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River cruise review: Bhutan and the Brahmaputra

Trip Reports

For over a year I had been looking forward to our intrepid trip to Bhutan, followed by a week on the Brahmaputra river. I know I am quite a trend-setter, but imagine my surprise when I heard the young royals Will and Kate would be following in our footsteps, visiting the remote Kaziranga National Park, and then to the magical mountain kingdom - I am glad we inspired them with our plans!

We flew into Bhutan via vibrant Kolkata, and after the overwhelming crowds, noise and heat of that amazing city it was extraordinary to touch down in Paro, the world's most dangerous airport, in the land of the thunder dragon. We had arrived just in time for the Paro Festival, or Tshechu as it is known locally. This multi-coloured religious celebration followed a traditional pattern with dances, rituals, music and celebration, with all the local people turning out in glorious national dress to join the spectacle, over a period of several days. Nothing could have prepared us for the joyous party atmosphere, the amazing masks or the eerily wailing music echoing across the valley.

The following day we had an early start to make the five hour round trip hike up the mountain to Taktsang Palphug Monastery, known as the Tiger's Nest, and the amazing scenery more than justified the effort (although only two of our party were up for it!).

Tiger's Nest monastery in Bhutan

We journeyed on to the country's capital Thimpu, where we met the national animal of Bhutan, the extraordinary takin; witnessed young apprentices learning the traditional crafts of embroidery, wood carving, sculpture and weaving; visited the extraordinary Buddha Dordenma, over 50 metres high; and admired the palaces and temples along the way.

On the road again our minibus bounced its way along unmade roads (Bhutanese massage, so our guide told us) up the valley to Dochula Pass, the highest point of our journey at over 3,000 metres, and the gateway to the lush low lying Punakha Valley. The morning was clear and bright, but nothing had prepared us for the glorious panorama as we reached the pass: the valley lay in misty folds below us, and at the horizon, the imposing outline of the snowy peaks of the Himalayas glinted in the sunshine.

After six fascinating days in this very special country, we flew on to Guwahati, capital of India's north-eastern state of Assam, dominated by the mighty Brahmaputra river, whose banks boast tea gardens, lush jungle and the stunning Kaziranga National Park, a World Heritage site which is home to two thirds of the world's great one-horned rhinoceroses.

One-horned rhinoceros in Kaziranga National Park, India

We joined the Mahabaahu, our home for the next seven days, to start the journey up river through extraordinary scenery, with sand-banks and islands newly deposited by the Brahmaputra carrying mud and silt the long distance from its Himalayan source. Local tribes welcomed us to their river-side settlements, totally remote from civilisation (although even the poorest boasted solar panels to charge their mobile phones).

We marvelled at pictures straight from our school geography books, of stately women, beautifully clad in brightly coloured saris, picking the first flush tea of vibrant green. We were wowed by the wonderful music and local dancing on Mahjuli, the world's largest riverine island, and explored the remains left by Assam's Ahom Kings, visitors from the east who ruled Assam for 600 years. But nothing beat clambering onto elephants at dawn to stride across the plains and watch the rhinos grazing peacefully in the elephant grass.

Locals in Assam on a Brahmaputra river cruise, India

On board we were nurtured and nourished, and as our magical journey came to an end with one more glorious sunset, we looked back on days packed with new experiences on a very special trip to the end of the earth.

Edwina Lonsdale, Mundy Cruising
Meet the author

Edwina Lonsdale is Managing Director and, together with husband Matthew, owner of Mundy Cruising.

More about Edwina

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