I’m the kind of person that sees a picture of an interesting place online or in a magazine and immediately decides “I’m going there someday!”.
My bucket list is more like a bucket novel at this point, but anyway…
Years ago one image really captured my imagination. It was of the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Have you seen it? It looks like it's magically clinging to the side of a mountain somewhere in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan.
I didn’t actually imagine I’d ever get to see it with my own eyes. The words - “Kingdom” “Bhutan” “Himalayan" “monastery" “side of a mountain” - made it seem too fantastic, too far away, out of my reach.
In addition, I had read about the daily tourist fees charged to all visitors by the Kingdom of Bhutan. Those fees seemed annoying and I didn’t think I would ever be able afford it. I came to terms with the fact that the Taktshang Goemba (aka the Tiger’s Nest’s) might always just be an image in a book.
Then - like it sometimes does - a bunch of things fell into place.
During the pandemic, Bhutan offered a big discount on its daily tourism fees to lure future visitors. I had never seen those kind of prices before, so I jumped and bought a trip to Bhutan. I sat on that voucher for two and a half years. When Bhutan finally reopened in October 2022, I was ready.
Bhutan is full of memorable experiences, but seeing the Tiger’s Nest in person tops the list. Visiting the monastery is actually a lot different than what I had been imagining all of these years. Here are ten things that surprised me most about the Tiger’s Nest.
1. It’s Practically In Town!
Ok, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but I was expecting something like the Inca Trail. A long drive, followed by a trek through the mountain wilderness and then finally after a long day of hiking, seeing it magically appear in the distance… In actuality, my guide picked me up from my hotel in Paro and within about ten minutes he was pointing out the car window saying “Can you see it?”
Bhutan’s only international airport is in Paro. The trailhead is a short drive from the airport. The entire hike and monastery visit takes about 4-5 hours, meaning - you could do this experience on a day trip from Bangkok if you really wanted to. I’m absolutely not recommending that, but I suppose it’s possible. My point being…it’s right there. I had never imagined that.
2. The Hike Is No Joke
I guess I was expecting something not quite as…vertical.
From the ground, I was like “Ok… How is this gonna work? That monastery is hanging off the side of a sheer cliff, way up there!” The answer was “We’re gonna hike.” What my guide meant by hike was - hike uphill, for hours. There are no real breaks in the uphill trajectory of that trail. There are no sections that meander and let you relax a bit and recover. There are no flat surfaces. It’s relentless.
On top of that, this is high altitude hiking, so the air is thin and you can’t catch your breath. There were points that I was going so slow that I was actually embarrassed. Thankfully my guide was supportive. He also kept lying to me and saying we were “almost there”. I knew that we weren’t, but appreciated him for it.
I know I’m not in the best shape and I may be getting old, but I’m also stubborn. And as the old saying goes - “slow and stubborn wins the race” (or something like that). I didn’t come all of this way NOT to make it to the monastery. I’m sure there are people who think that the hike to Tiger’s Nest is not all that hard, but I was surprised it was such a challenge.
3. It Wasn’t Cold
I know this is going to sound ignorant, but when I was putting this trip together, for some reason I was thinking “Everest”. It’s not. While I’m sure it does get cold and snowy in Bhutan, I definitely did not need to pack a puffy jacket, gloves, hand warmers and a ski hat (all of which I brought). It’s not that kind of Himalayas.
I went in November, and the nights were kind of chilly I guess, but what I needed on the hike were water, sunglasses and sunscreen. It was gorgeous weather, actually hot. It was an ideal time to visit.
I would probably not recommend visiting on a super wet and rainy day. The trail is not paved. It’s mostly dirt and rock. I can’t imagine trying to hike up and down that trail when it is all mud. It would be pretty slippery, on the verge of miserable.
4. Thank Goodness For The Guides
As I mentioned, I was always a little irritated about those daily tourist fees charged to tourists visiting Bhutan. It kept me from visiting for years. What I didn’t realize was that you actually received a lot for your money.
I got off of the plane and there was a nice man holding a sign with my name on it. I introduced myself and asked where everyone else was and he said “you’re it”. Every visitor (or visitors if you come with someone) is assigned their own personal guide. It’s great because your guide creates your itinerary and requests your input. I know that the system is different now, but pre-pandemic, your daily fees paid for your hotels, meals, entrance fees and your personal guide/driver. Having a private guide made me feel like a total VIP.
It also meant that no place I visited was ever crowded with tour groups. These guides are also deeply knowledgeable about the sights you’re visiting and will explain everything you’re seeing.
In a practical sense my guide also knew the right time of day to do the hike to the Tiger’s Nest and which trail would be best for me. He remembered to pack extra water and snacks. He even brought us some prayer flags to hang up during our journey. Could I have done it on my own? Maybe. Would it have been as deep of an experience? No way.
I believe that the new system allows you to travel independently in Bhutan (while still paying a daily tourist fee), but with a wealth of wonderful guides available, why would you?
