According to the 2017 population and housing census of Bhutan, youth (15-25 years old) unemployment stands at 10.6 percent, which presents an enormous challenge for a country that has just begun the process of graduating to a middle-income country (MIC). This high youth unemployment has a number of contributing factors, but the largest of those is the high dropout rate combined with a lack of education on the necessary skills to match the job market. There is also a tendency for youth to flock to urban areas from their villages, aggravating this problem further. In response to this dilemma, the Bhutan Foundation is working to help equip youth with the right skill sets key to providing gainful employment in their own communities. This works to curb rural-to-urban migration and create greater economic opportunities in the remote areas of Bhutan. 

One such remote area in Panbang is located near two of Bhutan’s largest rivers, the Drangme Chhu and Mangde Chhu, as well as the Royal Manas National Park. This picturesque park area contains rich biodiversity where tigers, golden langur, gaur, Asiatic water buffalo, and three species of hornbills cohabitate, making it a natural candidate for ecotourism projects to thrive. Owning to this potential for enterprise, the River Guides of Panbang (RGP) was established as a community-based whitewater ecotourism venture that is owned and operated by a group of locals who all started out as school dropouts when they opened the business. In addition to rafting services provided by RGP, the company also manages a tented camp called Marang Jungle Lodge, providing vital tourism services as well as employment in the area.

In October 2018, the River Guides took on an exciting initiative to train four new recruits, all youth from the area who have discontinued their schooling from either the 10th or 12th grade, in kayaking and whitewater safety. With guidance from a renowned kayaking expert from the United States, Kira Tenney, the four recruits, Rinchen Thobjur (20) and Sangay Dorji (22) from Khaktong village; Sangay Phuntsho (27) from Rebati village; and the lone female recruit, Tshering Choki (22) from Panbang, all trained alongside the older members for more than a month on both rivers. 

Tshering Choki, who also trained in guest services at the Amankora resort in Thimphu earlier in the year, has just completed training to become Bhutan’s first female safety kayaker. Having come from a family of seven children, Tshering helps out her mother and sister-in-law who she stays with at home. However, while the earnings from her new job help as an additional income for her family, she mostly values her position in society as a member of RGP and as the first female safety kayaker in the country. In her words, “I am grateful for this chance to prove that Bhutanese girls can also perform as well as the boys. We just need to be given an opportunity. I was exceptionally proud when I learnt how to roll my kayak.”

 “I am grateful for this chance to prove that Bhutanese girls can also perform as well as the boys. We just need to be given an opportunity. I was exceptionally proud when I learnt how to roll my kayak.”

—Tshering Choki

River Guides of Panbang is a Bhutan Foundation initiative. The whitewater safety and kayak training was carried out by Kira Tenney, in collaboration with the Tourism Council of Bhutan. Some gear was donated by Astral, NRS, and Confluence companies, and Mark and Cristina Pickard. The Global Tiger Centre funded a bird-watching training that was carried out by the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environmental Research.