Chiang Mai Trek & Ziplining

Our Thai Zip Lining Tour and Safety Standards Abroad

When you’re strapping yourself to a wire suspended hundreds of feet above the jungle floor preparing to launch yourself across the abyss, you want to be sure you’re not going to plummet to your death, right? Well, when we went zip lining in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I found myself seriously questioning the safety standards in place and with good reason.

Skydiving over Abel Tasman, New Zealand

Ok, so after jumping out of a plane in New Zealand, zip lining should be a piece of cake, shouldn’t it? The thing is, while my skydiving experience was terrifying, my fear centred on what it would feel like to fall, not the worry that I was actually going to die. I was scared of the sensation of free fall and how my body would react to the animal terror of it; underneath all that fear, however, I knew I was perfectly secure in the hands of my tandem skydive partner. The company we used, Skydive Abel Tasman, runs in accordance with national safety standards, has been going for more than 20 years and has a clean safety record. We were given a proper briefing and equipment as well as checked to make sure we were healthy enough to take part – I never once felt I was in danger of dying.

By contrast, while zip lining itself isn’t nearly as scary for me as skydiving, I feared for my personal safety when we tried it out in Chiang Mai. Andrew and I would never have thought to go zip lining ourselves, but his sisters were keen so we booked the cheapest tour we could find at the last minute with a company called Thai Jungle Sports. We didn’t have time to research or think things through and against my better judgment, we booked the tour for the next day.

Our Zip Lining Experience with Thai Jungle Sports

It was raining hard as we were picked up for the long drive into the jungle surrounding Chiang Mai for our tour the next day. On arrival we were given boots and ponchos for the jungle trek; although it was underwhelming in comparison to the epic hikes Andrew and I had just completed in the Philippines, we had a nice enough time exploring the forest and taking in the scenery. It was after lunch, as the rain began to pour once more, that I started to feel nervous.

Chiang Mai Trek & Ziplining

The staff strapped us into our harnesses, told us briefly how to open and close the clips we’d need to use and led us off to a practice zip line. For some reason, none of us questioned the fact that we weren’t given the helmets or knee pads shown in the company’s advertising leaflet. One by one we were told to attach ourselves to the practice line, suspended only a few metres above the ground. I wasn’t keen on having to clip myself on, but thought that surely the staff would double check we were properly attached; however, no one spotted that Andrew’s safety harness wasn’t properly fastened and it fell off half way down the zip line.

Now I was even more unnerved.

Next we approached a tandem zip line stretching above a deep gorge. Andrew and I clipped ourselves to the wire as I asked our guide, again and again: “Is it safe? Are we attached?” Then we were off, speeding across the sky, rain pelting our faces, a cold wind battering our ears.  As we approached the platform on the other side, where one tiny Thai guide waited to catch us I instinctively pulled my knees right up; the wooden platform was much higher than it should have been and we would have easily crashed against it otherwise. Andrew brought his legs down to slow us before we hit the end of the wire and snapped backwards – relieved and shaky we unclipped, it wasn’t exactly the smooth landing we expected.

As we stood and watched the other teams come in, things got worse. It became apparent how dangerous the landing was when one French boy came sailing in, his face transforming from joy, to panic then to pain as he crashed into the end of the line and sprang back, his leg forcefully smacking against the spiky edge of the wooden platform. Gasping in pain he hobbled away, big red marks welling up on his leg; it was clear that he was in real agony and couldn’t put much weight on the leg.

Zip Lining in Chiang Mai

Watching the rest of the teams land was now getting extremely scary; as they approached we stood on the side lines, bellowing: “Lift your legs up!” in warning. That didn’t help Andrew’s sister’s friend; although she pulled up her knees, when the rope snapped back her leg got caught in the gap between two wooden planks, leaving a painful red graze. At that point another guide appeared and the two of them worked together to try to stop the rest of the zip liners before they could crash into the edge of the platform.

