Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Surfing on bamboo

Surfing on bamboo

The rafting in Ranong takes on a supernatural glow when you consider there may be a spirit in the water

Published on December 15, 2007

In many countries, people worship their rivers. The people in Ranong are equally respectful of their waterways. From a dike at the village of Fai Thai the beautiful Khlong Naga - Naga Canal - snakes down through a green forest and coffee plantations.

Legend has it that the body of a pregnant woman called Naga was once dumped into this mystical river.

"Some say it happened more than a hundred years ago, others say 200," offers Sutham, one of the two boatmen on my bamboo raft. "But nobody is really counting because they're all so busy with their palm trees and coffee beans."

"The ghost of the poor woman kept wandering along the river," the other boatman chimes in. "She appeared in villagers' dreams. She wanted to inhabit the river.

"What the ghost demands, I suppose the villagers could not deny. So they built a small shrine she could live in. The waterway has been called the Naga Canal ever since."

The eerie tale is told as we set out on our expedition. Four rafts are loaded with enthusiasts.

For a while we meander with the flow, having fun and splashing one another. I make a sceptical inspection of my raft - bamboo held together flimsily. It looks a bit, well, unfaithful. The raftsmen assure me it's perfectly solid.

I keep my eyes open for rapids or rocks. Who will be quicker to jump - the raftsmen or me?

But it turns out that Naga Canal is not wild, like some rivers in the North.

The waterway starts in the hills of Kapoe district and flows north through the wildlife sanctuary of the same name, before abruptly swinging west and rolling on to the Andaman Sea. The growing tributary twists its way, slow and shallow, like a satin ribbon through the green oil palms and coffee plantations.

"The stream is famous for its clarity," says Sutham. True enough, we can see the riverbed. When we pull into shore there are big round pebbles that are soft on your feet, and flat rocks where you can sunbathe.

My travel mate jumps into the peaceful stream, making waves big enough to worry the dragonflies and small crickets. It brings back memories of childhood days, when swimming in rivers was what we all did to keep cool. Here, the soft and silky current feels like a blessing.

For an hour or so, we thread our way along the sun-dappled stream, pass clumps of familiar bamboo and strange trees. Occasionally we stop to greet the friendly coffee growers and their not-so-friendly dogs.

Time eases by just like the scenery. Sutham points out plants - wild fig, betel nut - he seems to know every single tree and animal on both sides of the canal.

"There's a tree boa sleeping on a fig branch we just passed under," he says. "The snake will probably jump in the water now that we've awakened it."

We look back anxiously at the rest of the rafts. Suddenly their occupants are dancing about and shouting at the top of their lungs as the boa scurries off their raft and into the water and away. We can't help bursting out in laughter.

We do a silent float. We do a water flight. Khem, a media consultant and now my rafting companion, doesn't care much about staying onboard, he drifts in the water like an orca. From her happy face, she could enjoy being tossed about in the current all the way to the Andaman Sea.

What comes next is a pool-like bend, filling up with sea of white cape lilies that line both banks. Many of us give up on the idea of staying dry, dive into the stream, and press our noses right up close to the flowers.

"They're unique," says a rafter. "You won't find these water lilies anywhere else around here - let alone outside Ranong province." He's probably right. The white flowers, each with six long and slanted petals, sit on long stems, making a dramatic wave as they catch the river breeze.

In late afternoon we approach the sandy bank. Our rafting expedition is about to end. Lunchboxes are unpacked beneath the clumps of bamboo. Everyone eats far more food than they have the right to, and learns more about this convoluted, mystical river.

It began with the body of a woman being dumped into this river God knows how many years ago, and ends with a rare family of white water lilies. Has the poor woman been born again in the pure loveliness of the water lily so she could inhabit the river?

Phoowadon Duangmee

The Nation

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