Just past the bend heading south the reservoir opens up wider. To starboard I could see a few houses, and that, I assumed meant the possibility of finding suitable land for the night.

But then I saw a closer possibility. Abeam cows were corralled. I headed there, thinking, Is this the best option? Cows stink and attract lots of flies. But once on shore, all was fine. In fact, it turned out to be one of the best camping spots I found. No stench. And the flies were a seldom breed. They seemed to be ground flies, walking on the sand. How odd!

This time, from within my mosquito net, I had a beautiful view of the rising moon accompanied by the gas giant Jupiter. Ball lightning flashed to the east, but above me were stars galore. I had eaten one of my packed meals for dinner and now, with the day behind me, could relax completely.

Day 6 – 3 December (7 hours) to Kaeng Soi temple

Another day, another story. This is one payoff of being on the road. It opens up the doors for stories that give you the impression you are living a novel. Maybe not one penned by Murakami, but written by a non-human, supernatural force.

I headed down the narrows. Along the way I passed a mountain on the right that looked like a stetson. At that juncture, where the river veers to port, a strong counter-current slowed me down on the inside lane. I paddled furiously, but could not make much headway. So I gave up and headed to the outside of the curve. There I had a slight tailwind; that would surely soon fade. But now I had the current.

Just before ten am. I found a spot in the shade of a cliff to port. I ate breakfast there for 45 minutes. One fisherman passed me. He was piloting his boat, right hand on the throttle, while lying down, kicking back, relaxing. When he spotted me, he rose abruptly and gave me thumbs up. A kindred spirit, I thought. An Aussteiger among Aussteiger.

A couple days ago I noticed a pain beneath the toes on my left foot.  Beneath the little one the skin was split. Also, red blotches appeared beneath the other toes. This seemed not to be the athlete's foot I knew from my locker room days. Nevertheless, I applied anti-fungal cream to it. Then yesterday, departing from Ban Ko, I noticed that it was worse. The cream had not helped. But I did not worry much about it. After all, how serious could it be?

At 1:20 pm. I rounded a bend. In the distance to starboard was a temple perched at the base of a hill. It took a good while before I thought, Maybe I should rest there. Several buildings comprising the complex dotted the landscape. Many had spires and looked as if occasioned by a fairy tale. An island was crowned with a golden stupa. From my boat I could see a reclining Buddha statue. The scene was almost Disneyesque.

On the water beyond the temple I could just recognize a houseboat headed my way. Who would arrive at the temple first? I wondered. I was much, much closer. I made a bet with myself, that at my current pace I would arrive much sooner.

I lost. Things are much more distant than they seem. It took me about 40 minutes to reach the temple, just moments after the houseboat docked. I collected my empty water bottles and the pineapple, then made my way up the sandy slope of the hill to the zig-zag staircase. The passengers from the houseboat ambled up the steps and paid their respects at a shrine.

Approaching Kaeng Soi temple
Inside, I saw no monks. I walked past the main temple structure and found a water source to fill my bottles. At a basin I washed the sand from my feet. Then I took a look at my toes. In a word, my condition was horrible! Flaming, violent red patches on both feet. It didn't hurt or itch much, but the sight alone convinced me I had a problem.

I walked on, looking for a place to sit and rest. I could hear cowbells pealing from the hillside. The path led north to the reclining Buddha I had seen from the boat. But just before that statue was a wooden structure. I stopped there to rest.

It was a sculpture workshop. In front of it was a cement pedestal, about three feet high, on top of which was a pair of crossed legs. On the ground was a torso in two pieces. The arms lay behind the pedestal. And as I sat on the porch, cutting my pineapple, the hollow head of this Buddha, sliced off at the forehead, faced me, eyes serenely shut. I could peer into this Buddha's head and spy the result of devoted meditation: nothingness.

While it was good to rest and savor the sweetness of the pineapple, I fretted about my feet. Just now they began to hurt. It would take two more days to reach the dam. Probably the hotel there would have medication. But could I wait so long?

Oddly, it took a long time for the thought to occur to me: Maybe this temple has medication. Why don't I ask here? This new situation revealed to me a glaring blind spot. It was inexplicable to me that I had had to convince myself to take a break here; that I did not realize earlier I had a problem with my feet; that I considered asking for help at the dam before I thought to seek aid at the temple.

I walked back to the main structure and filled my water bottle again. A man in civvies came towards me. I asked him if he had any medication. For what? he asked. I showed him my feet. Ah, naam kat thao, literally „water bites feet.“ OK, he said, and wandered off. I seated myself on some steps and waited.

