The Tigers Nest, or Paro Taktsang, in Bhutan may just be the most amazing building on the entire planet. Seriously.
In all my travels, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more impressive site than the Tigers Nest Monastery in Bhutan. Think of an ancient, Buddhist building, literally clinging to the side of a sharp, harsh cliff, where monks stay for months on end, with views through the Himalayas stretching literally as far as you can see. Imagine the monks chanting, the prayer flags flapping in the chilly Himalayan wind, you overtake local elders hitching rides on the back of tired donkeys as you hike to the get a better view. Devout Buddhists, making their pilgrimages to their most holy site, delighted to see a foreign face, and they look at you in awe almost as much as you gawp at the Tigers Nest. It’s not short of majestic. This is as good as travel gets!
HIKING TO THE TIGERS NEST
Hiking to the Tigers Nest (Paro Takstang in their local language), about 10km from the city of Paro, is no easy feat. In fact just getting to Bhutan is tricky enough. For a start you can only fly from Bangkok, Thailand, Chengdu, China or Kolkata, India, and then of course is the visa fee, an eye-watering $290 PER DAY for foreigners, or $250 in a group. Although that does include hotel, transports and guides. Still, it’s hefty, but the Bhutanese want to protect their amazing culture, and that is their right.
Anyway, it’s well worth ALL the hassle and expense, I can promise you that. During my magical stay in Bhutan, I intentionally left the main event to the very last day, the hike to the Tigers Nest Monastery, as it reduces the chance for altitude sickness. I honestly couldn’t sleep the night before, this had been a bucket list event for almost a decade, perhaps even number 1 on that list, and finally it was here.
The hike begins at the foot of the mountain, already at 7000 feet. You’re aiming to reach the Tigers Nest in 3 or 4 hours or so one way, it’s perched on the cliff face at 10, 000 feet, so it’s quite an effort to get there. We set off early in the morning around 10am. If you’re unfit for the hike though, you can take a mule up to it for about $20. It takes about 2 hours one-way for the mule to make it up there (although they stop shortly before the top). But you’ll have to walk down.
The path is quite well laid out, but it’s steep, there’s no denying that. You’ll be sharing the path with locals making their regular pilgrimage, and their warm smiles will keep you going. Your guide is of course with you every step of the way too. There is an incentive to do as quickly as possible though, the average time is around 3 hours but if you can put in a little extra effort and try to get there in 1-1.5 hours, you’ll have the entire place to yourself for a good 30 minutes, believe me, it’s worth the extra sweat and tears!
As you climb up the mountain face, there is Tibetan Buddhist paraphernalia adorning every corner. Prayer flags, stupas, shrines. Heavy mist is also really common, so the whole thing is such a mystical experience, climbing through trees, with Tibetan flags flapping in the wind, then you break through the mist to catch a slim glimps of the Tigers Nest, and then you’re off again, losing sight of it for another 15 minutes or so.
Half way up the trek there is a beautiful tea house, a great place to recharge, refuel and to take a second to appreciate where you are.
Suddenly you turn a corner and you get a proper view. The crop fields stretching out into the Himalayan landscape, and the most beautiful building I’ve ever seen starting right back at you. Amazing, but you’re not there yet.
Suddenly you’re making your way back down the mountain, steep, with no handrails. It pretty scary, but with locals hop, skipping and jumping (often with babies tied to their back), you push on regardless. Of course, being Bhutan, and being the Tigers Nest, as you reach the apex of the descent into the gorge you’re greeted with a huge waterfall, flowing through the Tibetan Prayer Flags. This should give you the last piece of energy you need to climb out of the canyon and enter the Monastery, finally.
Take off your shoes, soak it all up. Monks meditating, nooks and crannies everywhere you look. Eye contact, genuine smiles, and a peak through each level to the most breathtaking views, no photos here though, and that’s just fine. Soak it up, you made it.
THE HISTORY OF THE TIGERS NEST MONASTERY
The Taktsang Monastery, known as Tiger’s Nest, is one of the most important sites in Buddhism and the most famous landmark in Bhutan. Guru Rinpoche, who brought Buddhism to Bhutan, apparently flew to Taktsang on the back of a tigress to meditate for three months in a cave in the 8th century. The Guru is revered throughout the country, and his story about the tigress meant that in 1692 the monastery was built. How they managed it is beyond me, lugging the equipment up the sheer rock face. Unreal.
TIPS FOR HIKING THE TIGERS NEST IN BHUTAN
- Do a little training before you go, it’s a solid 2 hour hike, and it’s steep! Even if you have to take the donkey, it’s still hard work
- Head out early. You don’t need to check our Instagram, you don’t need to stalk your ex on Facebook, be the first person at the Monastery, it’s worth it!
- Don’t leave the climb until the last day, 2nd or 3rd last day is perfect. Enough time to acclimatise to the altitude, but also enough spare days to make sure the weather is ok for a perfect view
- Bring some local money for the tea house, it’s such a cool spot to stop
Finally, choosing a quality operator is important. I don’t love tours, I travel independently 99% of the time, but sometimes you have no choice, and Bhutan is one of the places, so make sure you choose a great company. I went with the guys from Bhutan Life Exposure, on a private tour, and it was nothing short of amazing, they even took me into their home for dinner, and maybe shared a few local beers in the pool halls of Paro! Thank you guys! I’d recommend their company for sure.