It is said that the highlight of any trip to Bhutan is the trek up to Tiger’s Nest Monastery. All the travel guides that cover this country inevitably include pictures of this building and it is clear to see why. Hanging on a precipitous cliff at 3,120 meters above sea level, the monastery – also known as Taktsang Goemba – is “nested” right smack in the middle of steep rocks that are almost vertically sloped.
tiger’s nest monastery
Though looking pretty much isolated and hard to get to, there are actually a few well-used access points to reach Taktsang. As the grand finale of our trip, we took the most popular (though by no means an easy) route and started our climb at about 9:30 in the morning. As much as I was looking forward to seeing the monastery, I was dreading the climb. I read personal accounts in the online forums which mentioned how difficult it was, and how altitude sickness could affect some folks. But nevertheless – coming to Bhutan was a unique experience in itself and I was determined to make it all the way to the top on foot.
the start of the trek
As we started our ascent, we chanced upon a few horses. It was actually possible to cover 3/4 of the distance on horseback, but most of us opted to trek the entire way. The normal time it takes to get up there is 2 hours – give or take one’s physical abilities. I inevitably made a few stops along the way – the view was just too good. About 1 hour into the trek, there is a modest cafeteria that serves vegetarian food. We stopped for about 5 minutes before continuing our way to the top.
almost there? not quite
The second half of the climb was probably the hardest for me. During the initial parts came the best view of the monastery. It was literally in front of us, but we still had to wind our way up and down the rock face before we could reach our destination. It was up-down-up several times, capped by a final 100-step climb that finally led to the monastery. Finally, we were facing the Tiger’s Nest rather than have it facing us.
We were not allowed to take any photos inside. The place was quiet and very conducive for meditation, and our guide showed us how Taktsang came to be situated there. Supposedly, Guru Rinpoche – who brought Buddhism to Bhutan – flew to this place on the back of a tigress. Normally, I wouldn’t readily believe legends like these – but given the relatively quirky location, and extreme difficulty of transporting construction materials to the site, I would not be surprised if the truth does not depart much from that.
The way back was a lot easier than the climb up but we still had to endure about 1 – 1.5 hour of walking down the steep slope. We stopped by the cafeteria for a vegetarian lunch. By the time we returned to the car, it was already fifteen minutes to 3. This meant we spent 5 hours there – and this included the climb, the tour of the monastery, walking down, lunch and more walking down.
As there was still some time to spare, our guide had the tenacity to bring us to Kyichu Lhakhang. I initially asked about going to Drukgyel Dzong, but when he suggested the former, we decided it was better to skip the latter as it lay in ruins anyway.
Kyichu Lhakhang is easily one of the most well-maintained temples in Bhutan – and one of the oldest as well. It originates from the 7th century – well before the time of Bagan, Borobudur or even Angkor. Our guide led us to the inner chambers – some parts were closed off as they contain centuries-old relics.
another breathtaking scenery in Bhutan
This was our last full day in Bhutan. I couldn’t help but feel sentimental as we winded up our journey. It is certainly a highly unique country, and of the 30 that I have visited, I haven’t encountered anything like it. There is just this deep sense of contentment, as if one gets the reassurance that all things are running the way they should be. I suppose if I wanted to go someplace to forget all my troubles – Bhutan would be it. Some luxury resort in Bali or Phuket may do the trick, but there’s a big difference. In those high-class resorts, there is a sense of relaxation simply because it’s a private place and there’s no one else to cause any bother – it’s just you, your companion/s and the occasional resort staff. In Bhutan, one feels relaxed even when among people. No need to be in some high class resort. There’s just something about the unique national culture and the priorities they have as a people, their pace of life, complemented of course by the stunning landscapes, that make one readily feel at ease.