5. You’ve Gotta Check It At The Door
Just like all of the other monasteries I visited in Bhutan, you are not allowed to take pictures inside. You’ll also need to take off your hat - same goes for shoes. At Taktshang Goemba, once you reach the entrance, they sign your name into a book and you check everything you’re carrying into a locker.
I know a lot of times I rely on my pictures to help me remember my experiences. This is one place where you have to use your actual memory. I kind of liked not having to try and document everything with my camera. It freed me to live in the moment in that magical place. However, being in the Tiger’s Nest was so surreal that I almost can’t trust my memories of it (more on that later). I guess what I’m saying is to pack light, you probably won’t need it.
6. It’s A Surreal Experience
Once inside the Tiger’s Nest you are welcome to explore the monastery. What I found surprising was that, while it is a tourist destination of sorts, it’s much more a working monastery and it’s actually kind of small. The monks that live and work there go about their daily rituals. None of it is a performance for the tourists.
As a visitor to the Tiger’s Nest you’re really just a fly on the wall. It was fascinating. One of the first things that struck me was that everyone there was trying to be respectful. No one was talking, or at least not loudly. It was wild to experience a place in relative silence. It heightened all of my senses. I can remember my visit to the Tiger’s Nest in terms of how it smelled and sounded and felt because I wasn’t trying to fill the space with talking and picture taking. No one else was distracting me with their intrusive commentary. It was wonderful and strange.
In one temple room, I left a small offering and the monk gave me a blessing, anointing my head with aromatic oil (I got blessed in the Tiger’s Nest!). My guide then asked me if I wanted to sit in a temple with the monks while they did their chanting. Obviously I said yes. We found our places on the floor, sitting cross-legged. The monks chanted prayers, hit the drums, and blew long horns. I was thinking “How am I here, in the Himalayas? What am I doing in the Tiger’s Nest - sitting cross-legged with Bhutanese monks while they worship?”. It felt surreal and I couldn’t really process it until after I got back to my hotel. It was a once in a lifetime, one of a kind experience. I actually get emotional thinking about it now. I won’t ever forget it.
7. You Might Be Disrespectful And Not Realize It
Every culture has its dos and don’ts. In Bhutan, there were two that I had a hard time with.
First, when you are in a monastery you need to sit on the floor cross-legged. It wasn’t that I was unwilling to do this, it was just super uncomfortable for me. I guess I’m not as flexible as I thought I was. I was able to come up with an alternative sitting style. The main thing is that you can not sit with the soles of your feet facing out. Big no no.
The other one I really had a hard time with was - NO POINTING!
Wow, I had no idea that I point almost non-stop. My guide informed me on the first day that it was considered very rude. That warning only seemed to make me unconsciously point at literally everything. I couldn’t control it. My guide was the sweetest guy ever, but this was the only thing I ever saw him get frustrated about. My advice is to get that under control before you get on the plane to Bhutan.
8. If You’re Brave There Are Caves
I couldn’t quite follow this story, so don’t quote me, but I think that the legend is that Guru Rinpoche flew to this site on the back of a tigress to defeat a local demon. He then stayed to meditate in a cave for months. The cave is still here and it is a holy place.
At Tiger’s Nest you can visit this cave if you want. It involves climbing down wooden ladders. I did not do this, because I hate heights and am clumsy. I kept thinking that I was already in a little building precariously hanging off the side of a cliff. If I hurt myself or fell, how would I ever get down? I don’t regret missing it, but if you aren’t a coward like me, I’m sure it’s pretty cool.
9. You Feel Like You’re The Only One There
I have been to a lot of places - almost all of the really famous tourist attractions. I have never been to a place as iconic as the Tiger’s Nest and felt like I had it all to myself. Yes, there were other visitors there, but…maybe twenty? People passed us on the trail, but as I mentioned previously, it was one or two people with their private guide.
There was no crowd, ever. I can’t stress how strange that feels. I’m sure it has something to do with the fact that the only way to reach the Tiger’s Nest is by doing a two hour uphill hike.
Although, everywhere I went in Bhutan was like that. I think the Bhutanese are onto something. They stress “High value, low impact” travel and it keeps the environment peaceful and protects the landscape and cultural treasures. I’ve never really experienced anything like it before and I loved it.
10. Cheers! There’s Beer On The Way Down
After the exhausting hike and spiritually moving monastery visit, I was mostly euphoric. I was also thirsty. Happily there’s a cafeteria on the way down. They serve some simple lunches that you can enjoy on a deck with great views of the Tiger’s Nest.
It makes a really nice break in the hike. Bonus points because they offer beer for purchase. I chose a Druk Lager. It was fun to toast our success while sitting with the Tiger’s Nest in view. It’s a nice memory.
Bhutan was full of surprises. I saw so many wonderful places and things. The people that I met were all so kind. I know I won’t ever forget it. I guess the biggest surprise of all was that I had made it to Bhutan in the first place. It was years of wishing followed by years of waiting (thanks Coronavirus!). Happily Bhutan is now open to everyone again.
When you visit, I know that seeing the Tiger’s Nest will be at the top of your itinerary. I hope that the experience will surprise and move you as much as it did me. Trashi dele.