Stand up Paddling on the Mae Kok River by Scott Coates

by Scott Coates: story and photos courtesy of

It’s a real treat to get the opportunity to try a new activity in the areas we live and lead trips. It’s become less frequent over the last number of years however as we’ve done so many already! And on to the scene comes Stand up Paddling (SUP), just in time to quench our growing adventure thirst. Luckily you can rent and buy these boards in Thailand from Amara Watersports, making getting out and trying this neat activity quite easy and convenient.

Scott with board at the end of the journey.

SUP or Hoe he’e nalu as it’s known in Hawaiian, is a form of paddling in which you stand atop something akin to a large surfboard, but much longer and wider. An elongated paddle is then used to propel oneself along the surface, or as is the case in Hawaii where it was invented, to catch waves. Big wave surfing legends Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama reintroduced this ancient Hawaiian sport as something to do on days when their mega-waves weren’t rolling-in. It’s rapidly gaining popularity globally, not only with surfing crowds, but pretty much anyone who enjoys getting on the water. While balance is a bit tricky at the start, it’s pretty achievable to be cruising with a level of competence in about an hour. With its migration from Hawaii, more people are using it not for waves, but on just about any body of water: rivers, bays, harbors, narrow inlets, lakes – it can be enjoyed just about everywhere.

While partaking in a fellowship at the East-West Center in Honolulu, HI in 2011, I was fortunate enough to live less than 3km from Waikiki Beach and a friend taught me how to catch small waves on a SUP. I hit the water as much as possible and really enjoyed riding the surf and trying my darndest to stay up. It’s often I reflect here in SE Asia about paddling the surf and have looked forward to giving it a go again. Opportunity struck. An acquaintance mentioned his friend who is selling inflatable SUPs and put me in touch.

Craig from Amara Watersports is enthusiast about anything that happens on water and was intrigued by Smiling Albino’s Southeast Asia tours. He’d taken his inflatable SUPs on a few rivers in Thailand but wanted to know how they’d perform during the rainy season on faster-moving ones. He sent a SUP to Chiang Rai, the kingdom’s northernmost province, and it was put to the test.

Enjoying a leisurely break.

Always looking for fun and interesting ways to get around, the Mae Kok River, part of our very fun Bikes, Boats and Elephants day, which is featured on many of our Thai adventures, would serve as the perfect river to test this craft. Craig mailed us an Astro Touring model SUP which weighs about 15km and fits nicely into a backpack. After about seven minutes of pumping it was full of air, very rigid, and we put it in our handy adventure truck and headed 20km up-river to Ban Ruammit Elephant Camp where we regularly host guests on pachyderm rides. Locals were immediately intrigued. They’d seen the odd kayak, but never a SUP. This was uncharted territory. Driver extraordinaire, Mr. Song ( aided with moving it, taking photos and video, then sent me off, heading down-river for what we estimated would be a two-hour, 20km ride.

There weren’t many people on the river that day, but most who passed careened their neck to try and figure out what I was standing on. A few locals and boat drivers all commented they’d never seen such a craft and we’re guessing this was the very first SUP ride on the Mae Kok River. We didn’t plan on pioneering a new trail, but it’s very cool to do so. It was September and the river at its highest point of the year, and while providing a good push, it was still pretty smooth and didn’t make balance much of an issue. Drifting, paddling and watching it all go by was a real treat. Boats with tourists occasionally passed and they no doubt knew they were not doing the coolest thing in Chiang Rai province that day when they came upon the SUP. Two-hours-and-fifteen-minutes, and 19km later we’d arrived back in Chiang Rai city. Not only had the journey been fun but a pretty good core workout. Mr. Song was waiting on the riverbank; we put the SUP in the truck and were off. Thirty minutes later the SUP was deflated, packed and ready to be shipped. All in all a pretty impressive device, very stable, seemingly sturdy and an enjoyable, safe ride.

Map of the route

How fun to try a new activity in our adventure backyard that’s not currently being offered, doesn’t use gas, puts you in the great outdoors and can get you places many crafts can’t. We’re currently testing inflatable SUPs in numerous locations around Southeast Asia as a possible addition to some Smiling Albino tours. We’ve always been about giving guests the opportunity to try a variety of activities during their trip, in a safe manageable way, and this could be a great new addition. Would you like to come on a trip with SUP’ing? Let us know…

Watch a video of this expedition.

See some photos from this trip.