The Kok River or Mae Nam Kok emerges from the hills of Burma’s Shan State at Tha Ton before winding its way across Chiang Rai province to empty into the mighty Mekong just south of Chiang Saen town. A boat trip down the scenic stretch between Tha Ton and Chiang Rai city has, for a long time, been very popular among visitors to the region. It can either be done as a means of getting from A to B (well, Tha Ton to Chiang Rai), as a change from buses on winding mountain roads, or simply in its own right as a relaxing way to see some picturesque northern scenery.
You have three principal options: the daily public boat, a private charter or a package from a Chiang Rai or even Chiang Mai tour agent, which includes the boat trip, visit to the Ruam Mit elephant camp and then usually a trek with one or two nights stay in hilltribe villages. You can do the trip in either direction, but downstream from Tha Ton to Chiang Rai is the usual way, as travelling upstream against the often fast-flowing current can be slow and hard work.
From the Tha Ton boat pier, the daily scheduled departure is at 12:30. Services may occasionally be compromised in dry season when water levels get too low, or in rainy season when heavy rains may make the trip dangerous. Police and tourist police kiosks are located right next to the pier and they don’t want any accidents!
You can also buy a ticket to any of the downriver destinations but then you are going to have to work out how you do the onward journey. Most of the villages do not have accommodation and public road transport is limited — you may end up hiring a boat for the next stretch. Full fare details are in our Tha Ton transport section. Boats are reasonably comfortable. Longtails have a roof and life-jackets while Sarany in Tha Ton have a VIP boat available. There are some minor rapids — you may get splashed — and the sun reflects off the water in the low-lying boats so you may get sunburnt.
If you do want to make a day of it — and we recommend this — then you’ll have to get a few punters together and hire your own boat. Boats seat up to six foreign tourists and cost 2,200 baht for the trip to Chiang Rai. Round it up to 2,500 baht with a tip and the boatman ought to be happy to make any stops, plus waiting time, you require. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find a few like-minded travellers in Tha Ton during high season. Alternatively if you have a specific downriver destination in mind you can charter for a round trip. (Charter rates can also be found in our Tha Ton transport section.)
A package, which you can buy in most Tha Ton guesthouses or from Chiang Rai tour agents, will usually involve a boat trip to Ruam Mit, a large Karen village around two-thirds of the way from Tha Ton to Chiang Rai. There’s an elephant camp in the village and it’s also the starting point for treks up to Red Lahu and Akha villages with overnight facilities. This is fine if you’re arriving from upstream but the short hop from Chiang Rai to Ruam Mit misses out a lot of the better scenery.
From Tha Ton, the first section flows through flat farmland with fine views across to the mountains to the southeast and back towards Wat Tha Ton and the Burmese border. The first major village you reach — which is connected to Tha Ton by road — is the large Lahu villge of Phathai. During high season refreshments will be available and usually a couple of Lahu women sell knick-knacks on the riverside. After Phathai the river becomes more picturesque, with the wooded hills of Lam Nam Kok National Park coming down to the water on both banks. The scenery is mostly pretty, low, wooded hills; do not expect dramatic limestone gorges or Apocalypse Now-style jungle.
The stop before Ruam Mit, on the south bank has the national park headquarters and Phasoet hot springs but we’d only get out here if the boat is going to wait for you. (This is a bit in the middle of nowhere!) Ruam Mit itself is a larger town with plenty of eating options and a coffee shop and if you’re not interested in the elephants there’s still a hilltribe market to see. If you’re lucky you might see the ellies having a bathe in the river.
From here, the Kok continues down to Chiang Rai, passing some karst scenery with caves and hilltop pagodas as you get closer to town. Finally, after passing the bamboo salas of Chiang Rai Beach on your right, you’ve arrived. The total travel time for the public boat is four hours or so downstream, or five to six, depending upon current, upstream; for a charter with several stops count the whole day.
By Mark Ord.