Travelling down the 100km stretch of the Kok River to Chiang Rai gives you a chance to soak up a rich diversity of typical northern landscapes, which you never get on a speeding bus. Heading out of Tha Ton, the river traverses a flat valley of rice fields and orchards, where it’s flanked by high reeds inhabited by flitting swallows. After half an hour, you pass the 900-year-old Wat Phra That Sop Fang, with its small hilltop chedi and a slithering naga staircase leading up from the river bank. Beyond the large village of Mae Salak, 20km from Tha Ton, the river starts to meander between thickly forested slopes. From among the banana trees and giant wispy ferns, kids come out to play, adults to bathe and wash clothes, and water buffalo emerge simply to enjoy the river. About two hours out of Tha Ton the hills get steeper and the banks rockier, leading up to a half-hour stretch of small but feisty rapids, where you might well get a soaking. Beyond the rapids, crowds of boats suddenly appear, ferrying tour groups from Chiang Rai to the Karen village of Ruammid, 20km upstream, for elephant-riding. From here on, the landscape deteriorates as the bare valley around Chiang Rai opens up.
The best time of year to make this trip is in the cool season (roughly Nov–Feb), when you’ll get both lush vegetation and exciting rapids. Canopied longtail boats leave from the south side of the bridge in Tha Ton every day at 12.30pm for the trip to Chiang Rai, which takes around four rather noisy hours. The slower, less crowded journey upriver gives an even better chance of appreciating the scenery – the longtails leave Chiang Rai at 10.30am. If you can get a group of up to six people together (up to twelve when the river’s deeper in the rainy season), it’s better to charter a longtail from the boat landing in Tha Ton, which will allow you to stop at the hill-tribe villages and hot springs en route. A round-trip to Chiang Rai and back costs B3800 per boat.
If you have more time, the peaceful bamboo rafts which glide downriver to Chiang Rai in three days almost make you part of the scenery. Each party is accompanied by two steersmen who dismantle the rafts in Chiang Rai and bring the bamboo back to be recycled in Tha Ton. Garden Home Nature Resort, for example, charge B8000–12,000 per boat for two to six passengers, including soft drinks and food, staying at a Lahu village and the hot springs along the way. They also offer two-day versions, starting at Ban Pa Tai, east of Tha Ton, as well as half- and full-day trips downriver from Tha Ton, by either raft or kayak, returning by car.
Passengers departing from Tha Ton boat landing are required to sign the log book at the adjacent tourist police booth. A peaceful guesthouse between Mae Salak and Ruammid, from which you can go trekking (guided or self-guided), might tempt you to break your river journey. Akha Hill House, on the south bank of the Kok, 3km on foot from the riverside hot springs near Huai Kaeo waterfall, offers lofty views, comfortable rooms and bungalows, some with en-suite hot showers (with decent rates for singles), and free transport daily to and from Chiang Rai.