There was some unease now as we were led off to the next zip line; I was shocked at what I’d seen and felt even more unsafe than ever. The rain was still pouring down and I had no idea what the next landing would be like. Luckily it was smoother and we got by without incident, the French boy was in far too much pain to continue though and headed back to camp. At the next zip line we were warned to watch out for a tree at the end; the wire had been positioned too close to the tree and we were just inches from smacking into it as we whizzed by. At this point I just wanted the experience to be over. From then on I made sure the guides clipped me to the rope themselves and double checked its safety before I launched off.  I concentrated only on just getting through to the end, which we did, sooner than expected – I’m sure the guides cut our course short in light of the accidents and weather.

Safety Standards in Asia

Looking back on it now, I really don’t know why I didn’t back out of the zip lining as soon as I started to feel unsafe. Why didn’t I, or anyone else, speak up and ask for the helmets and other safety equipment we were supposed to have? Why did I carry on even after people had been injured?

I’m sure it was partly down to the fact that it was pouring with rain and I just wanted to get through the experience as quickly as possible; part of it was also shock and fear at seeing people get hurt and part of it was probably not wanting to make a fuss or waste the money we’d spent paying for the tour. I wish now that I’d listened to my gut and just backed out though. Ok, so nothing serious happened and nobody died – maybe I’m being melodramatic – but there’s no need to gamble with your personal safety.

The truth is, unlike skydiving in New Zealand for example, I have no idea what safety standards there are regulating adventure sports in Thailand. We didn’t research the company beforehand or ask any questions about the safety precautions and we should have. I’ve done other risky things on this trip; in the Philippines I went caving with no safety gear in a place where, only a few days later, a tourist died. On that occasion I didn’t feel unsafe though, we had a brilliant local guide who helped us every step of the way and knew the cave inside out.

So how do I judge what’s acceptable and what’s not? Rightly or wrongly, for me it just seems to come down to a gut feeling. Perhaps safety standards in the western world are over the top and simply put in place to ensure companies don’t get sued? Am I just being paranoid or am I right to be worried about safety standards in Asia?

What do you think – would you feel safe taking part in adventure sports in Asia?

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25 Comments
  • Patti
    Posted at 22:14h, 04 November Reply

    I think you’re right – we all have an inner 6th sense that warns us and we need to pay better attention. If it doesn’t feel right it probably isn’t. As the old saying goes, “Better safe than sorry!” Glad it all turned out okay though. Lesson learned!

    • Amy
      Posted at 11:13h, 05 November Reply

      Yep, lesson learned Patti – travel is definitely teaching us a lot!

  • Alyson
    Posted at 00:12h, 05 November Reply

    I’d never go zip lining or bungee jumping or anything like that, it’s not my thing and I’d see it as a waste of money ( give me a few glasses of wine instead and I’ll be much happier!). I’d be equally unsure about safety in any part of the world, accidents happen, I’ve heard of them in the UK and Australia. I think the most dangerous thing you can do in Asia is hire a motor scooter, so many injuries and deaths! But yeah, that does sound a bit dodgy!

    • Amy
      Posted at 11:11h, 05 November Reply

      True Alyson, accidents do happen all over the world; I guess activities just felt more professional in New Zealand and Australia to me than they do in Asia. You’re so right about scooters being the biggest hazards in Asia though, especially when it comes to people riding them under the influence of drink/drugs without a helmet (I’m sure you know about those kind of drivers since you lived on KPY!).

  • Carmel
    Posted at 09:07h, 05 November Reply

    It’s hard to tell. I would say you’re better off going with your gut. The worst that can happen is you miss out on something, but it’s better than the alternative. I’m glad you got out ok, though.

    • Amy
      Posted at 11:08h, 05 November Reply

      Thanks Carmel. Yes, you can feel like you’re going to miss out if you don’t try things but it definitely pays to listen to your gut I think – just need to remember that next time!

  • Kirstin
    Posted at 11:16h, 05 November Reply

    Having gone to Thailand last year, I definitely plan to save all my adventurous sports for Australia and NZ! I am glad you were all unharmed 🙂

    • Andrew
      Posted at 11:58h, 05 November Reply

      We’re glad too! Thanks for dropping by! 🙂

  • Erin Bender (Travel With Bender)
    Posted at 12:12h, 05 November Reply

    You are certainly braver then some. We recently went ziplining in St Lucia, but didn’t feel unsafe once. Instinct is key, right?

    • Andrew
      Posted at 14:27h, 05 November Reply

      That’s right Erin, instinct is key, if it doesn’t feel right then it probably isn’t.