Then a monk, the only one I had thus far seen, approached me. He was in his early 20s, garbed in orange. I explained to him my problem. He proceeded to ask me a few questions: Where are you from? Is this your first time here? Where do you live?

He disappeared for a moment and returned with a plastic medical case. He reached inside and handed me a bottle of rubbing alcohol. Then he gave me one of iodine tincture. Left inside the box were only a few bandages. Unfortunately, there was nothing I could use.

I sat on the steps, eyeing the bottle of alcohol, wondering what my next move would be. It is amazing to think that an adventurer can be waylaid by the simplest of ailments. Imagine John Glenn radioing ground control. Eagle to Houston. I cannot land. I repeat, I cannot land. Water is biting my feet!

A moment later, the civvy clad man presented me with a small white box. I turned it over in my hand, looking for English writing. On the back side in red printing I read the words: Anti-fungal. Anti-inflammatory. I opened the box, and removed the tube.

Wow! This was exactly what I needed: 15 grams of cure. Liberally I bathed my feet in the soothing white cream. I turned to the monk who was still watching me, overlooking this hapless adventurer. I asked him if I could spend one night. Yes, he replied and pointed to a tiled pavilion where I could sleep. Bathrooms were down the hill, to the right.

I sat on the steps, relieved that I had found assistance. This was truly a stroke of luck. This temple is not marked on my map. It just appeared, like a vision, in the mid-day heat. I held the tube in my hand and looked at it again. Anti-fungal. Anti-inflammatory. Had I gone to a hospital I could not have gotten better treatment. But of course, no one goes to the hospital for athlete's foot.

Then I turned the tube over in my hand and saw for the first time the big, red lettering I had thus far overlooked: I read it: TIMI. I could hardly believe my eyes. This medication had my name on it! Was the universe – or the Buddha himself – talking to me?

Again, I was left to interpret this situation. I am an atheist. I do not believe in Zeus or Hephaestus, about whom my 7th grade report earned me a D, or any other gods or goddesses. The evidence for such is dearly lacking, not to say non-existent.

But sometimes events occur in our lives that make us wonder, Is this merely a coincidence? The strangeness of events may lead us to conclude that a cosmic order is in control, that an omnipotent hand is playing chess and we are the pawns; that an all-seeing Murakami is narrating our lives.

Day 7 – 4 December (0 hours) rest at Kaeng Soi temple

Another commercial houseboat docked an hour ago. The men passengers, donning live vests, jumped from the railing into the water. One did a flip, another a cannonball. Others swam to the nearby island, home to a shrine. My boat was adjacent to theirs, but the passengers took scant notice as I watched from the temple entrance on high.

This morning when I saw the monk I walked towards him. I asked him if I could spend another night at the temple. Yes, he said. He responded with the serenity of the Buddha himself. At his young age he seemed to possess more self-confidence than me. This temple was truly remarkable, geographically speaking, with its remoteness and small nearby islands. But its otherworldliness was minted when a disciple of Buddha handed me sustenance with my name on it. Whether it would comfort or confuse, this story was surely one to ponder for a lifetime.

Last night as I read The Word in the pavilion, the young monk came to talk with me. My Thai ability is still in the beginner stages. Though I can communicate many things, I have a devilish time with aural comprehension. He asked me, what is your book about? Christianity, I replied. But he wanted to know more, so I launched into the details. A man, 38, is rich, works in advertising, but does not like his job....But then the monk cut me off. OK, tell me what you think about Thai culture, he implored.

I told him about my problem. I ask too many questions, in particular, Why? In so doing I make other people feel uncomfortable, since often they cannot answer my questions. This makes them feel bad and they lose face. The concept of face is very important in Thailand.

Another monk in civvies joined us in the pavilion. He had been living here 20 years. He told me that last year three Westerners arrived by boat like me and spent the night. That was all I could get out of him, without either one of us losing face. He soon left the pavilion and I continued reading.

This afternoon I put my sewing skills to the test. In a piece of cloth I had bought in Chiang Mai, I stitched hems into which I would slide bamboo sticks. This would be my sun awning, which I would rig on the shrouds and backstays.

I spent the afternoon reading The Word. I lay on the floor in the pavilion, relaxing, enjoying the time off. The coolness of the ceramic tiles counteracted the mid-day torridity. The monk was busy sweeping leaves, when he stopped and came to tell me something. I did not understand, so he repeated himself. The third time I grasped what he was saying: Don't lie with your feet pointing towards the Buddha statue. Idiot me, I had made this mistake before, and I would make it again tomorrow. Another blind spot.

