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Hiking Tiger’s Nest Bhutan was definitely the highlight of my trip to Bhutan. But it wasn’t quite as easy as I thought. Here’s my story.
According to Sangay, I must have committed quite a lot of sins.
I’m huffing and puffing, mid-way up the hundreds of steps that will take me to Bhutan’s most famous sacred site, Paro Taktsang or Tiger’s Nest. The air is thin and crisp at this altitude, and the steps are so steep my calves and ankles are aching with each stride I take. Hiking at high elevation has me gasping for oxygen like an eighty-year-old.
“Clearly a sign of the bad deeds you’ve done in life”, Sangay, my Bhutanese guide from Bridge to Bhutan, says with a cheeky smile.
I have come a long way to see the iconic Tiger’s Nest — a world-famous monastery that hangs precariously on the edge of a 3,120m-tall cliff overlooking the Paro valley in Bhutan. And I’m not about to give up.
Hiking the Tiger’s Nest Bhutan
It’s been almost two hours of steep climbing, but now our goal is right before us. The monastery’s white-washed stone walls, rows of praying wheels, wooden Sanskrit carvings and pointy golden roofs are almost within reach. I find the strength to pick up my pace and press on.
The hiking trail twists and turns steeply up the pine forest, revealing spectacular views of the Paro Valley beneath us with each bend. As we climb higher, we pass giant prayer wheels covered in Sanskrit scriptures, tiny stupas that house buddha statues, and kites of prayer flags strung all over the trail and within the forest.
Along the way, we stop to chat with Bhutanese pilgrims who are on their way up to make their offerings. Dressed in their traditional gho and kira (kimono-like dresses for both men and women), they saunter past us, seemingly unaffected by the altitude and terrain.
The higher we hike, the more prayer flags appear, until the sky is covered in red, green, yellow, blue and white. The Bhutanese believe that by hanging strings of these prayer flags, the wind will send their prayers to the heavens.
Up and up farther I climb, clinging closely to the cliff’s edge, reaching a 1000-foot waterfall and across a rickety wooden bridge blanketed in thousands of colorful prayer flag, until finally, I arrive at the steps of the formidable Tiger’s Nest.
“Now it’s time to wash away your sins,” announces Sangay.
Finding Spirituality at Tiger’s Nest Bhutan
We remove our shoes and silently walk in with our feet brushing against the ice cold stoned flooring.
No photography is allowed inside — a regulation for all monasteries and temples in Bhutan. Instead of constantly snapping on my camera, I make use of the opportunity to fully utilize my senses to capture the moment.
Passing through the doors of Taktsang, I am surprised to find several small temples and praying halls rather than one singular monastery, unlike the other goembas (monasteries) I’ve visited in Bhutan. All the four main temples are interconnected through steps and stairways carved out of rocks. We thread lightly on the rocky stairways and hardwood floor with our heads bowed as a sign of respect.
In the first temple we enter, my eyes catch the shimmer of gold on the Buddha figures, the reflections on the glassed boxes that contain relics, the brightly colored hanging tapestry, and the intricately painted frescoes of gods and saints on the walls.
The afternoon light pierces the window and lights up the otherwise dark room in a mystical glow. Sounds of monks chanting echo through the walls and the smell of incense fills the room. The air is so thick with atmosphere that it’s easy to see why this is such a sacred spot for the Bhutanese.
Where Buddhism in Bhutan Began
Indeed, the Paro Taktsang has gained such a holy status because this was where Buddhism began. Guru Rinpoche — a sage guru also known as the “Lotus-Born” or Second Buddha who brought Buddhism to Bhutan — is said to have flown from Tibet on the back of his female consort, whom he transformed into a flying tigress. He sought refuge in the “tiger lair” cave and meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours.
The temple complex was then built over the cave in 1692 to worship Guru Rinpoche. Today, the cave is opened for public viewing once a year, although its entrance can be easily seen from above.
Sangay opens up a trap door and motions for me to kneel down and look. I peer down into the dark hole and see nothing but a black hole, littered with shiny coins clearly offered by pilgrims. This is the exact spot where Guru Rinpoche meditated, and by so doing, subdued all the evil spirits of Bhutan, making it the peaceful and happy land that it is today.
As beautiful as the lofty mountains, ornate temples, and intertwining valleys are in Bhutan, it is this sense of peace and spirituality that really truly make it such a special place. They call Bhutan the last Shangri-La — as cliché as it may sound, I can’t find a more fitting description for Bhutan.
How to Hike to the Tiger’s Nest Bhutan
The Tiger’s Nest Monastery is located 10 miles north of Paro (20 minutes by car), making Paro the perfect home base when making this visit. Since most people can only visit Bhutan on an organized tour, your transportation will be arranged for you.
Due to its location, the only way to get to the monastery is by hiking. There are no vehicles that make the drive up to the monastery. It’s only a 4-miles hike, but because of the steep trail and the elevation gained (1,700 feet), it can be challenging. Furthermore, the altitude is rather high in this area, so many people find it hard to breathe even when not hiking.
The visit to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery takes a full day. On average, it takes between four and five hours to do the round trip hike, plus one more hour to tour the monastery. For those who cannot hike the entire way, you can hire a horse to carry you most of the way there.
How fit do you need to be to do this hike? Anyone of average fitness can complete this hike. Take your time, it is not a race. You may want to bring hiking poles to help out your knees on the descent.
What to Bring. Hiking shoes, lots of water, a few snacks, and your camera. You can buy lunch or tea at the cafeteria.
Disclosure: My trip was made possible by Bridge to Bhutan, but all opinions expressed above are my own.