Bhutan 2010 Trip Report
ECHO's first rafting and cultural tour of Bhutan exceeded my own expectations. For the trip, we teamed up with our friends from DeRiemer Adventure Kayaking and traveled with 5 rafters and 2 kayakers for a tour of the pristine natural environments and the seemingly unexplored culture of "the last Shangri-La".
Our trip started with a short flight from Bangkok into the Paro Airport, in the heart of the Paro Valley. Paro is surrounded by mountains, and we were excited to see a river running parallel to the runway as we landed. While in Paro, we toured the Paro Dzong, an old military fortress used to defend against Tibetan invaders. Ironically, the Dzongs historically served as both fortress and monastery. The Paro Dzong is now the administrative center of the district and also remains a Buddhist monastery. While there, we witnessed young monks finishing a prayer service, which topped off an amazing first day!
The next day we rafted the Paro Chhu on our way to Bhutan's capital city, Thimpu, about 30 miles away. (Chhu is the Dzonka word for river and Dzonka is the national language of Bhutan.) We planned to return here toward the end of the trip, so we continued on over the 10,200 foot Doche La (La is the Dzonka word for pass) on our way to the Punahka Valley.
The Punakha Valley was once the capital of Bhutan, so it has many interesting cultural sites in addition to the Mo Chhu (Mother River) and Po Chhu (Father River). These rivers provide a fertile valley for rice farmers in the region. We spent 3 days here exploring both rivers, the Punakha Dzong, and the Temple of the Divine Madman. The Punakha Dzong is the winter home of the religious leader of the country due to the region's much warmer climate. Built in the 1630s, it sits right on the banks at the confluence of the Mo Chhu and Po Chhu.
From the Punakha Valley, we traveled further east to the town of Jakar and the Chamkar Chhu. The highlight was rafting and kayaking down the beautiful Chamakr Chhu, including a section of Class IV rapids that had never been rafted before. This made the trip feel like a true expedition! We also attended a Bhutanese festival, where we got to witness a special fertility dance involving naked men with masks dancing around a campfire at midnight. If this didn't remind me how far from home I was, I don't know what would have.
From Jakar, we started heading back West and stayed one night in the Valley of the Black Necked Cranes. Here, our guide introduced us to a Bhutanese family and we got to spend the night at their farmhouse. This was a truly interesting stop: to share meals and spend a night with local farmers. They had a 3 year old son, who we later discovered, is believed to be the reincarnation of Je Kempo, Bhutan's spiritual leader.
We soon arrived back in Thimpu where we all got some rest, did some shopping, and saw a few more sights. Our last river day was on the Thimpu Chhu, which ended at the confluence with the Paro Chhu, our first river. In Bhutan, the confluence of two rivers is an auspicious place, and this one was marked with Stupas (religious memorials containing religious artifacts) of Bhutanese, Tibetan, and Nepalese design.
Our trip ended with some long goodbyes back where we started, in Paro, where we were lucky to see one more exhibition of Bhutanese dance and music before the journey home. We also made the trek up to Taktshang (the Tiger's Nest), a monastery perched on a cliff 3,000 feet above the valley floor.
This was truly a remarkable trip that simply cannot be described with words or photos, although I've attempted to do so here. We're busily working on itineraries for our next trips to Bhutan in the fall of 2011!