A strong southerly wind rushed through the narrows of the reservoir. It whipped the branches of the trees gracing the temple grounds. Tomorrow morning I would be heading south. If this keeps up, I thought, I will be in trouble. I won't be able to paddle through it.

I took a shower. In one stall were the monk's toiletries placed neatly in a plastic bowl in the corner. Since my soap was down on the boat, I decided to avail myself of his. Ouch! In reaching for the bar I cut myself on his razor.

There is an old saying: experience is that which teaches us we have made a mistake for the second time. This kayaking trip was offering much of this brand of involvement, and I tallied another blind spot.

The monk spelled his name for me: B-E-S-T. Mr. Best, he said. He had been at this temple for one year. In the darkness of the engulfing night, we stood together near the entrance and watched the houseboat pull away from the shore. One woman passenger told me it took seven hours from the dam to here. And another eight hours to Doi Tao. She told me she would meet me at the dam in two days when the tugboat would pull them home.

Mr. Best asked me why I didn't travel by houseboat. I told him I didn't like the music, the loud noise, the party atmosphere. He replied, all you have to do is maintain tranquility within, and he slipped into a standing meditation position. It is all about how you perceive the world. Some call it a question of mind over matter: if you don't mind, it doesn't matter. Mr. Best smiled at me as the houseboat faded into the night.

Day 8 – 5 December (9.5 hours) From Kaeng Soi temple to Bo Lom temple

Did I overdo it today? Nine and a half hours! I didn't understand how I could paddle so long. Mr. Best thought it would take me two and a half days to arrive at the dam. But I will make it easily tomorrow, I thought.

The monk at this temple, Bo Lom, is in his mid 40s. He had spent many years working for a construction company in Middle East and spoke English with an Indian lilt. I imagined he had worked with laborers from the subcontinent. My home is your home, he said to me. Only the head wobble was missing.

As I ate dinner he rang the gong, just a couple meters away. The metallic peal pierced my being. But since he made me the fried eggs, I could endure it, I told myself, as I cut away the yolk.

This temple is located at the eastern entrance to the east-west passage leading to the southern reservoir. As I approached, from a couple kilometers away I could see something sparkling in the sunshine. Curiously, it looked like a road sign with an arrow pointing to the right. And, somehow I almost believed this. Again, I did not know what I was looking at. When I got closer I could confirm that it was not a road sign directing boat traffic. It was a golden decoration hanging from a statue of a giant seated Buddha.

I arrived here at five pm. A boat I had seen docked here had brought a Thai family from Tak to visit the temple. They chatted with me and took photos. Welcome to Thailand! one woman wished me. The monk saw them off and then invited me to join him at the temple. I sheltered my boat in a slot in a bundle of bamboo to shield it from the wind, gathered my bags for the night, and climbed the hillside stairs.

Back at Kaeng Soi temple, Mr. Best had taken a pen and placed a dot at our location on my map. It was just a couple kilometers north of the T-junction that had worried me before I set out on this journey.

If you turn left at that junction, you head towards the dam. But if you mistakenly turn right, you head up a tributary to the northwest. It would take at least three days to the next town, Ban Mae Tuen Noi. This error in judgment would not have been life threatening, since I had enough food with me to last several days. But it would have revealed another gaping blind spot.

The T-junction was unmistakable. This morning at eight am. as I eased eastward around the bend, I wondered how I could have thought that it was dangerous. I had gotten a very early start, wanting to make it to the dam in two days. In the darkness of the morn I penned Mr. Best a note, thanking him for his hospitality. He had given me so much. He had told me he had been practicing metta, the Buddhist concept of loving kindness.

The stretch of shoestring I put behind me on this day is an arch bending northward, running west-east. It is narrow, with some cliffs along the southern edge. True to form, the early morn was the most beautiful time of day. I looked up the narrows and where the walls of the northern and southern cliffs converged I saw the sun filtering through the mist still rising from the water. The coolness of dawn was refreshing. And then, a tailwind!

Sailing eastward after the T-junction
For the next ninety minutes I sailed! The wind was not really strong, but at least it filled the main. The south bank offered shade, so I hugged that side, sometimes jibing to catch the wind. This stretch has water plants growing thick in places, but it was easy enough to skirt around these patches. I held the halyard in my toes and continued to paddle.

