Well worth doing
Flowing out of the hills of Burma’s Shan State at Tha Ton before winding its way across Chiang Rai Province to empty into the Mekong just south of Chiang Saen, a boat trip down a scenic stretch of the Kok River between Tha Ton and Chiang Rai has long been a highlight for travellers to this part of Thailand.
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. The latter usually includes the boat trip, visit to the Ruam Mit elephant camp and perhaps a trek with one or two-night stays in hill-tribe 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 the 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 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 (aside from Ruam Mit) do not have accommodation, and public road transport is limited so you may end up hiring a boat again for the next stretch. Full fare details are in our Tha Ton transport section.
Boats are reasonably comfortable and the long-tails all come with a roof and life-jackets. There are some minor rapids—you may get splashed—and the sun reflects off the water in the low-lying boats so you may well get sunburnt even if you do manage to stay dry.
If you do want to make a day of it—which we recommend—then you’ll have to get a few punters together and hire your own boat. Boats seat up to half a dozen foreigners and cost around 2,400 baht for the trip to Chiang Rai. Add on a couple of hundred baht tip and the boatman ought to be happy to make any stops, plus waiting time, you require. (Guesthouse and resorts can arrange this with slightly varying rates.) 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. Note also that when water levels are low boatmen may limit the number of passengers for weight reasons to four.
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 village of Phathai. During high season, refreshments will be available and there are usually a couple of Lahu women who sell handicrafts 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, but 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 large, well-frequented village with plenty of eating options and coffee shops and if you’re not interested in the elephants there’s still a hill-tribe market to see. If you’re lucky you might see the ellies having a bath 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 reaching the bamboo salas of Chiang Rai Beach, you’ve arrived. The total travel time for the public boat is four hours or so downstream and five to six, depending upon current, upstream. For a private charter including several stops then count the whole day.
Address: Tha Ton Public Boat Office, Rim Nam Kok, Moo 3, Tha Ton. T: (053) 053 727
Coordinates (for GPS): 99º21'45.53" E, 20º3'39.49" N
See position in Apple or Google Maps: Apple Maps | Google Maps
Admission: Public boat 400 baht per person. Around 2,400 baht for a whole boat
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.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.