True Travel Stories: Cliff Diving in Chiang Mai Canyon

True Travel Stories: Cliff Diving in Chiang Mai Canyon

There it is, in all its beauty: Chiang Mai Canyon

There’s no such thing as bad publicity, and Thailand’s own “Grand Canyon” is a standing testament to the old adage. Like an ugly black vulture, rumors of fatal cliff diving accidents and near misses have circled ominously above the Chiang Mai canyon (which is not actually a canyon, but a man made quarry) over the last few years. These rumors, of course, have only served to build up the reputation of a place where hungry, thrill-seeking backpackers come to feed.

Located on the outskirts of what is typically considered one of the ta

mer cities in the land of smiles, the Chiang Mai Canyon is liable to have a good showing of tourists and Thai’s alike on any given day so long as there’s decent weather.

Assuming you know how to drive one, wake up with the sun and take your motorbike south down Canal Road (Hwy 121) towards Hang Dong — I didn’t own a phone at the time of my first visit and found myself lost; thankfully, a one-eyed man in a large, manila trench coat managed to literally point me the right way (he was either speaking in tongues or ancient Akkadian) — a PT gas station will appear on your left after about forty minutes of driving. Take the next right after the station across the small bridge. After about 500m, you’ll come to a Y-intersection. Turn left, and voilà!

There is a 50 baht entrance fee. Pay the man, grab your ticket (which also gets you a free Chai Tea in the restaurant overlooking the canyon), and be on your way. You’ll be greeted by a sign that reads “NO SWIMMING/NO DIVING” in bold letters; this relatively new addition was installed after a Korean tourist drowned in July of last year though it’s done little to discourage other tourists.

Chiang Mai Canyon - before it got super touristy.

Chiang Mai Canyon – before it got super touristy.

Chiang Mai Canyon, much like steak knives and cyanide, is only dangerous when idiots are added to the equation. The usual sense of invulnerability that’s harbored in backpacker circles is amplified here. Look! There, a traveler perfectly executes a double back flip. And there! Another backpacker makes cliff diving look easy with a gainer. Hell, I think I can do this.

What people fail to realize shortly before they fail their jump is that the ones doing double back flips have had some sort of training in or experience with diving. It’s as if by flying to Thailand and ignoring one “NO SWIMMING/NO DIVING” sign, backpackers feel as if they’ve already gone too far to go back, that they’ve stepped into some Twilight Zone where actions don’t carry consequences.

In truth, the Chiang Mai canyon is about as dangerous as a cupcake, so long as you possess the tiniest drop of common sense; it boasts a few different easily accessible peaks for taking in the view or cliff diving in Chiang Mai. Since I know the aforementioned warnings and horror stories will only work to feed the fires in the hearts of adrenaline junkies, I’ll get to the part everyone’s been waiting for: the cliff dive.

The Chiang Mai Canyon begins with a warm up cliff about ten meters in height. This is where nearly all of the tourists start and end their diving. I used it to build it my confidence, jumping off twice. Continue on the Canyon and you’ll see a path leading down to the water which offers a few small jumps for those who couldn’t bring themselves to face the warm up cliff. This is also the path you’ll take up back up to the Canyon after your dive. I ignored it and found myself at the end of the ridge: the tallest ledge on the main portion of the Canyon about fifteen meters in height.

Don’t be fooled by the crowd of people hovering at the back of the ledge busy muttering words of encouragement to themselves under their breath (“You’ve got this. You’ve got this.” A girl in a one piece looks back with a smile, drops off the edge, and screams like she’s being stabbed until a loud splash silences her. “Okay, maybe you don’t got this.”). At first I thought there was a line for those who wanted to jump. I soon realized that they’d devolved to nothing more than deer in headlights.

Hard to believe that the Chiang Mai canyon was manmade.

It’s hard to believe that it was manmade.

I walked to the center of the ledge and took my rightful place on this, the throne of champions, and then took a moment to gaze over my kingdom. It was a nice view, really.

I took a deep breath. Whatever you do, DO NOT walk to the edge and look down as I did (thankfully, it was before the camera started running).

It won’t change what’s down there, but it does have the potential to weaken your resolve.

In situations like this, once you’re committed to them, I mean, it’s best to keep thinking to a bare minimum.

A successful cliff dive from this height really only requires a few things of you:

  1. Get enough push so that you’re falling out towards the water and not in towards the slope of cliff. For this cliff, it overhangs enough that you don’t need to worry too much about the push. Don’t slip.
  2. Either land feet first OR head first with your hands locked together. There is no in between here. ‘In between’ will leave you at best with a bruised ass or the wind knocked out of you, and at worst with nerve damage or esophageal bleeding. The quarry is forty meters deep; don’t worry about hitting the bottom, worry about how you hit the water.
  3. Stay loose as you fall and tighten your body right before hitting the water.

The rule of thumb is that if you aren’t sure you can do it, don’t do it. It’s all or nothing here, especially on the high cliffs.

I opted for a running start so as to quell any last minute fears. I ran with my head down. The ground was loose and pebbled under my bare feet and then, suddenly, it was gone, replaced by nothing. To any onlooker, the fall lasts a little over a second. To me, it felt like an eternity.

The world blurred in front of me, I kicked my legs aimlessly through the air, the water barreled towards me. I hit. It was cold; rays of light filtered above, the inky bottom of the quarry below.

I scrambled up for air (I hadn’t realize that I’d been holding my breath the entire time). I broke the surface, my brain firing off more shots of adrenaline and dopamine than bullets in a Tarantino film. The crowd lets out a collective sigh and far off, near the restaurant, so does the de facto lifeguard who’s been assigned the miserable job of retrieving injured tourists from the water.

Why didn’t I mention him earlier, you ask? Because the lifeguard should play no role in your decision making, he didn’t in mine. If I thought I was going to need him, I wouldn’t have jumped. The girl that went after me froze on the top. Her boyfriend and sister shouted up a medley of encouragement and peer pressure. “You’re going to regret not doing this, trust me, babe!” He yelled from. She held her nose (another diving no-no — the impact will rip your hand from your nose and you may injure yourself), took a step, and dropped like a brick. She landed awkwardly… it took her a few seconds to come up, she was sobbing when she did. She’d allowed herself to crunch into a squat position while she fell and didn’t tighten her body for impact. Her knees slammed against her chest when she hit the water. Thankfully she got away with nothing worse than an equally bruised rib and ego.

Be careful. Be honest with yourself and your limitations; ignore the peer pressure and grandstanders. If you manage all this and still decide to dive the Chiang Mai canyon, get ready for a rush like none other.

 

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