Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest)
On our last full day in Bhutan we visited the country’s most-touristed location, the one that the few guidebooks actually published about Bhutan agree is a “must see”: Taktsang Goemba. It’s a monastery perched dramatically on a cliff in the Himalayas, on the site of where Guru Rinpoche (the guy who brought Buddhism to the Himalayas), meditated for 3 years, 3 months, 3 weeks, 3 days, and 3 hours. He is said to have been deposited there on the back of a flying tiger, hence the name “Tiger’s Nest”.
It is every bit as spectacular as it looks in pictures.
Like us, most tourists leave the Tiger’s Nest hike until the end of their stay in Bhutan. It’s conveniently only about 30-minutes by car from the country’s international airport in Paro (you can’t see it from a plane, though- they fly up a different valley). By the end of the trip, you’ve had time to acclimatize to the elevation before attempting the climb. The monastery is at 3,120m / 10,240ft; even a sea-level-dweller in good shape would find the climb grueling on their first day. As it is, some visitors opt out of the hike entirely and settle for going on horseback to a viewpoint at the half way point.
Once properly acclimated, though, the trail isn’t really that bad. It’s fairly steep but it’s all walking (no scrambling) and doesn’t cover a lot of distance. It’s easy to follow and has pretty good footing, assuming it’s not muddy (it wasn’t for us). About half way there’s an overlook with a tea house and large prayer wheel, and the horse-mounted crowds disappear after that. Because there’s only a single approach through the sheer cliffs surrounding Taktsang, the trail actually reaches a point higher than the monastery across the valley – a place that makes for a great photo op.
Although it was originally built in the 1692, the monastery has repeatedly burned and been rebuilt; most recently in 1998 with a reopening in 2005. A combination of yak butter lamps (candles), which tip over easily, and shoddy electrical work make this unfortunately common at Buddhist sites in Bhutan. When it happens, though, they just pick up and rebuild. Luckily, they were true to the original design of the building, and the interiors are rustic…right down to the complete lack of plumbing. I would never have guessed the place was less than 10 years old, which in this case I consider a successful reconstruction.
Nobody climbs to Tiger’s Nest for the interior of the monastery, but nevertheless it was impressive: brightly-colored and elaborately decorated rooms with murals, tapestries, statues of Buddha and Guru Rinpoche, and a few windows with great views. Like all temples and monsteries in Bhutan, interior photography is prohibited – in this case by a local police office who searches visitors for cameras and phone before allowing entry.
In all, the hike to Taktsang took us more than 4 hours, but that included ample time to tour the monastery and have a snack. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, and I’d strongly recommend it to anyone who happens to find themselves in Bhutan. The dramatic location made it the most memorable monastery/temple of the many we visited in Bhutan, with the exception of the amazing (and lucky) encounter we had at Tango Goemba. It was a fantastic way to cap off our stay in Bhutan; with a conflicted mixture of sadness and satisfaction I flew back to Bangkok the next day.
As an international travel destination, Bhutan is excellent… if you have the means and desire to visit a place like this. The $250/day fee means that, for the foreseeable future, Bhutan will mostly be the domain of a wealthier and older breed of visitor. It’s safe, friendly, reasonably well-organized, and has tons of incredible stuff to see. Sure, the roads aren’t the greatest, but they’re not as bad you might have heard, and regardless, you won’t be the one behind the wheel. There are amenities for tourists but it’s not overrun by any means, and it doesn’t feel like a place that’s “sold out” to tourism. I hope it stays that way. Although I don’t foresee going back to Bhutan in the near future, I admit that since my trip I’ve had urges to go to Tibet and Nepal – places with similar backgrounds but starkly divergent recent histories.
My friends Matt and Emily have written a ton of good stuff about Bhutan from the perspective of long term residents; if you want to read about an experience that’s a little less “tourist” and more “everyday life”, definitely check out their blog.