Top 5 Most Enjoyable Rivers to Raft in Bhutan
The glacial fed crystal clear rivers of Bhutan have always been a major source of livelihood for this small Himalayan nation’s population, revered for their sacredness and protected for their bountiful offerings. Up until the relatively recent hydro power projects and the introduction of water adventure sports, the sacred river systems of Bhutan have always remained one of the best kept open secrets of this tiny Himalayan kingdom.
The Himalayan foothills with its pristine natural beauty and rugged landscapes are the backdrop for many of these untamed and unexplored rivers, cutting vigorously through high valleys to running gently on the low plains before entering the vast plains of India. Six major rivers have been scouted and identified for rafting and kayaking, namely Wang Chhu, Sunkosh, Puna Tsang Chhu, Mangde Chhu, Kuri Chhu and Dangme Chhu and their tributaries.
These rivers have the potential to provide the unique opportunity for tourists and locals alike to explore the unexplored natural wealth of Bhutan and wander through some of the country’s most beautiful and hidden wilderness.
Bhutan offers both the hair raising rapids and the slow, gentle routes. The best time for river rafting and kayaking is in the months of March to April and November to December.
We present the 5 Top Most Enjoyable Rivers to Raft in Bhutan:
1. Pho Chhu
Icy, glacier-sourced streams feed the Po Chhu or “Father River,” which energetically tumbles its way southwest towards Punakha and its confluence with the Mo Chhu (“Mother River”). Rafting trips along the upper Pho Chhu start with a series of Class IV rapids immediately below the tiny village of Wangthangkha. Further downstream, experienced rafters and kayakers will enjoy the big, bouncy Class III rapids as the fast-flowing river eases and slows. The first few sections of rapids should be scouted from the bank (scouting time included in the estimate below), while the lower rapids are generally boat scoutable. The first possible take-out point is 7km (4.3 miles) downstream from Wangthangkha at Samdingkha, but — if you're having too much fun to stop — it's only another 7km downstream to Punakha Dzong itself.
2. Mo Chhu
Flowing from the striking Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten to picturesque Punakha Dzong, the lower Mo Chhu river connects these two most attractive sights in Punakha Valley and the swathe of lush countryside between.
An hour spent floating downriver provides an unforgettable experience of the beautiful Punakha Valley. While the upper reaches of the Mo Chhu offer challenging whitewater conditions, the lowest stretch of the river combines straightforward rafting with wonderful scenery, making it particularly attractive for those new to rafting. The 6km (3.6 mile) trip takes around an hour — occasionally slightly longer in the spring when winds and currents intervene to push this section of the river from Class I to Class II.
3. Wang Chhu
The source of Wang Chhu is situated at an altitude of 6400m in the Himalayas and makes its way into the country through the westernmost border. The river runs through raw and rugged terrain before slowing down to pass the open valley of Thimphu.
This impressive river covers the valleys of Thimphu, Paro and Haa and is considered an important aspect of west-central Bhutan and is well known for the availability of some of the best adventure activities related to rafting and kayaking.
The course of the river which is strewn with large boulders and joined by several small tributaries flowing from nearby mountains makes the experience even more thrilling.
4. Pa Chhu
The Pa Chhu is a river of western Bhutan. With its source in the north of the mighty Mount Jumolhari, this crystal clear river runs through some of the most striking landscapes and picturesque villages before meeting the Wang Chhu River at Chuzom confluence.
The river charts some of Paro district’s well preserved landmarks and fertile rich valleys before silently passing through the open Paro town and along Paro International Airport, the only international airport in the country.
Pa Chhu is renowned among whitewater adventure sport enthusiasts for its lesser known whitewater conditions ideal for rafting and kayaking. One such stretch is the Upper Pachhu with a length of 6.2 miles and a difficulty grade of IV+ with low to medium flow.
5. Dangme Chhu White Water Rafting
Rafting the remote Dangme Chhu offers the intrepid adventurer an experience they will never forget. All rivers in Bhutan are wild: crystal clean from strict environmental policies that guard their sanctity, and sourced in glaciers beyond the reach of human touch. The Dangme, Bhutan's largest river, is especially wild. It begins in the Eastern Himalayan outlands of Arunachal Pradesh before cutting into Bhutan in the farthest east. For most of its length, virtually the only development it has seen was millennia ago when glaciers dug channels for its rapids.
Adventurers on the 4-5 day Dangme Chhu expedition will be entirely self-sufficient in this remote wilderness, carrying all their expedition gear on rafts as they explore one of the world's last pristine rivers. Monsoon floods recompose the rapids ever year — making this effectively a first descent.
Day One of the expedition is a 3-hour hike from Khenkhar village at 3,000 feet, not far from Trashigang town, to the put-in point at 900 feet. (Porters handle the rafts, camping gear, food, and other supplies.) Rafters can expect drop-pool systems with mostly regular Class III/III+ rapids (with occasional Class IV/IV+ rapids), most of them gradient caused and many with rocks and ledges creating complex rapids.
The 5 hours of river time on Day Two of this expedition should be attempted only by those with high risk tolerance, given the remote nature of this river system. Rafters can chose to participate in only Days Three and Four —7.5 hours and 1.5 hours of river time, respectively — where less risk tolerance is required and it's mostly Class II and III rapids. A single-day tour option is also available, with put-in approximately 1.5 hours’ drive from Panbang, 13 km upstream from the confluence with the Manas River.
The expedition completes at Royal Manas National Park in southern Bhutan, one of the most untouched areas on the planet. Participants in this rare journey will be not only adventurers but explorers as well.
STORY BY KARMA YONTEN
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MATTHEW DESANTIS, MICHAEL MARQUAND