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Bhutan: Paddling with the Thunder Dragon

Chris Hipgrave
LiquidLogic Kayaks

On the roof of the world, sandwiched into the Grand Himalayas, sits Bhutan, the land of the Thunder Dragon, in a small fiercely independent autonomous kingdom. Author Francoise Pommaret describes the kingdom as “isolated, charming, peaceful and religious, the Bhutanese are a pragmatic, sensitive people who take from the west what will benefit their people and leave the rest.” To this day, Bhutan has remained culturally and environmentally intact for the most part. And has been spared from the imperialistic expansions of China and the British Empire that carved up and divided the rest of this part of Asia centuries ago.

Today, Bhutan is still impossible to visit as an unaccompanied traveler, requiring you to use one of the government authorized tourism companies and native guides. Tourism is tightly controlled to minimize the western influence on this tiny country and the majority of that control is in the form of a tourist tax of USD$220 – $250 per person per day. This hefty tax seems to be serving its purpose very well, as last year less than 7,000 tourists visited the kingdom, compared to the estimated 1,000,000 that visited neighboring Nepal.

For a whitewater paddler, the draw and appeal of the kingdom of Bhutan is unparalleled. The kingdom is about the size of West Virginia, hemmed in to the north by the Grand Himalayas with six unclimbed peaks in excess of 6800m; and to the south is India and the Ganges plains at less than 1000m of elevation. That’s a lot of water and a lot of gradient – the magic ingredients for the whitewater adventure of a lifetime.

The whitewater industry in Bhutan is in its infancy, but has been spotlighted by the Tourism Authority there for its potential for growth. Western guides are employed by the government to teach the authorities how to do everything from guiding rafts, learning to kayak, to running a successful rafting business. Years from now, when the training is complete, the adventure travel businesses will be completely handed over to the Bhutanese people. This model for success and ownership has been adopted for many extreme sports within the country including mountain biking, trekking and paragliding.

During my two visits to Bhutan, I have been very lucky to be able to explore rivers that have never been paddled. And we have only scratched the surface there. A plethora of rivers await the avid paddler from low volume bedrock creeks, similar to the Appalachians, to huge volume expressways that are unique to the Himalayas – From class II to class VI, the choice is yours.  Some of my personal favorites include the Mo Chu and Po Cho.  These quality rivers converge next to the Punakha Dzong, one of the holiest temples in the Bhutanese Buddist faith. With its gold roof and the never-ending sunshine that seems to warm the valley, your senses are almost overwhelmed there.

A day’s drive east and you’re in the Mangde Chu drainage – Himalayan paddling at its best. Steep and very pushing, this river carves a raging path south, providing many sections of whitewater with varying degrees from the class III sections around Yinchiling to the class V+ sections below the Dzong at Trongsa and further downstream into Kivorkian Canyon.

To find out more about paddling opportunities in Bhutan, visit – the only USA licensed agent by the Tourism Authority of Bhutan.

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