My final day in Bhutan featured a journey to the location most emblematic of this demure country — Taktshang Goemba, or Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Mention Bhutan in conversation and Tiger’s Nest is the image that comes to mind for most people. Its anomalous, cliff-side location distinguishes it among the world’s many monasteries and religious sites. A trip to Bhutan would be incomplete without seeing it, for the pride of this small nation reaches its heights and waves proudly with its prayer flags.
In the 8th century Guru Rinpoche, founder of Mahayana Buddhism, flew on the back of a tigress from Tibet to the cliff in Bhutan where Tiger’s Nest is located (hence the name). He slayed a demon and meditated in a cave for several months. Guru Rinpoche transformed into eight manifestations, or gurus, each with a specific purpose. Regarded as the second Buddha, Guru Rinpoche remains an important figure in Buddhism in Bhutan.
Many hundreds of years after Guru Rinpoche arrived in Bhutan, the 4th Druk Desi (civil administrator) Tenzin Rabgye became a key figure of the Drukpa (Bhutanese) state. Also known as Gyalse or “Prince” Tenzin Rabgye, he introduced Bhutan to the festival dances of Tshechu and its massive wall hangings called Thongdrol. Both remain important facets of today’s Bhutanese culture. Upon visiting the cliff-side cave where Guru Rinpoche had meditated in the 8th century, Gyalse Tenzin Rabgye declared that a monastery should be built in his honor. Thus, the creation of Tiger’s Nest in 1692.
We left the hotel at 7:00 a.m. and made a short drive through Paro, into the hills, to the base of the mountain. Horses and guides waited to carry passengers to the top, but we went by foot. Tiger’s Nest was visible at the start — like a brush stroke of white on a gray granite cliff, to the right of a small couloir.
The morning was pleasantly cool — perfect for hiking. The terrain felt like home, with pine trees and brush and a well-worn trail that moved quickly from a flat introduction to a steep first act. Within ten minutes I was removing layers in a familiar habit from countless days spent hiking in California and Colorado. Now living in Singapore, it was SO good to be back on a real mountain trail.
Switchbacks snaked left and right and gradually lifted us up the mountain where we paused for a photo and wondered if we were really getting any closer. We could see Tiger’s Nest again, this time high on the mountain in front of us as we passed a long line of prayer wheels on a flat stretch of dirt.
About one hour into the journey, we reached the halfway point marked by a quaint cafe with an outdoor terrace and a good vantage point of Tiger’s Nest. With little traffic on the trail, we decided to keep going and stay ahead of other tourists making the same trip. But let’s be honest — there aren’t many tourists in Bhutan, so feeling crowded on the trail wasn’t really a huge concern.
The trail went up and up again for another 45 minutes, finally flattening out along the side of the mountain. We had reached the highest point, now hiking straight ahead until we reached the mountain edge where the trail emerged from the trees revealing an eye-level view of Tiger’s Nest.
To the right and below, the trail dropped steeply and finished its delivery but the view of Paro, prayer flags and Tiger’s Nest across the gorge held me captive for several minutes. It was the view I had seen in so many photographs. Even standing in front of it with my own eyes I had to remind myself: I AM HERE. I AM AT TIGER’S NEST IN BHUTAN. Take it in. Look at the details. This is NOT a postcard. This is happening! And nothing is happening! It’s perfect — just sitting there for me to see, at this moment, in this life.
We followed the stone steps, descending along the mountainside as the trail zigged and zagged. Tiger’s Nest loomed above us across the gorge as countless strings of prayer flags shifted in a colorful dance around us. We crossed the footbridge at the deepest point of the gorge where a white ribbon of water rushed down the granite face from above. We started climbing up again as I turned to look at the trail behind us.
A final flight of stairs led through the entrance to Tiger’s Nest — double wood doors in a small stone wall with tin shed roofs. I was surprised that we would actually be able to enter the monastery, but that’s the rare beauty of a small country like this with the space and kindness to accommodate the curiosity of travelers like me. We arrived at the guard house where we were required to check our bags and cameras, leaving the interior journey to my description and your imagination.
As you would assume based on the unusual shape and location of Tiger’s Nest, its inner chambers are stacked and wedged into the mountain with connecting steps and staircases. We removed our shoes and entered the first room — an intimate cave that fit just a few people, with a low ceiling and a small Buddha statue. Warm, quiet, insulated. It is said that Guru Rinpoche meditated here for several months, and there is a gilded doorway (seldom opened) to another cave beyond.