But then the narrows broadened out, turned a bit southward, and the wind died. The wide openness of the water again battered me psychologically. No spits of land to serve as carrots.

 Usually, as soon as you round one spit, another one grabs your focus and off you go. You can play the game with yourself, Guess how many minutes until you reach that next spit! And your answer will usually be 15 or 20 minutes. But in the wider, open water, it is just one long hot stretch of paddling. And reaching the other end can take hours. Traversing these stretches takes mental discipline.

On this open body of water I sprinted for short intervals. I felt like Jerry Lewis in scene from an old-time film. Lewis enters a huge hall and must traverse the long distance diagonally to exit. He starts off slowly, but then with each ensuing step, he becomes more and more anxious, afraid of the impending size of the cavernous hall and his inner demons. So he begins to walk ever more quickly, his steps becoming strides, and soon he is sprinting, high-kneed in his short-legged black trousers and white socks!

Because I wanted desperately to put this stretch of water behind me, I didn't stop for lunch until I had done so. Though hungry, I paddled on. Twenty minutes into the stretch I looked behind me to see how far I had come. It appeared as if I had gone nowhere!

Off in the distance ahead of me I saw a commercial houseboat approaching. It was very small. Though I had hoisted my awning, the sun burned from a low angle to starboard and helped little. I laid wet rags across my bare legs to prevent sunburn, and I stayed in the shade of the southern bank as long as I could, before abandoning it to cut to the exit.

Sing songs. Exorcise demons. Ponder blind spots. I got time. It took me another hour to finish this section as the houseboat passed me silently to port.

Of course, I also had time enough to count paddle strokes. My calculations were not scientific, but I tallied about 45 strokes per minute. At that rate, an eight hour day yields over 20,000 strokes.

I found some rocks to tie myself to on the right bank, and chowed down on tuna, muesli and peanuts. My foot fungus, I reckoned, was a result of the fact that my feet were constantly wet. The clever idea I had this morning of wrapping my feet in plastic bags was, like the bags themselves, riddled with holes. I abandoned the bags shortly after departing from the temple. And now, with lunch finished, I slathered on more of the cream that the Buddha had ordained.

I occupied my mind by comparing my speed with that of the houseboats. That is why I made that bet with myself heading to temple Kaeng Soi, as to who would reach the goal first. Now, armed with the information as to how long the houseboats needed to travel from the dam to the temple, I calculated: if it took me six hours to arrive at the dam tomorrow, that would mean the houseboats travel about twice as fast as me. They go slow. I go very slow.

At Bo Lom temple I laid inside the umbrella-like mosquito net the monk has provided me. The foot of my sleeping bag pointed toward icons. Bad, bad, bad! The monk did not hesitate to point out my blind spot.

Later, at nine pm., I crawled from beneath the net to join him down at the dock. He had told me he liked to star-gaze. I asked him if he knew the names of the stars. That one, he said, pointing with his flashlight to Jupiter, is Pluto. This monk, too, had his blind spots.

He shone his light on the fish near the dock. He seemed to be an entrepreneur. He had plans to build a fishery, as a food source. Whereas Mr. Best was a vegetarian, this monk was an omnivore. Topside he wanted to build a stupa, at at cost of a million baht, or $30,000.

Day 9 – 6 December (6 hours) Temple Bo Lom to Bhumidol Dam / Camped at Sam Ngao

To the west of the temple grounds was a cave. After turning on the generator, the monk escorted me to the entrance where we found a statue of a man meditating.

Two or three thousand years ago the guru meditated in this cave, he said. Inside the initial cavern were hundreds of bats hanging from the ceiling. Strategically placed floodlights illuminated stalagmites and stalactites. It looked impressive. We walked further into the cave. On the left was a large boulder.

Here is where the guru sat, he said, as he shone his light on the rock.

Yeah, right. Two or three thousand years ago. I may have blind spots, but this monk's story was too far-fetched. The cave is relatively large. The monk said that oxygen was low inside, and indeed, I was out of breath. When we exited, the monk told me of his plans.

I want to build stupa topside, very big. Tourists see, coming, visit cave, taking photo and....“ His voice faded out. I inferred that he thought that they would make donations and he would profit from them. He wants to install new lights in the cave, and solar panels to power the temple.

After a breakfast of muesli and tea, I packed up my gear. The monk tossed into my bag a couple boxes of cookies. One was called Overload, a chocolate cracker with chocolate filling. I had eaten one last night. I am almost a fanatic about my diet. But these cookies broke me. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, when it is within arms reach, I can resist anything but temptation.

