We started from Paro after a quick breakfast at the hotel and were driven to the starting point of the hike (about 11 kms from Paro). The short drive itself was quite spectacular with the pretty Pare Chhu river meandering along the road before the monsoon clouds started building up. We were aiming to hike up to the supremely popular Tiger’s Nest Monastery that is the highlight of all tourist brochures promoting Bhutan. The monastery complex is easily (relatively) accessible compared to the other remote Buddhist religious sites in the Himalaya. At first glance, the Tiger’s Nest Monastery (located at 3120m) appears like a white fortress impossibly perched on a cliff. Since it is very misty early in the morning, the monastery seems like it is clinging on to the mountainside and a faint possibility that it might just be an early morning dream and that the monastery doesn’t exist in reality!
The Tiger’s Nest Monastery is said to have originally been founded in the eighth century by Buddhist saint Padmasambhava also known as Guru Rinpoche. Guru Padmasambhava is believed to have arrived at Tiger’s Nest from Tibet, on the back of a flying tiger. Here, he meditated in a cave on the cliff before he set out to convert Bhutan and nearby regions in the Himalaya to Buddhism. In 1692, a temple was built at the site known locally as the Taktsang Lakhang or more popularly Tiger’s Nest Monastery.
We reach the parking area that is quite sizeable and there is a recently put up signboard of 500 Nu (Bhutanese currency Ngultrum equivalent to INR) entry fee to be paid by Indian Nationals. Since this trip was a part of a package with the family; there was a guide accompanying us for the hike and he remarked that the trek distance is about 10-11 kms (round trip) and that we should easily be back by evening. One can rent hiking sticks from the entrance point for 50 Nu. Official trek timings for the Tiger’s Nest Monastery are from 8 am to 5 pm (timings differ in the winters). My mom and dad opted to stay back in the parking lot. We started our hike and there was also a newly married Indian couple in our group who were unsure whether they would be able to hike up as the lady had come in her leather chappals. We just gave them the moral support as they seemed reasonably fit and urged them to keep walking and that they will surely make it to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery.
We started the hike at around eight in the morning, while the numerous souvenir-selling stalls were being set up in the designated area close to the car park. The trail to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery is the most visited trail in Bhutan and is quite well marked (there is no possibility of losing your way). I spotted school groups, college kids, youngsters, lamas and foreign tourists numerous times on the hike. The trail begins with a stiff uphill ascent, and is a steady climb all the way to the Tiger’s Nest with a few slushy patches because of the rain. The air felt nippy in the morning, then progressed to humid as the sun made its way through the clouds and then turned properly cold as we gained altitude while reaching the monastery. The hike was pleasant as most of it goes through the forest and there is rarely a sunny stretch on the entire trail. There are sweeping views of the valley below and since the monsoon was in full swing, the greenery is eye-catching.
At the start of the trail; along the way, we encounter numerous shrines that have a rotating mane prayer wheel run by a flowing waterfall. After trekking for an hour or so, we reach a sort of flat ground with rows of prayer flags strung across trees. Along the trail, there are benches to sit / numerous places to rest for pilgrims – especially on the uphill climbs. We can hear the sounds of numerous streams and waterfalls even before the halfway point of the trek, that is the Taktsang Cafeteria. It is a well equipped cafeteria with a nice indoor space to sit and eat for cold and rainy days, while the outdoor space has a stunning view of the Tiger’s Nest Monastery while the clouds continue playing games.
The Taktsang cafeteria is immensely crowded with tour groups and I am able to get hold of a chair and simply gaze at the surreal sight in front of me! We opt to not eat / drink anything and to just stop there for a quick breather. I have a quick glance at the menu and notice that everything is quite overpriced but I guess thats ok since the supplies have to be carried on mules/foot. There is a small souvenir shop as well and I wonder that the café would indeed be a good place to sit and relax on the way back – if one is hungry, or if it rains! It is a nice 5-10 minute break for us and everyone catches their breath back. The newly-married couple is doing well and have grown in confidence now that they know that they have reached the halfway point of the trek within reasonable time. We get back on the trail and are pleased to enter a dense shaded area since the sun is out after battling with the clouds and the humidity is high.
As soon as we make a small ascent, a nice breeze blows and makes the hike enjoyable once again. I spot a number of mules tethered near the Taktsang cafeteria and realise that mules can be hired by visitors from the parking lot to the halfway point of Taktsang Cafeteria for about 600-800 Nu. The trail is a continuous gentle climb from now on and after 30 minutes or so, we are on a platform with level views of the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Clouds have come floating around and I spot a raised platform nearby specifically meant for sitting. There’s a mane prayer wheel inside a small shrine where I chat up with a few lamas.
Just after that, there are a number of stairs heading towards a shrine set in a cave to the left. We have apparently reached one of the caves where Padmasambhava meditated; that are spread around the temple complex. The sounds of a roaring waterfall nearby feel like music to the ears in a serene environment. We are on a bridge and have nearly reached the main Tiger’s Nest Monastery. I am a bit disappointed to know at the entrance that cameras are not allowed inside! There’s a locker service (free of charge) where visitor’s bags, mobile phones, cameras and other belongings are to be compulsorily kept. We keep our stuff and notice that tea and snacks are being served to a tour group (free of charge, again) but since we don’t feel like eating anything, we opt to just enter the monastery since the crowd was increasing.
Inside the monastery, it is a complex of caves and dimly-lit shrines connected by stone steps and rickety bridges. The meditation cave is open only once a year from 6am-6pm on a chosen date based on the lunar calendar.
The guide explained the different parts of the monastery and the unique features that made it different than say monasteries in Ladakh or Spiti or Lahaul or Zanskar but it was too much information too fast and the fact that there wasn’t much time allowed since the different parts would get crowded with tourists. I was unable to click any photographs and can’t even rely on memory to rescue me! After trying to spend a few peaceful moments inside the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, we started on our hike back. It was pretty uneventful and was relatively faster and much easier than the way up (obviously!).
We hardly took an hour and a half to get back to the parking lot. On the drive back to Paro, I made a mental note to stay near the base of the Tiger’s Nest Monastery next time for its pretty location close to the river.
Good to Know
There’s a compulsory 500 Nu entry fee to be paid by Indian Nationals. Round trip distance from the parking spot to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery is about 10-11 km and the entire day hike should take about 6-7 hours. Hiking sticks are available for rent from the entrance point for 50 Nu. Trek timings for the Tiger’s Nest Monastery are from 8 am to 5 pm. Halfway Taktsang Cafeteria. It is recommended to carry a jackets as the weather can change in an instant and it is almost always cold at over 3000m altitude.