The first thing I noticed about the people in Bhutan were all of the happy, big smiles. This is a country that measures its worth based on their “Gross National Happiness”, something I had read many times as I was researching this trip but didn’t truly appreciate until I arrived. In short, the people of Bhutan are the friendliest and happiest I’ve seen anywhere in the world and it only took a few short weeks for me to see why.
I was lucky enough to spend 4 days in Bhutan with my friend Phil DeRiemer scouting the rivers before our guests arrived. Phil said several times that “every day in Bhutan is a gift,” something that I realized soon after meeting the wonderful people, seeing the beautiful rivers and being enveloped in the cozy shadows of the Himalayas. As Phil and I floated past the fluttering prayer flags, I began to appreciate these peace-loving people even more.
Our guests arrived by plane to the town of Paro, where we all had the good fortune of witnessing an archery tournament and also toured the Paro Dzong. A Dzong is a military fortress, which were built around the country to defend against Tibetan invaders in the 16th century and are now used as administrative offices for the government. The next day we rafted the Paro Chhu (Chhu is the Dzonka word for river) as we headed toward the capital city of Thimpu.
From Thimpu, we drove over the 10,300 foot Doche La (La is the Dzonka word for pass) to the Punakha Valley where we spent a few days rafting and kayaking on the Mo Chhu (mother river) and Pho Chhu (father river). The confluence of these rivers is considered an auspicious location, and here we saw the Punakha Dzong, one of Bhutan’s most majestic structures and where the spiritual leader of the country spends his winters.
From Punakha we drove further east to the province of Bumthang and the Chamkar Valley. Here we paddled the Chamkar Chhu for 2 days including a section of river that had never been rafted before. If we didn’t feel like we were on an expedition before, we certainly did after! We had great timing again here, arriving for the Jambay Lhakang Drup, a festival commemorating the establishment of the oldest temple in Bhutan. After boating each day, we spent the evenings watching dance performances at the festival including Tercham, a fire dance with naked, masked men meant to bless infertile women to produce children.
After our time in the Chamkar Valley, we made our way back west to Thimpu. On our way, we stopped in the Valley of the Black Necked Cranes and stayed with a Bhutanese family in their farmhouse. It was an amazing experience to meet the family and witness their every day lives. We were told that their 3-year old son, is the reincarnation of a high Buddhist Lama.
Our last day of boating was on the Thimpu Chhu, a class III+ river that we boated all the way to its confluence with the Paro Chhu, the first river we paddled. The rapids were great and again, at the auspicious confluence, there were 3 religious shrines (called Stupas) built in the styles of Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan.
The trip ended with a trek up to one of the most iconic places in Bhutan, the Taktshang, a monastery better known as the Tiger’s Nest. The Taktshang was built in 1692 and is located 3,000 feet above the valley floor clinging to a cliffside. The legend surrounding this precariously placed monastery is that it is where the Guru Rinpoche, credited with bringing Buddhism to Bhutan, meditated for 3 months after flying from Tibet on the back of a tigress to a cave on this cliff.
The trip surpassed my own expectations and if you are interested in the culture and natural environments of this tiny Buddhist kingdom, I think it will excite, engage and enrich you as well. We’re already planning our “Rivers of Bhutan” trips for next fall!