Down at the dock I tried to extricate the boat from the slip. I squatted on the bamboo and eased my boat backward. But it could not exit, because it collided with plants blocking it.

Sit in it, the monk said.

I did as he suggested, but could not paddle because the bamboo was surrounding the boat like a glove. I wondered, Why do I listen to him? Why don't I decide for myself what to do?

This is a recurring theme for me, especially when I travel. With others telling me what to do, I don't have the conviction to forge ahead with my own ideas. Also, I think the locals may know better than I do, and I do not want to insult them. But they don't always know better, as I would find out tomorrow.

The monk pushed, extricating the boat from the dock and I was on my way. The passage to the big lake-like reservoir is short. I headed to the southern bank of the passage which offered some shade, and soon rounded the bend. Since I would be heading south-southeast today, I would have little shade. I set up my awning and paddled along the eastern shore.

Just south of the bend, several sandy beaches were exposed, making good locations for a camp site. This was unusual. The shore of the reservoir was nearly uniformly steep, impossible to tow the kayak up for the night.

But the temple was really welcoming. No need to camp when two fried eggs and a pack of Overload cookies are waiting for you Up around the bend. Fogerty didn't mention that in his lyrics.

Heading in this direction it was impossible to avoid the sun. Moreover, it is a long haul with little diversion. But one incident puzzled me.

A couple hours south of the bend I saw a fisherman in his longboat. He was about 100 meters distant, heading eastward. But suddenly he changed course, and beelined toward me. This was odd. What did he want? Was he intrigued by my rigging? He stopped about 10 meters from my boat and let the engine idle. On the bow perched a large colorful rooster.

Pai baan. This is the simplest of phrases in Thai but somehow I did not understand it. More so than western languages, Thai is context based. Literally, this means „go home,“ with an implied subject. The fisherman was returning home.

Pai baan, he repeated.

Mai kaojai, I told him. I didn't understand and paddled onward.

He sped off towards the east. I watched him grow smaller with time, and then it hit me: He was inviting me to his house. The implied subject seemed to be We, not I. But this seemed really odd to me. The opposite shore was a long, long ways off. It would take me at least an hour to arrive there. It was also odd that he did not try harder to make himself understood. After all, if he wanted to invite me, he could have tried something other than two words. He could have pointed in the distance and maybe I would have understood him.

At the same time, I did not show any interest in what this man had to say. Frankly, I was a bit on edge as to the motives of this man. I did not know what to make of his sudden appearance. It was definitely out of the ordinary. And, I was set on making it to the dam.

As usual, I had a headwind. Not a strong one, but I could not use the sail. About half way south on this stretch the reservoir narrows, where a large peninsula juts eastward. This spit of land was my first goal. I marked my progress past it on a rock on the western shore. It seemed like I was treading water, making no headway. But I persisted, and eventually the boulder slipped astern. I then chose another marker, and in this manner met each immediate goal and eased my mind. If I just keep this up, I will inevitably reach the dam, I thought.

Once past this narrowing, I entered into the penultimate stretch. On the horizon to the east I could just barely see the islands that I had visited a couple months earlier. Houseboats find shelter to lee of them and partiers sing their songs until midnight.

It was long in coming, but at one pm. I reached the island at the mouth of the channel leading to the dam.  The sun was now too far to the west for my awning to be of much use. But if I set course a few more degrees southward, the sun would slip behind the awning and I could paddle in the shade. So that is what I did, heading towards the island.

Life is a trade-off. A little of this for a bit of that. I chose the shade for a longer distance to travel.

But this was a mistake. I should have hugged the eastern shore. From the island to the channel's entrance is not very far, maybe less than 100 meters. But now that I was at the island, a strong headwind funneled down the channel from the dam.

It was very difficult to traverse this stretch. I sprinted, persisted, and sprinted some more. Imagining Jerry Lewis running high-legged helped put a smile on my face. But my shoulders were beginning to ache, and my resolve was waning. As short as it was, this distance was the toughest of my journey, requiring the expenditure of Herculean reserve.

Once I had entered the channel, I could see the dam, partially hidden by the spits of land along the southern shore. I was now on the home stretch. Because I had been here a few months previously, I knew that it would be about one more hour until I arrived. Only one more hour – if the headwind died.

And it did. About 20 minutes later. Again, I went about measuring my progress, this time by the houseboats moored along the northern shore. First, two boats. Further on, a cluster of six.

