Riding waves: first-ever Bhutanese female kayaker

Tshering, gearing up for her duty as a river guide.

KARMA CHIMI | Zhemgang

In a country where women are breaking barriers and stereotypes, Tshering Choki a 27-year-old river guide and adventurer from Panbang has set a new standard as Bhutan’s first and only female kayaker.

She is breaking new ground in a sport that has traditionally been male-dominated as a river guide and a rescuer.

Kayaking is the use of a kayak, somewhat similar to a canoe, for moving over water but Tshering is more into rafting and guides the people that come to avail of the rafting services in Panbang. In addition, she also acts as a rescuer.

Tshering’s kayaking career started when she was approached by the members of River Guides of Panbang (RGP) after she had completed high school in 2017.

It was during an expedition in 2018 in Yangbari, Mongar that her male counterparts encouraged her to join the team as they were in need of a female kayaker. She has not looked back ever since.

She recounts how, while on the expedition, she came dangerously close to the jaws of death and briefly considered quitting her job. However, the incident only made her more resolute and she quips that it was an event she will never forget.

Although she was initially scared of the water and the river, through sheer determination and experience she has now overcome that fear.

Her dedication and perseverance led her to a month-long training from an American expert and with support from the Bhutan Foundation, the Department of Tourism, and her colleague she went on to receive her international certificate and training in Nepal.

“What I am doing is shattering norms and stereotypes. This job has never been undertaken by a woman in the country, and I believe that if a woman puts her heart and soul into anything, she can accomplish everything a man can,” said Tshering.

Ugyen Tshering, one of the founding members of RGP said that Tshering had to undergo various training and that the group helped her in every possible way they could. “Tshering is equivalent to male kayakers and river guides in the group,” said Ugyen.

However, the members of RGP feel that with fewer visitors and tourists coming to Panbang post-pandemic and with married life, Tshering’s skills may gradually wane and become obsolete.

Nevertheless, her fellow RGP members are determined to make her the first female kayaking instructor in the country and upskill her to the highest level.

Tshering Choki (right) training a youth on kayaking. (Pic: River Guides of Panbang)

Tshering’s family has been supportive of her career choice as a river guide and she intends to earn her living through it. Her ultimate goal is to get more training and improve her capabilities.

When asked if she would be able to save people if they fell into the river while rafting, she says with ease that safety precautions have been taken and that she would be capable of doing so thanks to the procedures that the river guides have been trained in.

Despite the pandemic putting a damper on RGP’s business, Tshering remains optimistic and hopes to see the business thrive in the coming days and months. Usually, before the pandemic, she used to earn around 30,000 in a month and sometimes even more.

Tshering Choki is a member of the River Guides of Panbang’s nine-person team. The group was established in 2011 to improve Pangang’s economic situation and give locals a substitute for the declining orange industry’s earnings.

The lone female kayaker is a shining example of how women can break barriers and excel in male-dominated fields and she is an inspiration to many young girls and women in Bhutan.

Tshering’s story proves that with determination and hard work, anything is possible.

This article is supported by the GEF-UNDP Ecotourism Project under the Department of Tourism