Back outside, we climbed a ladder-like staircase to the next level. The second chamber was comparatively large, with bigger statues, a high ceiling and a trap door that revealed a cave connecting to the first chamber below. Mysterious, cold, cryptic. Each wall was painted and decorated with endless detail.
The third chamber was mid-sized and we were the only people inside. Familiar, approachable, positive. Kinga explained to us that if we had come to Tiger’s Nest to get a name for a child this is where it would happen.
“I want a name,” I said.
“You want a name?” Kinga replied, looking at me curiously.
“Yes, I’d like a name. Can I have a name?” What a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to partake in a Bhutanese tradition! Clearly there was no better place in the world.
Surprised by my request, Kinga scurried out the door to find the monk who would possibly fulfill my request. Upon their return there was a brief bit of Bhutanese negotiation, then Kinga told me to make a wish — boy or girl. The monk reached for a small glass jar filled with dozens of rolled strips of paper. He removed the top and offered the open jar to me, from which I picked a piece of paper. He unrolled it and wrote it down. I now had a name — two names actually, as is the Bhutanese custom. My name (which I will keep to myself) loosely translates to “Perfect Happiness” and yes, I was perfectly happy.
Our final destination was another mid-size chamber packed with statues, paintings, figurines, butter lamps, offerings and explosive color throughout. Grand, overwhelming, divine. A massive Buddha statue dominated the room, filled with natural light from a window on the south side. Again, I was astonished at merely being inside the monastery but viewing each chamber had been a personal experience that provoked a wide range of thoughts and feelings.
We stepped outside, put on our shoes and lingered at an overlook that faced the Paro Valley several thousand feet below… just the warm sun, cyan sky and pleasant breeze accompanied us in reverence.
We departed the monastery and meandered down the steps, across the gorge and back up the other side. I think I shot a hundred photos — zoomed in, zoomed out, horizontal, vertical, snap, snap, snap, you may never be here again. The remaining trip to the bottom was far less arduous, filled new memories of a very special place. We stopped for a quick lunch at the cafe (good food) and then continued down the hill.
Back at the car we departed for the remaining two sites of our trip. We traveled a road leading up a hillside, past an archery competition, to another area of Paro. The National Museum overlooked the valley from a fantastic perch on the hill.
Damaged by an earthquake, the National Museum looks like it might collapse at any moment with large visible cracks and a portion of its wall reconstructed with unpainted stone. It has a circular shape like a conch shell with a wall several feet thick. The artifacts of the museum have been transferred to a more secure building across the driveway. The exhibits include an incredible room of Bhutanese masks, as well as tapestries, tools, weapons and clothing from the past several centuries.
Our final stop was a very old stupa in the Paro Valley — Kichu Lhakhang, built in the 7th century. It was modest and soft spoken, with a homier feel than its grander counterpart up the mountain. A couple of sleepy cats guarded the inner courtyard where a beautiful door led to the prayer hall. Its dark, worn interior breathed heavily with age and wisdom.
The exterior was perforated by a long line of prayer wheels and two kids kicked a ball as butter lamps flickered inside a small shed. It was a perfect scene to end the trip — life, peace, devotion and beauty in a country overflowing with the same.
A Few Tips About Booking a Trip
Do your research (thanks KB!), understand what you’re paying for and consider booking with a local Bhutanese company like Bridge To Bhutan. (They are wonderful, by the way. Hi Fin! Hi Lotay!) Bhutan levies a tourism fee of $250 USD per person, per day. If you’re a single traveler, you will pay an additional $40 USD per day. (These totals may fluctuate slightly depending on what time of year you visit.) The government uses a portion of this fee to provide free health care and education for the Bhutanese people so your money is going to a great cause. The remainder of this fee goes to the local tour company who pays for your guide, your driver, your hotel room and your food (minus drinks and alcohol, airfare not included). So, all in on the ground for less than $300 per day? A pretty good deal.
Compare that total with some non-Bhutanese tour companies around the world who are charging between $4,000 and $7,000 USD for a single traveler on a week-long itinerary (airfare not included), which is $500 – $1,000 per day. This is a massive difference in price. Perhaps these companies would claim their guides, accommodations and/or services are premiere or luxury, but for me Bhutan wasn’t a destination I needed to experience at a luxury level. Nonetheless, the “standard” places we stayed at were great — clean, modern, even charming (Meri Puensum Resort), and our guide and driver were smart, well spoken, friendly and fun to get to know.
Bhutan is notorious as an expensive, out-of-reach, exorbitant destination… and wrongfully so, in my opinion. Choose wisely, do the revised math and put Bhutan back on your list. I think I hear the sound of one hand clapping.