  • Heidi Wagoner
    Posted at 14:20h, 05 November Reply

    Oh goodness, you need to trust that “inner voice”. We felt the same about our zip lining in Jamaica and bam, I hit a tree to stop. That said, at least they were clipping us in. I wouldn’t be comfy with doing that myself.

    • Andrew
      Posted at 14:28h, 05 November Reply

      We were warned about the tree in ours, so I think we all avoided it. I have done similar things in the UK but the health and safety standards are on another level! 🙂

  • Alexandra Baackes
    Posted at 17:07h, 07 November Reply

    I did ziplining in Chiang Mai with Flight of the Gibbons and at the time I thought it was kind of pricey but now that I read this… maybe there is a reason for that!

    I had a saying when I lived in Thailand… “Safety seventh!”

    • Amy
      Posted at 04:32h, 09 November Reply

      Great saying, I think it goes for all of Asia 🙂 I wish we’d gone with Flight of the Gibbon too Alex; it sounds a lot safer and more professional.

  • Jessica of HolaYessica
    Posted at 23:41h, 07 November Reply

    That sounds like a pretty unnerving experience. Glad to hear you got out of it OK! Instinct is a good travel companion to have.

    • Amy
      Posted at 04:33h, 09 November Reply

      Thanks Jessica, you’re right, instinct is one of the most important travel companions you can have.

  • Mig
    Posted at 13:29h, 09 November Reply

    Glad you survived to share your experience. 😉 Safety standards do vary all over the world and what one culture may be relaxed with can make others nervous. You have to go with instincts as others mentioned above. I went ziplining in Costa Rica and the safety was good. Although, I had problems with a glove used to brake where the leather pad was worn down. I could feel the heat from the cable after the first practice run. I immediately asked to change gloves without hesitation.

    On a related topic about safety standards, I’ve seen families of four on motocycles in Latin America. Do they do the same in Asia? That would be completely crazy to do in the developed world.

    • Amy
      Posted at 13:39h, 09 November Reply

      We have definitely seen some crazy motorcycle antics in Asia Mig – whole families crammed on single bikes without helmets. Good to hear your zip lining experience in Costa Rica was good and that you requested replacement equipment; I wish I’d insisted on helmets and pads on our tour.

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  • Victoria
    Posted at 23:40h, 04 May Reply

    Thank goodness you’re both OK. Phew! Yes, it’s better to listen to our instincts but most of us don’t or worry that we’d look like fools because we opt out. About 18 years ago, I went skiing on the black run piste of the Czech Mountains. I had recently learnt to ski and we went with a couple of German friends who convinced me that it wouldn’t be a problem as a beginner at the time. What rot!
    I fell off the ski-lift and into the trees. Luckily for me, the ski-lift had only moved for less than a minute and even though both my skis were scattered across the snow, I didn’t break my legs. How stupid could I be especially when I knew perfectly well, that I really shouldn’t be on that part of that piste! Let me tell you, I didn’t do that again and stopped skiing for a few years because I was so scared.
    I’m fine now!

    • Amy
      Posted at 06:55h, 05 May Reply

      That is so scary, I’m glad you didn’t end up with any injuries from that fall. It can be so easy to ignore your instincts if people around are telling you things will be ok; it’s always best to stand your ground though.

  • Mike
    Posted at 18:28h, 17 July Reply

    My sister was just involved in a bad accident in Chang Mai. From what i understand she collided with a person that was coming back (I assume missed the landing). they collided and fell 30 feet to the jungle floor. She has a collapsed lung, broken ribs, fractured pelvis and optic nerve damage to one eye. Not sure if she had a helmet on or not. She is now in a Bangkok ICU hospital with what they say are non- life threatening injuries. She will be in the hospital for 6 weeks, minimum. Wish she and her family would have seen your blog. The newspaper heading said “Another Zip Line accident” They had a death earlier. My sister is lucky to be alive.

    • Amy
      Posted at 08:59h, 18 July Reply

      Hi Mike, I’m so sorry to hear about your sister and I hope she recovers, it sounds like a horrific accident. I wasn’t aware that there had actually been deaths, I hope that there will be some stronger safety procedures after all this.

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