My visit to tropical Punakha, a town in the Himalayas of Bhutan, has so far been bliss. Punakha is the seventh-largest city in Bhutan by population and the weather has been awesome with temperatures warm enough to survive in only a thin jacket. After enjoying my third day in this heavenly Bhutanese Kingdom I fell into a deep asleep dreaming of the next days adventures.
I awoke with a longing for some hot coffee to kick-start my day. This longing for coffee was instantly forgotten when I opened the balcony door and was treated to a sight of low hanging clouds over hills amidst sprawling hay fields. The contrasting colours and rioting landscape took over my urge for coffee and I decided to go for a walk instead. Bhutan has made me a morning person!
I grabbed my jacket and ventured out, it was 6:30 in the morning and it felt like nature was waking up with each gust of wind and the beaming sun was warming the landscape. Each nook and cranny presented a picture perfect view, enticing you to click as much as you can.
I don’t like selfies and there wasn’t a soul around to help me click a picture with me in it and thus I came back with hundreds of postcard worthy pictures, without me in them to spoil the view. My more than a mile-long walk led me through the Punakha countryside to and to the banks of river Pa Chu. Bhutan is a very safe country and so the isolation is calming and not in any way alarming.
I returned to my hotel famished and went directly to the dining hall for breakfast. To my delight they were serving a lot of vegetarian options for breakfast and I attacked the sandwich and coffee like a glutton. While I was eating, the group I was going rafting with entered and for the rest of my meal I dined with them. We decided to leave together for the rafting site at 9am.
My tour guide had advised me yesterday that it would be better to checkout from the hotel before I leave for rafting because this would be more time effective. I was to leave for Paro once I was done with rafting, the rafting sight is on the way to Paro, thus coming back to my hotel to collect my things would have increased my travel time by almost an hour. I came down all packed up and ready for the day.
I had requested the hotel to pack some sandwiches for my lunch as getting lunch while on road is really difficult here and they had my parcel ready for me! Upon reaching the rafting site I realized that it was much better to raft with a group. For rafting you need a minimum of 4 and a maximum of 6 people in the raft. If you are alone, you will have to wait for some people to join you. The group I joined had 5 people and I was the sixth. This made us a perfect group. We bargained some and settled on Rs. 1500 per person. This cost includes the rafting guide and the cost for a water proof bag to store our belongings.
We were given some instructions regarding how to peddle, steps to be taken in case the raft capsizes or if a single person is thrown overboard. Once we were suitably informed, our rafting guide handed our life jackets and our oars to us. Rafting tours are conducted in both Po Chu and Mo Chu, that is both the mother and the father river, but beginners can raft only in Mo Chu (the mother river) in winters. This is because winters are dry for Bhutan and thus rivers will have a low water level. This makes them shallow and filled with rocks and holes. In case of Mo Chu the rafting stretch is approximately 10 km that is 6 miles long has 10 class 1 and class 2 rapids.
On the other hand, Po Chu is about 16 km that is 10 miles long and has class 4 to class 6 rapids in winters. Only Mo Chu is advised for beginners in winters. In summers it is a different story and you can even take Kayaking trips in Mo Chu because of the tame nature of the river and increased water levels. Rafting starts from a very quiet serene part of the Mo Chu river. The river at the start of the rafting tour is very calm and has a very gentle current. This is best for amateur rafters like me as it gives you the time to orient yourself. As we started our rafting tour, our rafting guide started calling out some instructions and it took us some 10 minutes to establish coordination.
Once we were set, our guide started to chat with us. It turned out that he was a big fan of Bollywood movies and we bonded over movie talk. He was a great performer himself and started entertaining us by singing Hindi songs and reciting famous dialogues. Rafting was so far a really fun filled experience.
Fun took a pause as we approached our first rapid. Our guide gave us precise instructions as to when to peddle and when to stop. In addition to this to help our raft turn, he asked one side of the raft to peddle and the other side to sit still. Manoeuvring the raft through a fairly simple rapid proved to a bit of a challenging task for me. Once we had crossed the rapid we entered a very calm section of the river.
Seeing that we were all youngsters in the group, our guide suggested playing some fun water games. Mo Cho is a glacial river and thus the water is cold. So far our exposure to water was to the extent of water splashing when we were peddling. This was pleasant as it was helping us keep cool against the bright sunlight.
I realized that the water was ice cold when we started our water war. We filled our helmets splashed water at each other. This was super fun and helped us bond as group. Once we were reasonable wet he suggested change of games. He insisted that he will pin each one of us to the raft while we bend backwards to dip our head in water. This sounded like a whole lot of crazy, cold fun and we agreed to take turn one after the another. A guy named Raj from our group went first, the expression on his face once he came out from water is something I will never forget. I decided to go after him.
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I consciously started to bend backwards from the edge of the raft. The fun started once the back of my head hit the water and my helmet started filling with water. Within seconds I was upright again but time in water feels like long minutes and not seconds. Once I sat up, I realized the reason behind Raj’s expression. I could feel the cold water trickle through my dry back. This gave me a serious chill for a minute or two. This was an experience of a lifetime, the feeling of cold water droplets tricking through my heat warmed back is something that will stay with me forever.
While we were busy playing games the raft was rifting ahead with the current. We saw a beautiful island across the river and we decided to stop there. We got down roamed the small patch of land, clicked pictures and soaked our wet selves in the sun for some time. Once we’d had our dose of the beauty, we boarded our raft to go further down the river.
Our rafter guide noticed that we were considerably dry again and he insisted that we peddle in a way that our raft goes round and round so we can get a panoramic view of the sights. While we were labouring to peddle, we got wet again from the splashing of water resulting from rapid peddling. He tricked us into getting wet again and had a good laugh.
By this time, we had crossed 8 rapids and had the two most challenging ones remaining. The most difficult rapids are once the Po Chu and Mo Chu meet each other. You can feel the change in the temperament of the current at the confluence of both the rivers. Interestingly the water from Po Chu is colder than Mo Chu and a single splash is enough for you to feel the difference in the temperature of water.
We navigated the rapids and approached the Punakha Dongz. Punakha Dongz is built on the confluence of Pa Chu and Ma Chu. Rafting towards the Dongz was a mesmerizing experience. The 10 km long rafting session came to an end just after we crossed the Dongz and passed from under its bridge.
We were completely wet when we reached the end and finished the tour with a water fight. The most difficult task while shivering uncontrollably was getting rid of my wet jeans. It took me the better part of an hour to change and stop shivering.
Pema had brought the car while we were rafting and I was grateful to escape the cold and sit in the warm car. Even though I had stopped shivering, my fingers were still so numb that I couldn’t hold my phone properly. I saw the parcelled sandwiches and suddenly realised that I was starving. Pema suggested that there was a nice camping spot further down the river, we decided to stop there for lunch. After we reached the spot, I can say that it was by far the most picturesque lunch I had ever had. I wished for my lunch to never some to an end, like ever, but good things do come to an end and so did my lunch.
I boarded my car tired, full and satisfied. We left for Paro and within minutes of boarding I fell asleep. I am sure the road to Paro must have been awesome, but my tired self could only take so much awesomeness for one day.
Punakha White Water Rafting Tips
- Wear a lot of sunscreen lotion, the bright sunlight and exposure to sun for a long time leads a lot tanning.
- Wear comfortable, light clothes. Avoid jeans and other such tight clothes to ease changing once you are wet.
- Do not wear shoes. Instead go for crocs or flip flops.
- Carry a change of clothes as you will become wet whether you play water games or not.
- Bargain to get the best deal.
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