It wasn’t until the first few seconds prior to boarding the raft that I felt the first tinge of fear, of panic, of terror. I’ve always been terrified of water ever since I was a little boy. I get queasy every time I have to get into it, and here I was on a raft in the middle of one of the world’s wildest rivers – phochu – frothing angrily ahead. Until then I had been congratulating myself heartily over my equanimity. Now I was just about clinging to a rapidly fraying sense of self-possession.
“Don’t think. Don’t look at the water. Look straight ahead,” I was repeating the guide’s instructions to myself, when seemingly far away, his voice like something out of a dream, I heard him begin the countdown: Three… two…. “Just like riding a bike,” I told myself as I felt a light nudge on my back at the count of three and proceeded immediately to cling on to the rope on the sides of the red raft.
I found myself rushing headlong towards the foaming river ahead, my heart in my throat, and an indescribable sense of ecstasy mingling with the sheer panic and terror. “This is not quite how I expected it to be,” was my first thought, followed immediately by: “This is even better than I expected it to be.”
It was a rush, all right – of sailing, flying, hurtling through the air as the raft threw us off and into the water. Within seconds, the ecstasy was rapidly giving way to raw panic.
It was just then that I felt a hand grab my shirt trying to pull me back up. Before I’d gotten into the raft I’d imagined myself screaming wildly the moment we’d be thrust around by the river current, but it was only now that I found the voice to cry out – the scream an expression as much of a sense of relief and catharsis as of exhilaration. So, as I was pulled back up, the force of the jerk from the rapids sent me falling back into the wild river again. And again. And again, a human yo-yo, bobbing up and down, the phochu raging below angrily, and above me the red raft from where I’d been thrown into the river not too many moments ago.
And then, after the bobbing was done with, as I descended ever so swiftly downwards into the current, was definitely the most harrowing of the entire experience. As I was plunging deep into the white waters without any support whatsoever, midway between the raft above and the safety of the thin strip of dry land beside the river, my immediate thought was that I was doomed; that somehow or the other I’d drown.
Spinning around without control, I first tried looking up towards the raft, and then, upon finding that position impossible to maintain, tried looking straight down towards the river, joining my palms together as if I were diving. Needless to say, this made me feel extremely panicky, so, finally, I just submitted myself to the whirl of river, sky, hills, forest and my guide and his assistant.
It wasn’t until I felt the guide haul me slowly up once again towards the raft that I breathed a sigh of relief. The final moments were spent trying to negotiate the current with as little discomfort as possible, a feat that for all intents and purposes may be considered next to impossible.
I cannot describe the palpable sense of relief I felt when my fingers finally grasped the hand held out by the guide from the raft.
Lying prostrate on the bed beside the river, as the crew removed my life vest, the first thing out of my mouth was a question addressed to the guide: “Do you have a cigarette, achu?”
The answer was negative, and I cursed myself upon being told that I could have sneaked one through instead of having followed the instructions with absolute thoroughness and emptied my pockets completely. So, in lieu of the smoke I craved for, I had to satisfy myself with the bottle of water that I was handed. Which, in hindsight, was not too bad a trade off, given that I had to walk back up to car park, a climb that does much to rid one of the every vestige of adrenaline, and can be quite an ordeal if one is unfit.
Even at the mercy of the river currents, white water rafting in Punakha, apart from being among the best in the world, is also quite possibly one of the most spectacular. Flanked by the lush green hills of the Punakha valley, the river rushes on far below, turquoise during the dry months, but in the monsoons muddy with silt. It is hard to imagine a more pristine setting.
And while the rafting, and the turbulence you encounter, are undoubtedly the star attractions of what is billed as Bhutan’s premier adventure playground, Little Bhutan offers a wealth of other adventure sport opportunities too, including mountain biking, rock climbing and of course rafting expeditions on the raging waters of the phochu and mochu. But from all the other adrenalin sports in Bhutan, white water rafting in Punakha is considered by many to be the best short distance rafting experience in the world.
However, if adventure sports are not quite your cup of tea, a trip to the Punakha dzong is still a worthwhile experience for the quite spectacular drive from Thimphu, if for nothing else. While the dry seasons – with the panoramic view of the Himalayas and that of the sea-green rivers threading their way by the highway – are the best times to make the journey, a drive during the monsoons too has its attractions: namely, the high mountain passes that the winding highway threads its way through.
And if you ask me if I would I do it all over again? The answer is yes, without a doubt.