***Travel Permit Required***
You may have already read about the amazing Putao region on the ‘Trekking’ pages of our website. But the far north of Myanmar offers even more adventure than walks into pristine valleys and mountain climbs; this totally unspoilt region is also the location of some of the world’s best white-water rafting. Only 500 or so foreign visitors make it to this region each year, so there are typically only a couple of scheduled departures each year. We can arrange extra trips however, subject to minimum numbers of participants. Please contact Mr Myanmar Travel as far in advance as possible if you would like us to arrange a place on a Virgin River rafting trip.
Virgin River rafting takes place on two rivers in northern Kachin State; the Nam Lang and Mayhka rivers, – two totally different experiences:
The Nam Lang adventure features class 3 – 4 whitewater and travels through thickly forested canyons with impressive scenery. This is a short trip with one days trekking and two days on the river. It is suitable for almost all age groups and trips can be run between November and April subject to a minimum group of 4 persons.
The Mayhka river, the ‘Everest of Rivers’, is quite different. This is the most extreme, multi-day river expedition in the world – bar none. This expedition spends 11 days on a river with class 5-6 rapids, and travels through totally unexplored valleys in one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. If you are a white-water enthusiast ... this 180km adventure is the ultimate experience.
The following are sample itineraries, and are subject to change.
Nam Lang River.
Day 1. An hour's drive from our accommodation, Upper Sangaung is the end of the road and the beginning of the trek into the Nam Lang. We trek at a leisurely pace to our camp just over the beside the Nam Lang river. This day is about five to six hours of trekking without too much in the way of steep sections. In traditional style the porters carry all the expedition food and equipment leaving us free to enjoy this scenic trek through untouched forest. If the weather is clear the views of snow-capped peaks towards the border of Arunachal Pradesh and Mt Phonghun Razi are spectacular. The final couple of hours walk downhill through impressive forest of giant trees brings us to the Nam Lang River and the starting point for our rafting journey. The first river canyon is marked by a rattan and Bamboo Bridge across the river, our stunning riverside camp for the night is just below the bridge. The canyon is an impressive place with deep pools of turquoise water and some premium swimming holes. The private camp is very tastefully sculptured into a huge rock platform that juts out over the Nam Lang River and tent sites back from here merge into the surrounding jungle.
Day 2 After breakfast everyone is fitted with rafting gear, the trip leader and safety kayaker will then give an extensive lesson in river safety and paddling technique. Most of the people we take down the river have never been in a raft before, and it is a great pleasure and responsibility to introduce people to our passion. Rafting on the Nam Lang is sort of a full body activity, with much more involved than simply paddling forward and backward. You learn how to throw your body weight around the raft in desperate, yet effective attempts to swing the raft around boulders and through hydraulics. It's sort of like playing Simon Says in a big rubber playpen sliding down a roller-coaster while you get water thrown on you. Fun!
The guides tie all the equipment into the rafts, which is quite a thing to witness. Twenty years of running rivers has taught us a lot, not the least of which is how to tie a load so it stays put no matter what. A raft trip down the Nam Lang isn't just a vacation, it's an education. Our river guides spend the first part of the morning explaining the finer points on how to paddle through whitewater and stay in the raft as it bucks and contorts through rapids. The guides will also teach you what they look out for when they run a river, the innocuous looking rise in the water that hides a hole, or the way you can use a pillow of water rebounding off a rock to push the raft where you want it. Whitewater rafts are amazingly versatile and stable crafts, and in the care of an expert raft guide it is possible to run challenging lines safely and confidently. Your guide is a professional, someone who has devoted their life to learning and running rivers. Under his or her careful indoctrination the raft crew learns how to work as a team, practicing on the numerous smaller rapids we encounter on the first few hours on the river.
The Nam Lang river is without a doubt one of the most exciting things you can do in Myanmar and quite possibly one of the most scenic rafting trips offered anywhere; a unique combination of exceptionally fun and challenging rapids without it ever getting past the point of recreation. The next rapid is never far downstream and pools of calm clear water give a chance to reflect on the awesome beauty surrounding the river. Emerald green forest extends high above the river on precipitous slopes; curious villagers lining suspension bridges are amazed as we drift past below.