I could now see the entire dam. On the southern shore I could read „Bhumidol“ in large white lettering. When it was built, in 1965, this dam was Thailand's largest. According to a commemorative plaque, it was one of the world's ten largest. Maybe that was true then, but not any more.

Now, just meters from the dock, the dam loomed large before me. But I could not untie my awning. My nylon string was unravelling, and I was pulling out individual strands from the knot. What was worse was that a houseboat wanted to dock and was honking at me. A woman on shore yelled to me. „Mister, mister!“ I paddled out of the way.

A minute later I had the awning down. I eased up to the wooden pavilion and docked.

Docked at Bhumidol dam
Just then a man came to greet me. He had the Austeiger look: unkempt moustache, ponytail, tattoos. I told him of my eight day journey from Hot. He offered to help me bring my kayak and gear in his pickup to the other side of this dam and a second, smaller one, about five kilometers away. Ah, beautiful! A stroke of luck. This is part of the beauty of adventure travelling. The serendipity of events, the people you meet who offer assistance! How sweet!

I unloaded my gear and drank some water. At the dock a woman slept on a bench in the shade. Entering and exiting the water with the boat can be difficult. One needs to find an access road that leads to the surface of the water. Here, at the dock I had a road, but the road was a few meters above the dock. I looked around and saw that to the left the road continued sloping down to the water. So I paddled my boat around a couple houseboats and arrived at the ramp, where I solicited a man's help. We then carried the boat a few meters up to the location of my gear.

I looked around for the man who offered to drive me below the dam. He was nowhere to be found. Like a mirage in the desert, he had vanished. Ah, the surprises of adventure travel! What to do?

To the kayak's stern I tied my handcart. Since I planned on entering the river downstream beyond the dam, I did not want to pack up the boat only to unpack it shortly afterwards. Instead, I hoped to tow the boat with the gear loaded astern, over the wheels of the handcart. I had tested this method back in Mae Sot. It seemed to work well with an empty boat. Now, with all my gear loaded on it, could I make it?

No, no, no! What I was thinking? The boat was far too heavy to tow. I traversed less than one kilometer in about 45 minutes. I tried holding the bow on my head and pushing the stern with the handcart along the road. This worked far better than pulling it, but still it was impossible to cover the distance. It was already nearly five pm.

When I was about ready to give up and hitch a ride, a man stopped. He opened the tailgate of his pickup truck and leaned the bow of the boat on it.

Get in and hold it down, he said.

I was skeptical. I did not want to proceed like this. The handcart was not strong enough to withstand the speed of the truck. The torque produced while turning would surely break off a plastic wheel bracket. Yet, I climbed in and held the bow. Again, the situation placed its weighty thumb on the scale.

Drive slow, I cautioned.

The next few minutes were punctuated by me crying out, Cha cha! Slow! But the driver didn't heed my commands. He drove on, far too fast to be safe. We passed the hotel and a police check-point. We turned down a dirt road, went over patches of rock. After fifteen minutes we arrived at a beautiful location on the bank of the river. The handcart had survived!

Now I was relieved. Not only about the handcart, but for the accomplishment of the journey. When I had reached the dock at the dam, I had not sensed as much relief as I thought I would. Maybe I knew that I was not finished, that the difficult part stood in front of me: portaging the boat.

But now on the river bank, downstream from the two dams, I could relax. Nearby was a concrete shelter, like a gazebo, with lights. The air was fresh. The water ran swiftly. From here to Tak I would have current, making the going a cinch. I prepared for the night beneath a bridge. Nearby a woman collected stones with her sister and children. I excused myself and bathed in the current.

Where you from?

She spoke English well. The stones they were collecting were for a children's game. She worked for a foreign engineering firm in Bangkok. We chatted amicably a few minutes. Then she turned her attention to what seemed to be the reason she had approached me.

You will spend the night here?


Maybe the river will rise.

Oh, really?

They open the doors of the dam at midnight.

Oh, really?

I don't know the schedule. But I think from midnight until five am.

I cut to the chase: How high does the river rise?

She consulted with her sister. About two meters. I looked at my camp site. My gear was about one foot above the water. It was time to relocate.

She asked a couple youngsters to help move the boat to higher ground. They had been playfully jumping off the bridge I was camped under, catching themselves downstream on a ladder of inner tubes. We relocated my gear. I lashed my boat to the bridge pylon, then I walked into town.

