Our 10-day trip in Bhutan was filled with highlights after another from festival after festival to scenic and cultural hikes, etc. And we have concluded the trip with the highlight of all highlights – the hike to the legendary Takshang Lakhang, better known as Tiger’s Nest Monastery.
Tiger’s Nest Monastery is believed to be the birthplace of Buddhism in Bhutan, making it the most sacred monastery in the country. Precariously perched high up on a sheer cliff a dizzying 10,000 feet/3,048 meter above sea level, it certainly also has the most stunning and fascinating location.
Why is it called the Tiger’s Nest? Legend has it that in 8th century Guru Rinpoche, also known as Padmasambhava and one of the holiest figure in Mahayana Buddhism, flew to this exact spot from Tibet on a back of a tigress (who was a manifestation of his divine consort). He came to subdue a demon and then took residence in a cave where he meditated for 3 years, 3 months and 3 days. He then started the conversion of Bhutanese into Buddhism.
The monastery was built in 1692 around the cave where Guru meditated. Today, it is a cultural icon of Bhutan. A trip to Bhutan is not complete without a visit to this sacred site.
But how to get there? For those of us with no tantric powers to turn our partners into flying tigers, there are two ways to reach the monastery. The challenging option is to hike all the way up and the easier (but not safer) option is to ride a horse up to allowed points and then hike from there. We chose the challenging (and humbling) option.
We started the hike on the valley floor 7,000 ft/2,100 meter above sea level. The monastery looks like a tiny white speck from here (see the cliff on the right side). With elevation gain of aboutt 3,000 ft/900 meter, it took us around 2 hours and half to reach the monastery, including lunch stop at the half-way point (one hour to the cafeteria and 45 minutes from there to the monastery).
From the valley, the trail slowly and gently climb into a pine forest where we passed by several structures containing water-powered prayer wheels surrounded by prayer flags. We would like to believe that they were placed on that spot to bestow blessings of stamina to hikers passing by – because from there the trail went into a steep, arduous, steady climb up to the ridge.
Some people in our group took a horse ride up to the cafeteria, the rest stop that marks as the half way point. Horses can be taken further up to the second viewpoint. We were advised to stay on the side of the mountain when we see the horses on the path. They tend to veer on the edge. It looked scary for us. Just one misstep can cause them to fall over. We heard there were some accidents in the past. That said, we don’t recommend the horse ride. It’s better to work on being fit before the trip and walk the trail.
A signage along the trail reminds visitors that this is no ordinary hiking trail – it is a sacred site, a place of pilgrimage. Bhutanese come to this place to pay honor to as well as seek blessings from Guru Rinpoche.
We read and heard that the hike was not going to be easy. We thought, hey, we had done a lot of challenging and longer treks so it should not be too strenuous for us – but it was. We were humbled. To catch our breaths, we stopped to look up at the monastery everytime it came into view. Sometimes it appeared closer and then it would appear farther away again.
Halfway to the cafeteria, we saw a group of monks turning to a narrow path that veered off from the main path. They told us that it was a short cut route. A short cut was a good idea at this point, and we thought it would be interesting to hang out with the monks on the trail and so we followed them. (They were climbing with big boxes and bags of food supply to take to fellow monks at a monastery that was even higher than the Tiger’s Nest!)
Well, the short cut route turned out to be way much steeper, making our pace much slower. It probably took us longer to climb the shortcut route than it would have taken us if we have climbed the regular route. Advice: it’s not always a good idea to follow monks. But we had fun talking to them. They were friendly, funny and seemed to enjoy practicing their English with us.
After an hour of seemingly eternal climb, we reached the ridge marked by a chorten, prayer flags, series of prayer wheels and a breathtaking view of the monastery. The cafeteria was a short walk from here.
Finally, we reached the cafeteria, the halfway point and the first viewpoint. A hearty buffet lunch was well-deserved. From here the view of the monastery and the cliff was even more dramatic. We learned that many people ended their hike at this point. In fact, only five out of ten people in our group chose to continue the hike up to the monastery from here.