From the start of the Nam Lang River we have 60 kilometers of living for no other purpose other than to see how much fun we can have. Life is reduced to eat, sleep, explore and play. In accomplishing these things, you'll be amazed at how much you can learn, and more importantly, how much you'll forget. In no time at all the amalgamation of all your concerns will seem distant, unimportant and eventually, unworthy of your attention.
Total river time today is about five hours on the water. There is a large Rawang village that is worth visiting before we take an isolated loop into the lower canyons. Two hours below this village and we have some excellent technical rapids finished off with a long chute that drops about 10 feet in 100 yards. From here we raft another two hours down to our camp on a pristine sandy beach in the heart of the canyon.
Day 3 In the morning everyone comes to breakfast where a huge pot of cowboy coffee is waiting. Coffee not only wakes us up, it also insulates us from the fear of being a sentient being early in the morning, when the vastness of the world and the smallness of our place on it, is so clearly seen.
After a hearty breakfast we start the days rafting and about 45 minutes later we get to the crux of the day. Three challenging rapids are stacked in succession in a tight bedrock canyon. The guides scout all these rapids as with changing river levels they can become interesting. A giant boulder garden marks the entrance rapid then things settle down for about 100 meters then it's back into the soup with a steep drop that leads into a wave train that leads into a large hydraulic. The trio of rapids ends with a bang in a series of drops between massive boulders.
The rapids are by no means over and every corner has a rapid on it. The rock canyon is stunningly beautiful. From here it is about three hours rafting out to our accommodation. Back at the hotel it is time for a welcome hot shower then a few drinks to relive the last four days of adventure, followed by a sumptuous meal in the main dining room. We believe that you will sleep well tonight.
This section of the Nam Lang has considerable current all through the trip as the gradient is about 25 ft / mile. Flows vary from about 3-5000 CFS (cubic feet per second) at the takeout. The water runs crystal clear through the whole season. There are a lot of tributaries all the way down the river and it grows considerably as it goes. Most rapids are grade 2-3 and fairly straight forward but the final long canyon has class 4 rapids in there. These can be portaged if needed.
All camps on the Nam Lang trip have permanent dining / relaxing thatched halls with an open fireplace, hot showers, toilets and a kitchen so we can rough it in style. Sleeping is in spacious expedition tents. Each campsite has been carefully selected for its spectacular location and distinct character. The camps have been designed in local village style and are carefully integrated into the surrounding forest and land creating enchanted forest and river sanctuaries surrounded by pristine jungle.
Season of operation on the Nam Lang is early November right through till March which coincides with the tourist season in Myanmar. In early November the river flows are higher but the area seems to have a large catchment and due to the amount of forest and water coming off all the time even at lower flows the river is also enjoyable. Flows in March can increase dramatically with seasonal storms passing through. The whitewater is only a small part of this trip and the opportunity to explore one of the most pristine forests left on the planet and see remote villages is a big part of what makes the Nam Lang expedition special.
"Myanmar's Impossible River"
South East Asia's last well-kept secret, the Mayhka means Mother river, but the local Rawang people call it the Impossible River because the terrain is so steep and convoluted that it is difficult to farm and damn hard to get anywhere. The easier rapids on the Mayhka hold Zambezi style whitewater with some premiere play waves and holes. The harder rapids are not unlike the Yarlung Tsangpo, Biblical in size and closely resembling a toilet flushing into an industrial roto-tiller. The only consolation being that everything finishes in a pool, so you can actually get out there amongst it all and run meaty lines. Sheer granite walls are polished 60 feet above the river indicating the height of monsoon flows and it is intimidating to even consider being here when the river is running high. Contrary to human nature, don't try to convince yourself that the rapids would wash out. When planning this trip we have decided to run the river in late winter so we would have the lowest water flows possible and settled weather.
