Tiger’s Nest: The Jewel in Bhutan’s Crown

dscn5023Tiger’s Nest is likely to be the main factor in most visitors’ decisions to come to Bhutan. Despite being a country of almost unrivalled beauty, Taktsang is by far and away the jewel in the crown of this tiny Himalayan kingdom. Perched precariously at the very edge of a sheer mountain face, the location of the monastery almost defies belief and the views from the hike on the way up are unparalleled in their splendour. A visit to Bhutan would not be complete without stopping at this amazing landmark.

Situated a short drive from the small township of Paro, Tiger’s Nest (or Taktsang as it is known to the Bhutanese) is perched impossibly on a mountainside some 3,120 metres above sea level. It is known as Tiger’s Nest owing to a story telling of Guru Rinpoche arriving here from Tibet on the back of a demoness whom he had subdued and transformed into a flying tigress. He meditated in a cave here for a period of three years, three months, three weeks and three days, anointing the location into the bargain. The monastery itself was built in this location in 1692 to honour Rinpoche’s actions here and his noteworthy deeds in other areas of the country.

Reaching the site of the monastery involves undertaking a hike with an incline of some 900 metres at a distance of four kilometres or so from base to peak. Anyone with decent levels of fitness should have no problems with the hike up although I recommend you get in some hiking practice or hit the stepper at the gym (I overkilled on this method!) before you arrive. As you work your way higher up the mountain range, there is a noticeable thinning of the air but this didn’t cause me or my (far less fit) travel companion too many problems. Anyone still worried about reaching the summit can rent a horse to take them to the tea house at the halfway point, although this is as far as these beasts of burden are allowed to go.

After navigating our way through a small area replete with seller’s pushing their wares, we bartered a horse for Shayne (1,200 ngultrum for foreigners) and then we were on our way. Looking up we observed our goal, sitting far above us, obscured by a layer of cloud. How far away it seemed!

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Tiger’s Nest from the start of the hike, just visible through the clouds

Despite paying a large sum in Bhutanese terms for his steed, Shayne’s horse soon began to struggle underneath him. The terror was evident in my travel companion’s eyes (and later in the sizeable blisters on his hands from holding so tightly to the reigns) as his steed stumbled drunkenly up the trail, edging ever closer to the sheer drops at the pathway’s periphery. Our guide Jimmy, prayer beads in hand, chanting a mantra under his breath, seemed worried. I asked him what the matter was and he replied, “When we visit Taktsang we are meant to do so with good thoughts in our minds but here we are torturing this horse on the way up”. Despite feeling for both Shayne and his horse at this admission, I had to really focus to stop myself from sniggering. As Jimmy turned round to help gee the horse and its load with a painful lack of urgency up the trail, I gallantly refastened my boot laces and left my companions behind.

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Shayne atop his gallant (or should that be unfortunate?) steed

The views on the way up the mountain trail really are spectacular. Every other minute there are fantastic vistas just begging to be photographed and I would say at least half of my time going up to Taktsang was eaten up with stops to snap memorable images.

The going gets steep and rugged in certain places and a certain level of care is required if you wish to remain injury free throughout your visit. There are, however, plenty of places to sit down and rest if you feel you are struggling and, as Tiger’s Nest is a tourist hotspot, plenty of opportunity to chat with other foreigners. If, miraculously, you find there is no one around to converse with, you can simply savour the prayer-flag-covered surroundings as you recover your energy.

Once you reach the halfway point you begin to encounter more frequent views of the monastery as you trudge towards it. There is a good vantage point not far from the tea house that you stop off at for refreshments on the way up and lunch on the way down. This also, as already mentioned earlier, signifies the area in which horse and rider must part company. I’ve never seen relief like it on Shayne’s face as he dismounted his broken mount, shaking like a leaf from all the near fatal falls he’d had to endure.

As we pushed farther up the trail the views became more spectacular still. Two additional viewpoints allowed for fantastic photo opportunities of the monastery – just be prepared to wait as every other tourist on the hike will also be stopping off to do exactly what you are planning to. Views of the valleys below were also breathtakingly beautiful and warranted numerous stops of their own.

You will reach a peak just before the monastery itself. From this point on you will have to navigate roughly 375 steps to reach your goal. For the horribly unfit or the elderly, this section could well be the most difficult to overcome. However, Jimmy informed us of an 84-year-old woman who had bested them mere months before our visit (even if it did take her thirteen hours in total!) which should be enough to spur on even the most exhausted and shameless visitor.

When you are almost within touching distance of Tiger’s Nest you will be greeted by a waterfall that almost seems to bless your arrival with its cool spray. From this point you are only a few small flights away from your destination. As you approach the entrance you will be required to pull on long pants and collared shirt if you aren’t already wearing them and surrender your cameras, bags and mobile phones to security.

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The cooling waterfall just prior to the monastery itself

The monastery is separated into a number of different chambers similar by now to many of the areas you have seen in dzongs you will have previously visited. A monk inside one section will be happy to pour blessed water into your palm which you sip and then rub onto your scalp. The customary Buddha statues and sculptures of Guru Rinpoche are present, as are the intricate wall coverings, although some of the designs at this site are so old (or possibly fire damaged from a blaze in 1998) that they are almost impossible to make out. In comparison to Taktsang’s location and splendid exterior, I must profess that the interior is underwhelming although the lingering scent of incense, chance to rest and the sense of peace do work to alleviate some of the weariness from your arrival.