It was dark. I found a restaurant easily and ordered a couple bowls of noodle soup. The waiter, Guide was his name, chatted with me. He said they opened the floodgates of the dam every night, from midnight to five, just like the woman had told me. And how high does the water rise? About two meters, he confirmed with an older customer.

Guide drove me back to the river on his motorcycle. We ate a snack of roti together before he motored home. The swift current looked inviting. I placed all my gear on the bow and stern, bathed my toes in TIMI anti-fungal cream, and crawled beneath my mosquito net. Another day had come to an end. I was almost home.

Day 10 – 7 December ( 9 hours) Bhumidol Dam to Tak

In the morning I looked at the level of the river. I could still see the concrete bench I had sat on to bathe. The water had risen only half a foot. Why didn't the locals know how high the river would rise? Was this a blind spot of theirs?

Mist still hovered above the river as I set off this morning. The scene was gorgeous, the temperature refreshing. The river meandered, and as usual, I sought out the coolness of the shade, now on the eastern bank.

My foot fungus was not any better, but I would be off the river soon – unless I decided to continue on to Bangkok. To be honest, this thought actually crossed my mind. The impetus of the journey pulled me to the water, like the impetus of a sedentary life pulled others to the couch.

If the current was strong in the morning, by noon it had weakened considerably. And the river became shallow. I ran aground a few times. Running aground was not a major problem. I simply stepped out of the boat and walked it with the bowline, like a dog on a leash, to deeper water. Then I jumped back in.

But problems are always lurking. Running aground could have become a major problem if I had entered a pocket of shallow water from which I could not have exited without portaging the boat. Portaging sucks.

Today, with the current running strong, I took drifting breaks. I let the river propel me while I indulged in Overload cookies. The current usually swiveled the boat to float stern first downstream, which was surely the result of a complex algorithm involving weight distribution, hull speed, and possibly the Froude number. But I wasn't overly concerned about this; rather I was preoccupied with the chocolate on chocolate confection. 

I encountered two bridges this afternoon. The first one was barely high enough for the mast to pass under. But the second, less than an hour south of the first, was not. I had to step the mast. This I did by untying the two backstays and with the other shrouds still attached, swung the base of the mast astern. Having passed under this bridge, I stopped downstream to set the mast upright.

At four pm. I began to tire. One woman on the right bank was preparing dinner on a boat landing. I stopped to visit as I took down the awning. She was cutting up frogs. She held up one for me to see. It didn't look like a frog. She said, It is a baby frog. Then she reached into a bucket beside her and showed me a mature one. That frog, stretching nearly a foot, was easy to recognize. No blind spot there.

Her young son, about 7 years old, joined us. I gave him and his sister Overload cookies. The boy opened his and threw the plastic wrapper in the river.

Tak was about five kilometers further. I said good-bye and began to look for a sandbar for the night.

At this point the river laid bare many islands. I chose a beach on one, but then changed my mind, thinking I would like to have more evening sun. I paddled across the river and set up camp on a different shore. Though it was already 4:30 pm., the sun was still too strong for comfort, so I strung up my awning. I ate dinner and wrote in my journal. Then I prepared the boat for the night.

This plot of sand, like nearly all, was very low. The high point was maybe a half foot above the water. As I laid down to sleep, I noticed the water level was rising. I timed it, and soon determined that in a short while I would no longer be on dry land. I pulled the boat to the highest point, tied it off, and loaded all my gear on the bow and stern and hoped for the best.

Day 11 - 9 December (1 hour) Tak to Mae Sot

Hoping helped. Nothing bad happened due to the river rising. The cockpit of the boat even stayed dry, contrary to what happened a few nights ago. Why this was so, I will never know.

There was no land nearby, so I prepared this morning without leaving the boat, wanting to keep my feet dry. The water, though, was only half a foot deep. I guess the floodgates were opened again during the night. I should have thought of this possibility before setting up camp.

With the current strong, it took me less than an hour to reach Tak. At one point I could look far into the distance and see a bridge. Maybe this was the bridge that led to Mae Sot. I tried to clarify this with a man along the river but failed.

A short distance further downstream was a pedestrian bridge. Beyond that, about one kilometer away, was the bridge leading to Mae Sot.

Soon I would have to decide where to exit the river. The current was carrying me swiftly past the pedestrian bridge. On the left bank at the base of the bridge I could see an access road to the water. That would be an excellent place to exit the Ping, I thought. I had to make a decision quickly. If I continued to the main bridge and found no access road, I would be in trouble.