In February and March of 2003 a team of kayakers and rafters including members from the Tsangpo 2002 expedition were invited into Northern Myanmar (Burma) to be the first to explore the rivers of Kachin State. These rivers are fed by the eastern-most Himalayan peaks high up near the isolated border between Myanmar, India and Tibet. The team was searching for potential commercial river trips and completed the first descent of the Mayhka River and tributaries, the Headwaters of the Ayeyarwady, literally the lifeblood of Myanmar itself. In the process, we discovered what is probably the most challenging wilderness rafting trip on the planet. This is basically the "Everest of Rivers", the 2005 expedition was the first commercial raft descent through one of the world's least explored areas.
This expedition is extreme. The water is challenging and powerful and the area is totally isolated. We'll rely heavily on our extensive expertise and experience to raft what is one of the planet's great unexplored rivers. A special permit has been allowed by the Govt. of Myanmar to run this pioneering expedition and it is not very often that anyone gets the chance to explore one of the last frontiers of wilderness left on our planet.
The Mayhka river guides have been hand- picked for their skills and attitude, all are veterans of previous epic wild descents around the world. New Zealander David Allardice (team leader), 46, has decades of leading edge river exploration in remote areas. Englishman Allan Ellard, 29, and his paddling partner New Zealander Mike Abbott, 31, have notched up more first descents in the Himalayas than anyone and are renowned for their expedition boating skills. American Scott Lindgren has pioneered and documented extreme descents worldwide with his renowned production company Scott Lindgren Production. South African Steve Fischer, 27, grew up paddling on the Zambezi and is famed worldwide for his considerable ability in big violent water. Australian Pat O'Keefe, 40, runs a leading Outdoor Adventure operation in Hokkaido and has pioneered rivers in Myanmar, Japan and Nepal. Stan Ricketts is a legend in rafting circles and excels in big volume water. Mahindra Thapa is one of Nepal's leading raft guides and has years of hard-core international experience.
Itinerary - 26 days
Day 1 Arrive Yangon - stay Sedona Hotel
Day 2 Fly Putau and transfer to The Lisu
Day 3 Truck to Ratbo
Day 4-6 Trek to Bang Nam Dhim
Day 7-22 Raft and explore the Mayhka River to Laugkhang
Day 23 Drive to Myitkyina - Hotel
Day 24 Fly Yangon - Sedona Hotel
Day 25 Yangon
Day 26 Depart Myanmar
Detailed Expedition Itinerary
Day 1 If you have never been to Myanmar before, you're in for an amazing experience. This is a place of deep religious customs and our expedition pioneers some of the most radical topography on earth. Once you leave Yangon there is little to remind you of the world you have left behind. It's a great place to escape to and learn from.
After clearing immigration and customs a short bus ride takes us to the Hotel Sedona in downtown Yangon. That evening our staff will escort the group to dinner in one of Yangon's better restaurants and we'll run through the itinerary, check gear requirements, and introduce our team to the expedition members.
Day 2 Snow capped mountains tower above the runway as our aircraft touches down at Putao, the northern most airstrip in Kachin State. At this frontier town we meet up with the rest of the expedition staff. A short drive from the airport brings us to the luxury of the Lisu.
Day 3 If the road is in good shape we have a day’s challenging driving to get to the end of the road at Ratbo. This rough road journey is an expedition in itself and the countryside is beautiful to say the least. After a hearty breakfast we board our vehicles and head off for a full day of action packed transportation thrills. We stop for rest breaks, and the scenery as we traverse the mountain ridges is varied and splendid. When the vehicles roll into Ratbo, we stop and make camp in the village where you can bathe and relax in the shade of the trees overlooking the charming river, or wander through the surrounding village.
