The Mae Kok trip, Northern Thailand

What we say: 3.5 stars

A boat journey on the Kok River (Mae Kok) between Chiang Mai’s Tha Ton town and Chiang Rai city is one of the most scenic river journeys you can do in Northern Thailand. It’s also a generally reliable, reasonably priced and well organised trip yet a relatively under-used one. Here’s a rundown on this picturesque river journey.

The Kok River at Tha Ton

The Kok River at Tha Ton.

The boats depart daily and the journey can obviously be done in either direction but going downstream on what, in the rainy season particularly, can be a fast-flowing river makes a lot more sense to us and certainly takes a lot less time. Officially — though water levels at different times of year affect this considerably — Tha Ton to Chiang Rai takes around four hours and Chiang Rai to Tha Ton at least five.

Early morning departure form Tha Ton

Early morning departure from Tha Ton.

The journey can be done either as just an alternative means of getting from A to B and avoiding a lot of seriously windy mountain roads, or as a pleasant way to see some north Thai scenery in its own right.

If you are considering taking the boat trip then you have several options. The cheapest is to wait for the public boat’s scheduled departure, though they do tend to wait until they have a full complement of six passengers before leaving, rather than necessarily leaving at the designated time. (Times are written on a board at the respective boat piers.) This may be a short wait during busy periods, especially if it’s filling up with high season tourists, though it can be slow during low season. Public boats will then stop and drop off and pick up passengers at villages on the way. Cost is 350 baht per person.

Boats on the Mae Kok awaiting departure

Boats on the Mae Kok awaiting departure.

Alternatively, if you don’t want to wait, have a group of travelling companions or wish to pick and choose your own stops, then chartering a boat will costs you 2,000 baht.

Ban Ruam Mit, Karen village and a popular stop off

Ban Ruam Mit, Karen village and a popular stop off. Go on, spot the elephant.

Several riverside villages en route make stopping-off spots if you’re going private, and are where the boat may or may not stop if public; Ruam Mit, a Karen village popular for its elephant rides (at about two hours into the trip), a Lahu village shortly afterwards, then Ban Jakur, a mixed hill-tribe village and so on. You can also charter a boat for a day trip, stopping off at various villages and then returning to Tha Ton for some 3,500 baht round trip, or a return just to Ruam Market, for example, costing around 700 baht per person.

Just north of Tha Ton the Kok disappears into Burma

Just north of Tha Ton the Kok disappears into Burma.

As you’d expect, prices may vary so a good idea is to get down to the port/pier the day before, check out the available options and prices, make a deal with the boatman then head off in the morning. (Or if you’re feeling lazy, just ask a travel agent or guesthouse.) Telephone numbers for the Tha Ton pier are (053) 459 312 and (053) 373 143, while Chiang Rai is (053) 750 009. We confess we haven’t tried them but they do claim to speak English.

Bon voyage!

Last updated: 31st August, 2015

About the author:
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.
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