I was about 50 meters south of the pedestrian bridge when I finally decided to exit there. That meant paddling upstream as hard as I could. If I stopped paddling, the river would decide for me and I would drift downstream.

Directly against the current I paddled. I was afraid to try to cut across diagonally, thinking that I would drift too far south of the access road. I waited until I was about 50 meters north of it, then began heading to the eastern bank.

Many people were at the street market and I could hear the loudspeakers. One lone man watched my trials. Within a few meters of the bank, I let the boat drift backwards until I reached the road. Slippery mud greeted me. I tied off the boat and went scouting.

I asked a vendor, Can I exit the river at the next bridge?

He assured me I could. But I wasn't convinced. If we had a miscommunication or he were mistaken I would I would be stuck in the river; I would not be able to carry my gear up the bank. I walked around the market. A parade was in progress. Six prancing horses passed me. A man in a turtle costume cried out to me, Hello!

At that moment I decided my kayaking trip on the Ping river was finished. I walked back to the boat and started the long process of packing up my gear. Just then, two girls, about twelve years old, rode up on a bike. They watched me pack. Soon, more classmates joined them.

They were earnest in helping me. One girl bought me a can of ice coffee. Another washed out my rags in the river, slipping in the mud in the process, while yet another disassembled my mast base. Leaving my extra bottles of water on the shore, I loaded my gear onto the handcart. Following my entourage, I pulled it up the access road and on to the street. Then they found me a tuk-tuk to take me to the bus station.

But I was thinking, maybe I would like to go to the T-junction and hitch to Mae Sot. I was still not completely sure where I was, so I asked the driver where the junction was. He replied, Krai, with a mid-tone. Far away. So the school kids took souvenir photos and I drove off to the bus station.

Or rather the T-junction. Due to a miscommunication between me and the driver, we traveled krai. but no harm was done. We crossed the bridge and drove around the bend to the junction. The tuk-tuk departed as I stood in the shade of a small road sign.

Two minutes later I was sitting in the cab of an 18 wheeler. Normally, the driver delivered corn from Mae Sot to Phitsanulok. He was on a return trip with empty carriages. Only my gear bag was lying on the huge bed.

Yet I was not sure I had all my gear. Though I double-checked the access road to the river, as I rode the tuk-tuk I wondered, Did I pack the wooden base of the mast? I thought to tell the driver to return, but impetus forced me forward.

Having arrived in Mae Sot, I unpacked my gear. Indeed, I had left the wooden mast base on the shore beneath the pedestrian bridge.

The next days I waited anxiously for the school kids to send me the photos, so I would have their address and could ask them to go get the wooden base for me. But no photos ever came. So, four days later I hitched back to Tak.

I waited only 30 seconds for a ride out of Mae Sot. The driver who stopped told me he was a civil engineer. He made dams. He had built one in Laos. This seemed odd, because I had been thinking a long while about kayaking the Mekong and was wondering if there were dams along the stretch from Vientiane to the Cambodian border. And now, here was this man giving me the information. Yes, he said. He had built one on the Mekong, near the capital. Was this another message from Buddha, or merely a coincidence?

He dropped me off at the Saam-Yaet Mae Sot, the T-junction. From there I walked to the bridge over the Ping and checked out whether I could have exited the river at this point. On the right bank there was a road. It was rocky but manageable. On the left bank the access road was even better. If I should one day continue on this river to Bangkok, I now knew my options for launching the boat.

I walked along the river on an overgrown path. An hour later I reached the pedestrian bridge and looked for the mast base. I did not see it. My six bottles of water were gone. I looked again, and then I saw it. With only a thin edge of the wooden base facing me, I understood why I had overlooked it. But this was not a full explanation. I was left to wonder why I simply had not looked more carefully the first time.

Losing things, even small items, makes me feel like I am losing my mind. Like I am beginning to unravel. It also makes me feel wanting, as if a fragment of  is my being is AWOL. But now, with my wooden base in hand, I felt whole again. I had found the piece of my missing self.

Paradoxically, if I was now whole, I was still missing something. This journey had revealed many blind spots. Maybe that is the nature of travel. Or, maybe I was being too hard on myself. Yet, this self-knowledge left me disconcerted, and I wondered how to interpret it.

George Saunders, the American author, gives some advice: Don't be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen.

To be sure, I'm confused, and it is partly due to that state of being that leads to me ask so many questions. Still, answers are comforting. And I now had the answer to the question, What is it like to kayak from Hot to Tak?