Day 4-6 Trek to Bang Nam Dhim. First thing in the morning our Local Guide will show up at the Village Headman's house with a tough looking crew of farm boys and women who will carry all the expedition gear two days to the river. These wiry people with quick smiles and quiet manners have left their farms for a couple of days for the chance to earn cash money, a rare thing in this part of the world. Gear is divided up, prices haggled, and these stout-hearted men and women then pick up loads with their necks, which can exceed their body weight, and head on up the trail. It's quite a sight to watch a 60-kilo man in his mid thirties trudge up a steep mountain trail with a 70-kilo raft hanging off a strap which runs across his forehead. We really try to look after the porters and have three porters for each raft, so they swap around when they need to as these are heavy loads. This part of Myanmar sees no tourism, and the villages and farms along the way are much the way rural Myanmar has been for hundreds of years. In this remote part of Myanmar, the villagers have seen only a handful of westerners and their smiles and friendship are genuine.
For the most part the trail winds through dense sub-tropical forest with lush vines and creepers entwined in sculptured trees. Legendary British explorer Frank Kingdon-Ward passed through this area in the 1920's and described the area as one of the most beautiful places he had ever been, walking through a living paradise of old growth climax forest you would have to agree with him. Leaving Gawle village behind we climb steeply all day to the pass that separates us from the Mayhka river valley. Upon cresting the top of the hill we catch our first glimpse of the Mayhka river snaking below. After an extremely steep descent through thick forest we reach the Village of Bhang Nam Dhim with the Mayhka river flowing crystal clear beneath suspension bridge that crosses to the village.
After months of planning we are about to attempt the one of the great un-explored rivers of Asia .
Day 7-22 Raft and explore the Mayhka River to Laugkhang.
30 kilometers above Bhang Nam Dhim two tributaries meet and join forces to become the Nam Tamai, the main Myanmar artery of the Mayhka. The Nam Tamai flows at about 4,000 CFS (cubic foot per second) a champagne blue colour. Below After collecting 2 more tributaries below Bhang Nam Dhim the river becomes the Maykha. At our put in point we inflate the rafts and the guides tie all the equipment into the rafts, which is quite a thing to witness. Twenty years of running rivers has taught us a lot, not the least of which is how to tie a load so it stays put no matter what. The whole village and all our porters will be there to see us off.
Our river guides spend the first part of the morning explaining the finer points of how to paddle through whitewater and stay in the raft as it bucks and contorts through the rapids. For those who missed a point in the previous lesson, there is a lesson on how to swim through whitewater, using your flotation device to keep your head up and your feet to push off of rocks. The guides will also teach you what they are looking for when they run the river - the innocuous looking rise in the water that hides a hole, or the way you can use the pillow of water rebounding off a rock to push the raft where you want it. Whitewater rafts are amazingly versatile and stable craft, and in the care of an expert raft guide it is possible to run exhilarating lines safely and confidently. Your guides are professionals who have devoted their lives to learning and running whitewater rivers. Under their careful indoctrination the raft crew learns how to work as a team, practicing on the numerous smaller rapids we encounter on the first two hours of the river. Teamwork is what makes it possible to run any river safely, and this extends beyond your raft. All the rafts and safety kayakers work as a team, communicating with and supporting each other - it's impressive to watch. You are never in a rapid alone. By the time we get to the really big rapids, the crews will be working together with impressive timing and precision. The major rapids are all scouted which gives us the opportunity to choose the most exhilarating route and decide on what safety is needed. It's also an excellent opportunity to take photos and watch the runs of the other craft.
In the shallows above each rapid you can see phenomenal numbers of huge fish as we drift through a living green corridor. Every day is liquid bliss; cataracts mile after mile with lush jungle clinging precariously to canyon walls and surreal mountains suspended high above the forested ridges. Each valley brings in a powerful stream and there are countless valleys. It takes little time before the river volume gets to roughly 12,000 CFS; basically the volume of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. By the time we get to Laugkhang, the river will be flowing an extremely powerful 30,000 CFS.
There is no feeling quite like being in the middle of wilderness where every new rapid is a new game. Running an unknown river focuses your concentration; from the moment you put on river gear in the morning until you drag yourself onto a beach at night the rest of your life ceases to exist. Teamwork and communication are crucial as we work our way downstream and the realization that we are really out there in terms of isolation is intense. Few other sports require the skills that expedition kayaking and rafting demand; it is a liquid environment that allows little margin for error and you are always mentally and intuitively making adjustments accordingly. There is no turning back once you cross the lip of commitment, going off the line you have chosen and you could end up in a powerful re-circulating hydraulic and in many places swimming is not an option. This is the hardest water any of us have contemplated with expedition rafting members and we take it very seriously.