Tiger’s Nest Monastery is the one hanging on the cliff on the right side. The even higher structure sitting on the top of the left cliff is the monastery where the monks we met on the trail were delivering food suply for their fellow monks on meditation retreat. We bet it would earn them higher spiritual merits.
After lunch, we continued on to the second half of our hike. Our guide told us that this part was easier than the first half. We thought that he lied because the trail was still steep, but the view of the Paro Valley along the way was breathtaking.
And finally the trail flattened! It is true after all that the second part is easier (for now). We savoured the joy of walking horizontally and the feeling of mystery that shrouded this part of the trail.
We passed by this shrine which houses a cave where a high lama was born. We climbed the stairs to take a peek inside and saw a photo of the holy lama and money thrown in by the faithful. We also passed by other small structures between here and the monastery, some of which were amazingly wedged between the cracks of the cliff. They are retreat houses for lamas who are on extended period of retreat – just like what Guru Riponche did – for 3 years, 3 months and 3 days.
It looked like we could touch the monastery from the viewpoint. But it was a wishful thinking, it was still on the far end of the deep valley. From here, the trail turned into steep descending steps before it climb up again, over 700 steps in all.
The monastery looked farther up again as we followed the descending step trail.
The stair trail plunged into a bridge across a lovely waterfall that was cascading into a sacred pool. From here, the stair started to climb up to the monastery. After 100 steep steps we were finally at the monastery entrance.
It was exhilarating to finally reach Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Alas, photography is not allowed inside. We had to check our backpacks, cameras and phones at the entrance. Our guide, who we only saw few times on the trail (he was running back and forth on the trail checking on everyone in our group), asked us to remove our shoes and then showed us the inner sanctum of the monastery.
We learned that there were several temples within the monastery. We visited three where statues of Guru Rinpoche in his various manifestations were on display behind glass walls. There were also statues of other Buddhist deities as well as beautiful religious paintings. Other than the cave where Guru Rinpoche meditated, the monastery also houses several medication caves of other holy people in Buddhist history, including Guru’s consort. The meditation cave of Guru Rinpoche is sealed off behind a gilded shutter in a small temple. It is only opened once a year.
The atmosphere throughout the monastery was mystical. We were enveloped with a deep sense of calmness and peace. We received a blessing from a monk at one of the temples. We felt like we were true pilgrims.
Having experienced the way of a pilgrim, we were filled with the sense that our journey in Bhutan was complete. We descended with a feeling of lightness. And yes, the hike downward was much easier.
- Wear sturdy sport shoes, preferably hiking shoes. Also wear thick socks. You will have to remove your shoes before entering the monastery and the floor is cold!
- Bring your hiking poles. If you don’t have one, you can purchase a wooden walking stick at the parking lot for US$1. (Our friend Nadine took hers home as a precious souvenir.)
- Bring a rain gear. Weather can be unpredictable. (It rained without a hint of dark clouds during our hike, but fortunately we were already in the monastery when it poured.)
- Do the hike at the end of your trip to give you more time to acclimatize to the altitude.
- Manage your pace. Walk slow but steady. Avoid walking fast and stopping too much. It will be taxing to your lungs and you will expend too much energy.
- Make sure not to arrive at the monastery close to 12:00 noon. You will be rushed to get out of there as the monastery closes for lunch between 12:00 and 1:00 pm. (We met people who were very disappointed that they didn’t have enough time at the monastery.)
- Most people start the hike very early in the morning to avoid mid-day heat. We didn’t start ours until mid-day as our flight didn’t arrive Paro from Bumthang until that morning. As we were hiking up, most people were descending. We found out that starting late was a good thing because when we reached the monastery we had it all to ourselves. And since most part of the trail is shaded by foliage, we hardly felt the mid-day heat.
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