Exclusive for Vagobond by Melissa Ruttanai Photos by Neil Friedman.
In mainland Southeast Asia, adrenaline junkies and nature lovers will discover full-throttle water sport adventures. Without mandatory deposit fees equivalent to mortgage down payments, visitors trek, snorkel, raft and kayak in pristine waters. For those seeking beaches, grottos, and limestone landscapes, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam have become prime destinations. In Southeast Asia, adventure begins where the tides meet the shore. Here are 6 Southeast Asia Water Adventures.
Kayaking in Southern Thailand’s Angthong National Marine Park
For Hollywood filmmakers, billionaires, and broke college students, the Gulf of Thailand remains a draw for many waterborne adventure seekers. Northwest of famous Koh Samui Island, Angthong National Marine Park is an archipelago of 42 limestone islands carved by tide and wind. While camping is allowed with a permit, many visitors arrange tours out of Koh Samui that include swimming island lagoons, trekking trough the mountain, and eating at a local village. During the day, explore small coves and sandy beaches. Snorkel with tropical fish and survey Koh Wua Talap, the largest island in the chain, or Koh Mae Koh that boasts a green-blue inland sea called, Talay Nai. Glide kayaks across the Koh Mae’s bay and relax to the delicate sound of your paddle dipping into gentle waters while high promontories loom like grey-green sea monsters.
Boating through Vietnam’s Halong Bay
With a UNESCO World Heritage seal of approval, Halong Bay sits on the northern ridge of a limestone chain that sweeps up from the Gulf of Thailand and Angthong National Marine Park. Here, the karsts cluster into a mystical array of gray stone, verdant brush, and boats with iconic colonial sails and rudders. Meaning “dragon descending”, Halong Bay includes 2000 islands and over 600 square miles of the Tonkin Gulf, offering visitors dozens of beaches, grottos, and caves to explore. With its high salinity, bathers can jump right from the ship into waters so buoyant there’s hardly any exertion necessary. Stretching across the water surface, visitors can drift all day among spiraling crags. Visit floating houses lashed together into small villages. Or tether broadside to local fisherman, selling giant prawns and squirming squid straight from their nets. After a day caving, pull into Cat Ba Island, a favorite retreat for Hanoians escaping the city.
Sailing through Daily Life on Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia
Six miles south of famous Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, Southeast Asia’s largest lake, Tonle Sap continues to play a vital role in the life of local Cambodians. Fed by the Mekong River during the wet season, Tonle Sap remains a major waterway for commerce and transportation. Every day, ferries carry commuters and cargo across the lake on their way to and from Battambong. For US$5, travelers can gaze through a window of life on the lake, witnessing how families live in boathouses, cooking, reading, and raising children in narrow canals. Children attend floating schools on large boats with open windows and basketball courts enclosed by high fences. Families visit floating hospitals, teetering gently in the wake. Women buy fresh fish and produce from vendors rowing along peacefully.
White Water Rafting in Luang Prabang, Laos
Laos’ religious and cultural capital, Luang Prabang is a town known for Buddhist temples, daily markets, and a laidback pace of life. At sunrise, monks and novices traverse the UNESCO World Heritage streets. At sunset, fishing boats shift back and forth in the wake of speedboats heading to China. On one side of the town, the Mekong River skims along, a wide boulevard of fertile silt and dependable currents. On the other, Nom Khan River sweeps in from the east, offering visitors white water rafting and kayaking for any skill level. From town, tours can be arranged with door to riverside transport included. On their second day in Luang Prabang, travelers could find themselves clad in helmet and life vest, digging hard into rushing currents. Guides lead rafters through crashing white waters and ominous rocks creating whirlpools. In the reeds, Lao children play in the shallows, making the peace sign as they splash each other. Along the river, mountains as diverse as the wildlife press up against the shoreline. Stilted houses perch on slopes growing tea. Birds cut across black rock cliffs. And women plod up and down terraced vegetable patches.
Tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos
In the 1970’s, backpackers looked around for a convenient stopover during trips between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, the capital. From this necessity, Vang Vieng burst onto the scene, offering accommodations, meals, and more recently, tubing. On the riverside, two companies rent out massive inner tubes and drop travelers off upstream for a day of lazing on the river, listening to birds, and losing all thought to mountain peaks. From these humble beginnings, the tubing trend has become the main activity in town. On the river, bars jut out from the tree line, pulsing with Bob Marley tunes and hawking cheap mixed drinks. Bars feature ziplines, mudslides, and tug-of-war pits to keep patrons docked at their shores. On the river, meet other travelers and become inspired by how many consecutive days they’ve tubed the river. Back in town, relax on triangular pillows, enjoy the mountain air, and recharge for another day on the river.
Swimming with Elephants in Pai, Thailand
Sitting on the highway route between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son, the little town of Pai is a major stop along the traveler’s path in northern Thailand. Here, artists absorb nature’s inspiration and Thais retreat from the bustle of metropolitan life. While there’s plenty to do on foot and motorbike, a popular activity in Pai is elephant trekking. Hotel staff can make tour reservations. In the morning, a guide escorts you to the elephant camps. The world grows quiet on the outskirts of Pai. Elephants eat bananas and throw grass into the air. The elephant trainer called a mahout helps trekkers mount the pachyderms and settle onto a thick blanket. No saddles here, riders spend the day bareback in the sun as the elephants walk through the forest. At the river, elephants suck water up their trunks, spray a cold drink into their mouths, and save just enough to splash up at their riders. Once the mahout gives a command, the elephants shake. The riders hold on tight only to be flicked like flees off the elephant’s back. Up into the air and down into the river, the riders splash, getting their cold drink too.