Our day to day itinerary is not set in concrete and depends on our progress downstream. We plan to stop overnight at Ridam Village, the only village of any size on this section of the river. A Rawang tribal village, Ridam has seen pretty well no foreigners other than our exploratory trips. Staying overnight here promises to be a highlight and an amazing chance to experience a totally different way of life.
The Mayhka River gorge is one of the most heavily forested and pristine areas in the world. Wildlife is abundant, as the steep canyon walls make access impossible in many parts except by the river. When the locals living in the area do manage to find one of our campsites, the rewards are mutual. Imagine a grizzled old man carrying a knife, a bamboo poison arrow container and crossbow walking along a beach he has walked along a dozen times before in his constant ramblings for food, and then one day he steps onto the beach and there, sprawled out across the sand, are three rafts, a half dozen bright plastic kayaks, and the whitest people he has ever seen in his life. From the Iron Age to the Space Age in a few feet of sand. It's like being five years old and the circus comes to town. Puzzlement quickly gives way to curiosity as the bright colours and friendly faces of the river camp make him welcome. We are just as amazed and impressed by his life as a hunter-gatherer as he is by our incredible assortment of high-tech river gear and loaded food barrels. Far away from the heavily trodden trails and towns, the people along the Mayhka are remarkably friendly and curious.
In the upper stretches of the river the campsites are few and far between while camping on the lower Mayhka is awesome. The massive floods of the monsoon deposit huge tracks of pure white sand along the river that are ideal to camp on. We will have at least one layover day where we stay at the same river camp for two nights. You can also take advantage of the layover day to trek to a peak or nearby village or maybe you would rather read a book or sketch in the shade of a tree, it's up to you. If you're into fishing, the Mayhka offers the best fishing in Myanmar . Some of the masheer and catfish get big enough to scare you. If you're an avid fisherman, be sure to bring your kit along - you won't be disappointed and we really would like fresh fish on the menu.
When initially researching the river from maps we estimated that we had about 85 miles with an average gradient of 12 ft/mile, and 60 miles at 25 ft/mile. With these gradients we had been concerned that there wouldn't be too many extreme rapids but the river consistently manages to store gradient for one to two miles then let it all go at once with impressive results. Frequent scouting is mandatory and portaging very difficult due to the constricted river channel and conglomeration of house sized boulders. It is only on the last few days that the river eases and spreads, and it is possible to paddle without so much scouting. After days of continuous hard rapids It's a novelty to be able to see the bottom of a rapid from the top. There are still huge hydraulics but also space to move around.
On the last day as we drift downstream we'll come across Chinese loggers blasting a road and trucking all the timber out, it is a shocking reintroduction to civilization. This area is on the cusp of change as roads are pushed upstream. The Mayhka valley has gold, gems and pristine forests and there are Chinese businessmen filtering across the border for these very reasons. Environmentally the clock is ticking for one of the last true wilderness areas left in S.E Asia.
From our last campsite nestled in the rock formations of the lower canyon we drift down to Laugkhang, the first town we've seen for 15 days. Laugkhang isn't much of a town, but even so it's hard to get re-accustomed to the sounds of civilization. Even a little town like Laugkhang serves to remind us just how quiet the last 15 days have been. Having successfully completed the descent of the Mayhka River we should all be ready for a celebration.
Day 23 If all goes according to plan it takes 12 hours and 70 miles from Laugkhang to get to a real road at Myitkyina, where we'll overnight in one of the towns best hotels.
Day 24 Fly back to Yangon, staying at the Sedona Hotel.
Day 25 R&R in Yangon. This amazing capital city is well worth some time exploring and we'll show you some of our favourite places before enjoying a farewell expedition meal.
Day 26 Depart Myanmar.