Taking on the Tiger’s Nest Challenge at Paro Taktsang Monastery4 March, 2012
Taktsang Palphug Monastery (also known as The Tiger’s Nest & Paro Taktsang)
Taktsang Monastery, also known as Tiger’s Nest Monastery, is located in Paro, Bhutan, about 10 kilometres north of Paro city. The monastery is one of the most venerated places of pligrimage in the Himalayan region. The legend behind the Tiger’s Nest monastery is just as amazing and magical as its location of being perched precariously high on a cliff (over 3000 meters above the Paro Valley).
Taktsang Monastery was built in 1692 by Gyalse Tenzin Rabgye. Gyalse Tenzin Rabgye is believed to be the reicarnation of Padmasambhava. Legend believes that Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) flew to this location from Khenpajong, Tibet, on back of a tigress. Guru Rinpoche meditated for three months in the cave at Taktshang. He also subjugated the Eight Categories of Evil Spririts and converted the valley to Buddhism.
Guru Rinpoche then returned to Tibet and transmitted his teaching to his disciples. One of his disciple, Langchen Pelkyi Singye, returned to Taktshang to meditate in the year 853. He named the cave where he meditated as Pelkyi’s Cave. Pelkyi is believed to have gone to Nepal where he later died. His body miraculously return to Taktshang Monastery under the grace of deity Dorje Legpa and is now sealed inside the chorten standing in the room on the left at the top of the entrance way.
A visit to the Tiger’s Nest monastery is typically on the last few days of most itineraries to Bhutan, after a round trip from Paro (upon arrival at Bhutan airport at Paro) to Thimphu and Punakha cities and back to Paro. It is usually planned this way to allow tourists to acclimatise to the higher altitudes of Bhutan so that they could be more prepared to trek up the trail to Tiger’s Nest monastery which is about 300o metres above sea level.
We have never travelled to places with such high altitudes and altitude sickness was one of our main concerns for this trip to Bhutan. Thankfully, we were given a few days to adjust to it by travelling around Bhutan – by the time we reached the Tiger’s Nest monastery, we were almost out of breath not due to altitude sickness but rather due to exhaustion from the steep climb.
The only way to visit Tiger’s Nest monastery up close is to either:
- Hike for 2 – 4 hours uphill (depending on your speed and fitness); or
- Ride a rented horse (slightly faster); or
- Ride on the back of a magic flying tigeress (as Guru Rinpoche did a few thousand years ago).
Option 3 was not available at the time when we were at Bhutan so we decided on Option 2 i.e. to rent a horse to take us up the trail to the Tiger’s Nest monastery. If you are not sure if you are fit enough for a 3-hour uphill trek along a steep trail and whether you have acclimatised to Bhutan’s altitude, I strongly recommend that you rent a horse to take you to the rest stop at Taktsang Cafeteria along the trail to the Tiger’s Nest.
The trail to Taktsang Monastery (Tiger’s Nest) can be broken down into 3 stages. The 1st Stage trail ends at the rest stop at Taktsang Cafeteria where most tourists take a breather and some light snacks before continuing to the 2nd Stage trail. Horses can travel as far up as the end of the 2nd Stage. At the 3rd Stage, you will have a great view of the Taktsang Monastery (The Tiger’s Nest) just like our picture above. To get inside the monastery, you will have to tackle an descending and another ascending flight of stairs.
I will be sharing in more details below the challenges you might face at each stage of the trail to the Tiger’s Nest.
Stage 1 – Horseback Riding along the trail to Tiger’s Nest
If you want to rent a horse for the trail to the Tiger’s Nest, please inform your guide at the beginning of the tour or else it will be subject to availability on the day itself. The cost of the horse rental is about US$10 per person. There are conditions to this horse rental (looks more like mules):
- For your and the horses’ safety, this rental service might not be available if there is heavy rain or the trail is very slippery (due to recent rains) – in which case, I personally would not encourage you to try this trail under bad weather conditions;
- The horses (mules) will only take you as far up as the end of Stage 2 trail as the Stage 3 trail are mostly stairs;
- The horses will need to rest for a while at the rest stop at the end of Stage 1 trail – riders can rest with a cup of coffee or tea at Taktsang Cafeteria; and
- Riders should lean forward when the horses are climbing up a slope and lean backward when the horses are descending down a slope – this relieves to some extent the stress and exertion on the horses.
Upon arrival at the carpark at the beginning of the trail to Taktsang Monastery, you will be able to see a number of horses grazing at a clearing. If you decide to rent a horse, the handler will gauge your size and decide on a suitable horse for you. There are number of big rocks around the clearing and they are used as makeshift “stairs” for you to mount the horses.
Once mounted, a handler will follow along to hush (encourage) the horses along the trail. These horses together with their handlers are incredibly fit as they make 1-2 round trips a day – mostly in the mornings. The agility of the horses is amazing as they are able to manage steep slopes and rocky terrains with very little effort. They are very well-disciplined too – focusing on the road ahead and not stopping to graze on the bushes along the trail.