I actually found the descent slightly more arduous than the ascent owing to the fact that one must brace their knees almost continuously against slips and falls on the steep down-slanting surfaces. The hardest part was once again overcoming the steps that lead to the monastery. As they fluctuate between upward and downward flights they can be difficult going at points. Be sure to take your time and rest plenty if you feel you are struggling – you don’t want to end up like the poor American girl who fell to her death from this section of the trail a few years ago.

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Shayne contemplating all those accursed steps

Even bearing these factors in mind, the descent wasn’t overly strenuous and if factors like my shattered travel companion and frequent stops to chat to other tourists or snap hundreds of photos hadn’t played their part, I feel I could have easily shaved two hours from our six hour roundtrip.

On your way down you are able to take a prolonged break at the tea house where you will be served lunch. Do not expect to get fantastic offerings here – the wholly vegetarian meal we were served was easily one of the blandest we received in Bhutan, made all the worse by the incessant hordes of flies that will bother you the entire time you are on the mountainside. Still, after a tiring climb and such a prolonged gap between this meal and your breakfast, you will likely pack away the calories despite the grub being way below average.

Once we had made it to the base of the mountain our guide suggested we visit a nearby farmhouse for a traditional hot stone bath. We had picked up one or two aches and pains along the way and Jimmy promised us these baths, sprinkled with fragrant Bhutanese herbs, would ease our muscles and have us feeling on top of the world again in no time. The farmhouse visit cost us a hefty 2,000 ngultrum but it also included an opportunity to dress up in traditional Bhutanese gho (or kira for women) and sample some local home cooking and potent handmade ara (rice wine).

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Our final view of Taktsang

After we had gone all Bhutanese in our skirt-like gho, we were led to a small stable building where our baths awaited us. I jumped in and, being used to steaming hot baths at home, felt confident to ask for additional hot stones to raise my water temperature a bit. Big mistake! As the first stone was added I could already feel a soar in the heat of the water and by the time the second went in the temperature was almost unbearable. My discomfort was almost compounded as my non-English speaking host trundled in with a third super heated stone destined for my bath. Thankfully, I was able to dissuade him from dropping it in with frantic arm swinging and girlish squeals of terror.

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Shayne and I turning Bhutanese

I managed to stay in the searing water for almost an hour. As I exited the bath, feeling proud of my manly endurance, I almost blacked out and had to sit, naked, on the cold stable floor until it no longer felt like my head was spinning like a prayer wheel. I also noticed I was branded with scald marks from my shins up to my knees, marks that lasted for almost two days. Jimmy hadn’t lied about the bath’s muscles relaxing properties, however, as the stiffness from the hike had disappeared completely. I quite enjoyed my bath despite these comical events (all of my own doing may I add) and I’d recommend you give one a go if you do visit Bhutan – just make sure you add the stones slowly and don’t jump in with both feet like I did!

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Me being boiled alive in my hot stone bath

Our food here, home cooked by the farmer’s wife, was absolutely tremendous. We were served boneless meat for the first time in Bhutan and we made sure to fill up on it after the day’s disappointing earlier meal. There were also plenty of dried chillies going around which were utterly delicious, adding a nice spicy kick to my meal without being too overwhelming.  We ate with a few other tourists and their guides and were able to make affable conversation and new friends in a cheerful atmosphere owing to the freely flowing ara rice wine.

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Inside a traditional Bhutanese farmhouse

Afterward, exhausted from a combination of our climb, energy-sapping hot stone bath and stuffed stomachs, we retired to our room at the four star Tashi Namgay Resort which was by far and away the best hotel we got to stay at in Bhutan.

Where I stayed

dscn4952Tashi Namgay Resort

The Tashi Namgay Resort was by far and away our best hotel during our stay in Bhutan. While the others we stayed at were perfectly fine three star hotels this resort was an obvious step up in class as its four star rating proves. Situated across the river from the country’s international airport and only a short drive from Tiger’s Nest, it is also perfectly situated as a base for exploring all western Bhutan has to offer.

Our hotel room was exceptionally pleasant. The beds were the most comfortable of our stay and there were plenty of places to relax around the room, including a window couch to lounge on. The decor was well conceived with painstakingly hand drawn designs on the mirror, door and window frames and there was a well stocked mini-bar with beer, wine and snacks. The bathroom was modern, clean and spacious with both bath and shower and there was a balcony with brand new furniture that provided some scenic views of the Paro valley and nearby dzongs, especially when they were lit up at night. Additionally, of all the hotels we stayed at in Bhutan, this was the only one with a strong and reliable wi-fi connection.

Beyond our room, the rest of the resort was similarly impressive. The restaurant served a wide range of hot and tasty food with plenty of choices for western, Bhutanese and Indian palates. The servers were friendly and helpful, something that we found to be wanting at many other venues in Bhutan. The restaurant was impressively decorated with a huge Buddhist wheel of life painted at the top of the sweeping staircase and traditional masks scattered around the dining area.

The hotel also provides a range of other features to keep its guests entertained. There is a spa offering a wide range of services; an area to try out traditional Bhutanese sports such as archery and khuru; and even a small beach at the river’s edge if you are staying during periods of good weather.

We stayed here for two nights and we were very thankful for the opportunity to do so. The high quality of the room and the resort itself made for a very pleasant and restful setting both before and after our hike to Tiger’s Nest. The food offered here was varied and of good quality and the staff were arguably the most professional and friendly we came across in all of Bhutan. If you plan to visit the country, you would be doing yourself a great disservice if you neglect to request this resort for the Paro leg of your journey. Highly recommended.

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