During our recent trip to Bhutan with the fabulous people from Bhutan Norter, who sponsored us, we did what every visitor to this country does: we visited Paro Taktsang (Paro is the name of this local district, district town, valley, and main river; tak means tiger, tsang means lair in Dzongkha). More commonly known in the West as Tiger’s Nest, it is Bhutan’s unchallenged top cultural icon. Much more importantly, it is an ancient sacred Buddhist site and has been an important place of pilgrimage for more than 1,000 years, long before the first temple was built.
The holy site is dedicated to Guru Padmasambhava (“He who came into being in a lotus”), who lived and meditated here in the thirteen caves about 1,250 years ago. This former Brahmin royal from India built the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet and then fled to Bhutan (on a flying tigress according to legend) bringing the new religion to the country along the way. He is now revered as the “protector saint of Bhutan” and usually only referred to as (Guru) Rinpoche, an honorific Tibetan term meaning “precious one”.
The monastery was built in 1692. Its main building and most of the artefacts inside were nearly completely destroyed during a fire in 1998. Nonetheless, it only took the government seven years to have it perfectly restored using old plans, techniques, and materials.
The complex consists of four separate temple buildings and accommodation for the monks. It clings to a precarious cliff edge 900m above Paro Valley, about 20mins drive from Paro, at an elevation of 3,120m. The top of the mountain is over 4,000m tall, the overall massif exceeds heights of 5,000m. The difference between the car park at 2,575m and the monastery is only just under 550 metres. Even though it feels like you are looking down onto the monastery from the last viewing point, you just look down on the main temple, but Tigernest’s official elevation of 3,120 was taken at the base of its most elevated building and at no point during your hike do you exceed that elevation.
The hike is often described as moderate, I would describe it as easy to moderate. The 6.5km round trip to the top and back takes four to five hours on average, plus one hour at the monastery and one hour for lunch at the halfway house, allowing for plenty of short breaks along the way. So if you leave your hotel in Paro at 8am, you should be back by 4pm, unless, of course you take longer than average, because you do lengthy stops for photos, enjoy an extra pint of ice cold Druk 11000 at the halfway house (at 8% possibly not a brilliant idea), or for whatever other reason. The hike does not require above average physical fitness or any skills whatsoever. However, the altitude with its thinner air will be felt by some.
You will find 80-year olds ploughing their way up the mountain all the way to the monastery. Some people call it quits at the halfway house. Then there are people like me, who are scared of heights. I decided to give the last 200 metres a miss (and as a result: the monastery), because I did not feel comfortable with the (well-maintained but exposed) path and the abyss right next to it. Perhaps I would have given it a shot, if it would not have been so crowded, but it was not for me on the day. Ms B & everyone else tells me that there is nothing to it and they felt perfectly at ease at all times.
Judging from everyone’s (incl. Ms B’s) stories, there is no doubt in my mind that you should try not to miss out on the actual monastery. Unfortunately, as with all holy sites in Bhutan, no one is allowed to take photos inside the buildings, so I couldn’t even visit vicariously. The last viewing point offers amazing “views for wusses” (I think this might catch on) though. There was even a significant amount of snow left at one small patch of the path just before the monastery.
On the way back to the valley and our Landcruiser we stopped for lunch at the halfway house. We got to chat with several of the other guests from all over the world and everyone agreed that this was the highlight of our respective trips to the beautiful Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.
Looking for more information about the country? Feel welcome to check out our main post about our one week in Bhutan and our article about Punakha Festival. If you like animals, then you might also want to give our buddy Irfan’s post on his blog The Good Life with IQ on Bhutan’s (and other countries’) dogs a read.