What was very scary about this horse ride up the trail to Taktsang Monastery was that these horses tend to walk close to the edge of the cliffs. The trail is quite wide and can easily accommodate 2 horses side-by-side so it is not if there isn’t enough space! If the edge had crumbled even slightly or my horse had lost its footing and slipped, I was quite sure I would have fallen down the steep cliffs! Other than this nerve-wracking part (which happened along the entire trail), the ascent up to the Taktsang Monastery was quite enjoyable as I enjoyed the tranquil and beautiful scenery along the trail and was amazed at the number of chortens (small prayer wheels and temples) along the trail and not forgetting the colorful windhorse flags too.
Taktsang Cafeteria – Rest Stop for Coffee, Tea and Biscuits
After about a 1.5-hour ascent, we reached the rest stop along the trail. This is where the horses rest for water and food and visitors can enjoy a great view of the Taktsang monastery. Notice the white buildings within the towering hill in the background to the left of the pavilion in this picture below? That is the famous Taktsang Monastery (The Tiger’s Nest)!
The Taktsang Cafeteria/Teahouse (about a 2-3-minute walk from the pavilion) offers hot beverages (milk tea/coffee) and biscuits for tired visitors. You need not pay anything for this as it is already included in your tour fees. This is also the place for a toilet break – not very clean though but you don’t really have a choice other than doing it in the bushes (while other climbers walk by).
This is also the best site for a picturesque unobstructed shot of Taktsang Monastery (The Tiger’s Nest) and in my opinion, one of the best places in Bhutan to practise Yoga (during off-peak hours when most visitors continue on their ascent up to the Tiger’s Nest after the short break at the cafeteria). On our journey downhill from the Tiger’s Nest, we also had our lunch here at Taktsang Cafeteria/Teahouse where a traditional Bhutanese cuisine is served buffet-style – lots of carbohydrates e.g. potatoes, rice, to replenish those you lost along the trail.
Stage 2 – Horseback Riding along the trail to Tiger’s Nest
The Stage 2 trail is very similar to Stage 1 except slightly steeper. Our horses maneuvered the trail very well and within another 1.5 hours, we have reached the end of Stage 2 trail. Along the Stage 2 trail, you will see more windhorse flags and many mini chortens left behind by devotees on their pilgrimage to the Tiger’s Nest monastery. You will be in the midst of the forests in the hills so keep a lookout for tree branches overhead – the path is still a well-trodden one and the horses know their way along the trail. For a quick preview of what to expect from the trails along Stage 1 and 2, please see PassportChop.com Facebook photos on the trail to Tiger’s Nest Monastery.
Stage 3 – Walking Trail to Tiger’s Nest (Taktsang Monastery)
Towards the end of the Stage 2 trail, you will hear lots of other horses resting and grazing around the area. You will come to a stop at an informal “parking” area for the horses where you will be able to conveniently “alight” from the horse at an elevated platform. From there, it is about a 3-minute walk to the beginning of the Stage 3 trail where you will be able to catch an up close view of the Tiger’s Nest monastery (the most photographed view – see picture below). You are on your own (no horses allowed) for the Stage 3 trail which comprises of a long flight of stairs that descends all the way to a bridge and then ascends all the way towards to the Tiger’s Nest monastery. Some of the steps are crumbling so you need to look out for them and hold on to the railing both to support yourself (in case of falls) and to lift yourself up to the next step (which can be quite high).
Once you reached the Taktsang Monastery (the Tiger’s Nest monastery), you will have to deposit your cameras, mobile phones – anything that can take pictures, at the police guardhouse. Sadly, no cameras are allowed from this point onwards so all you can do to capture the breathtaking scenery of Paro valley. Don’t try to smuggle cameras in as you will be checked with a metal detector at the entrance. Within the monastery, you will have to get used to the smell of burning incense and relatively small cramped temples as you will be sharing spaces with praying devotees.
After spending about half to one hour at the monastery, we made our way back to the foot of the hill where we started our journey to Taktsang Monastery. You will also be on your own for the journey down as horses are not allowed to carry passengers on the way down (as its too dangerous for both horses and riders). By the time we are ready to depart from Taktsang Monastery (The Tiger’s Nest), we have almost spent half a day here (about 4-5 hours on the journey uphill and walking around the monastery). We had a Bhutanese buffet lunch at Taktsang Cafeteria before continuing our journey downhill.
The entire experience of the Taktsang Monastery Tiger’s Nest is a fulfilling and challenging one and well rewarded with beautiful, picturesque sceneries along the way. Definitely well worth the effort and time!
Getting to Bhutan
To book a trip, contact Bhutan-travel specialist Druk Asia (www.drukasia.com; +65 6 338 9909; email email@example.com).