Thursday October 1, 2015 (Asia, Southeast Asia, Thailand)
The first challenge in getting to Mae Ngat Dam is convincing a songthaew driver to take you. Well, actually, the first challenge is finding a songthaew driver who even knows where Mae Ngat Dam is. If you’re in the Chiang Mai area and you’re not going to Tiger Kingdom or Doi Suthep, you may have some difficulty getting a driver on board with your plan.
We’d heard about the Mae Ngat Dam from some online reading. It’s more popular amongst locals than amongst travellers, and that’s usually a good thing in our books! It’s just a big lake in a national park with lots of houseboats on it. You arrive at the lake, get a speedboat ride out to your houseboat, then relax and enjoy the view. And maybe go swimming!
Based on a blog entry we read about the dam, we had prices in mind for what to expect to get a ride out there. The tricky thing you need to communicate to your driver is that they have to come back at a specified time the next day to pick you up! This is important. If your driver doesn’t show up the next day, you’re standing in the middle of a national park with no easy way back to civilization.
The strange thing about that blog entry is that it claims the cost to get to the lake is 570 THB round trip. But then later in the article it recommends a specific driver who charges 2000 THB to take a group there and back. I’m not sure how those numbers work out, but we ended up paying 2000 THB to our driver. I didn’t try to negotiate much, mostly because I was talking to the driver’s English-speaking friend on a cellphone. Hard enough to communicate our destination let alone go back and forth on a price.
Everybody in Chiang Mai had told us “it’s low season – you don’t need to book a houseboat in advance!”. Well, technically this was true. Everything we’d read about online recommended the Eakachai Houseboat, and that company seems to be the only one with consistent advertising as you approach the dam. But there are many separate houseboat companies on the lake itself. We were hoping to score a sweet deal by showing up and seeing what we could find. I’m not sure it was a great idea.
Upon arriving at the lake you’ll find… a bunch of boats. Not surprising, I suppose. There are a couple of huts to organize houseboat bookings, but they were all effectively unmanned. Everybody was congregating under one larger hut. This definitely made the idea of negotiating between multiple houseboat companies difficult. I started speaking to a girl who quoted us 1000 THB for a night. We would be three people in a single room. I appeared a bit hesitant, so she lowered the price to 800 THB. I said thanks, and expected to take that number around to some other huts to negotiate. But as I wandered between the few visible huts, it was difficult to find anybody to speak to – especially one that spoke any English. Eventually a gentleman approached me and passed me a cellphone connecting me to an English speaking woman calling from a houseboat on the lake. She started at 1000 THB. Isn’t it funny the way the price is exactly the same as the first offer? I mentioned we’d received an offer of 800 THB and she simply matched it. No additional discount. Oh well. She offered that we could see the room and if we weren’t happy with it we could go somewhere else. No risk – let’s do it.
Now we come to the second price discrepancy on that original blog post about the dam. It implies that the boat ride is about 170 THB. Everybody quoted us 600 THB. In my opinion, this is an absurdly high amount to charge for a 10-15 minute boat ride. Well, technically that’s the return journey as well, but still. It’s one of those situations where you’re a bit over a barrel. There are a bunch of boat drivers standing around quoting you an identical price. Don’t like it? Good luck getting to your houseboat! So that’s what we paid. I think we’ve already been fleeced several times at this point. Ugh. Not much to be done about it, though.
We arrived without issue at the Lana Houseboat. Well, I don’t know the actual name of the place because everything was written in Thai, but their WiFi was called LANA… so that’s what we’re gonna go with for the name. We didn’t have great weather on the first day, but it cleared up for dinner and we got to see a beautiful light fading over the lake.
Now for the third price discrepancy from our reading: food prices. We had read that beer and food were cheap, cheap, cheap! Beers were reasonable enough at around 80 THB for a large Chang. But the food was definitely pricier than we’d seen in Chiang Mai. Most of the available meals (at the only restaurant in the little houseboat complex, so you have no choice!) were about 200 THB. We’d gotten used to paying about 120-130 THB for good meals in the city, so the prices took us by surprise. There were a few outliers that we could choose to keep prices down, but be warned that once again you’re in a bit of a pickle: you have one restaurant choice. So you pay the prices that restaurant has. Perhaps some of the other houseboat complexes have ways of allowing you to visit other restaurants on the lake, but nothing appeared very forthcoming in our case.
In the morning, the weather had cleared up significantly. We were apprehensive about swimming in the lake after considering the fact that the houseboat waste disposal system may not be the most sanitary. We decided it should be fine, but we made sure to keep our mouths firmly closed in the water and refrained from putting our heads underwater as much as possible. And hey, we didn’t get sick. So based on our single data point, it’s 100% safe!
We had a good time at the dam, but if you’re expecting a fancy houseboat getaway, this is likely not the place to visit. Although the costs to get out there and back, take the speedboat to your houseboat, and stay in the room aren’t cheap as far as I’m concerned. Rooms were spartan and definitely valued function over form. No air conditioning and limited hours of power in the room. But somehow WiFi was available 24 hours a day. You figure it out! Overall I’d say we’d recommend checking it out, but I definitely wouldn’t list it as a “must-do” experience when visiting Chiang Mai.