Hiking to the Tiger's Nest Monastery
A trip to Bhutan really wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the impressive Tigers Nest Monastery. It is the most recognised spot in Bhutan, and it’s easy to see why. Also known as Paro Taktsang, this small collection of buildings is perched precariously on a cliff, 900m from the ground. The face that the path to reach the Tiger’s Nest can’t be seen from the ground makes it even more impressive and it really is a sight that is difficult to compete with. But of course, this comes at a price, and in this case it’s a two-hour hike to get there.
What is the Tiger’s Nest Monastery?
The Tiger’s Nest Monastery is a sacred Buddhist site, one of the most venerated places of pilgrimage in the Himalayan world, on the edge of the city of Paro. It was constructed around the cave where Guru Rinpoche first meditated, which was the event that first introduced Buddhism into Bhutan. My guide told me that as the legend goes, the Monastery was named after the tigress that carried Guru Rinpoche to this location from the East of Bhutan.
Paro Takstang still functions as a monastery today, with four temples and residential accommodations for the monks. The day that I visited turned out to be one of the auspicious days, meaning the monks were chanting throughout the day and locals were flocking to make their merits. Check to see if your trip falls on an auspicious day as this really made the experience feel even more special.
Getting to the Tiger’s Nest
The Tiger’s Nest Monastery is about 10 miles north of Paro, so plan to visit while you are based in the area. Depending on your pace and how you are adapting to the altitude, the round trip takes around four to five hours, plus you should allow around an hour to explore the monastery. There is a cafeteria close to the monastery, but we brought a picnic with us which we enjoyed in a small forest close to the car park when we finished out walk. Plan to start as early as you can in the morning. This is a popular sight so it can get busy, plus the temperatures change a lot throughout the day.
The only way up is hiking, there are no vehicles that make the drive up to the monastery. Sadly, there are donkey rides part of the way up (they can only cover the first section), but forcing the animals to carry tourists, who often weigh more than themselves, isn’t treating them with the respect that Bhutan generally shows towards animals.
Facts about the hike
Distance: 4 miles round trip
Elevation Gain: 1,700 feet
Highest Elevation: 10,232 feet
Time: Allow 5 to 7 hours for the whole visit
The hike starts at the bottom of the mountain. There is a car park with toilets and people selling souvenirs. Other locals gather at the start of the hike offering free tea and local snacks as a means of gaining more merit.
From here, you will get your first glimpse of the Monastery, perched up on the cliff above the valley.
The trail up to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery follows a wide dirt trail followed by a shorter winding trail of steps towards the end. It’s uphill most of the way, although not overly steep so it’s doable for most people and there are many spots to stop. You will pass lots of prayer flags on your way, with the views over the valley getting better and better the higher you go.
Around half way, the trail levels out briefly and the views to the monastery are really impressive. From here you can spin prayer wheels and take a break at the Taktsang Cafeteria.
From here on, the hike gets a little easier as the trail becomes less steep. You come to some look out points that give the best views of the monastery which is where the iconic photo can be taken.
Finally, you take a short walk down a stone staircase, across a bridge and then a small climb up to the monastery.
Backpacks and photo equipment are not allowed inside the monastery but there are lockers outside to leave your things with security watching over them.
Your guide will take you around the monastery complex and explain the rituals that are usually carried out. Taktsang, the 'tiger’s lair’, gets it’s name from the story of it’s foundation. According to tradition, in the eight century Guru Rinpoche came to Taktsang flying on the back of a tigress. Bhutanese tradition believes that the tigress was a form taken by one of the Master’s consorts for the trip. Once he arrived, Guru Rinpoche meditated in a cave at the site for three months and converted the Paro valley to Buddhism. Many Tibetan saints then came to meditate in this spiritual place with the first sanctuary being built in the 14th century.
The walk back down is pretty much just the return of what you did to go up. If you come in the morning, stop to take photos from the look out spot on your way back, by which time the mist will have cleared from the valley.
How fit do you need to be for this hike?
Anyone of average fitness can complete this hike. It’s not a race, so take your time to enjoy the experience.
As with any hike in the mountains, jumpers, jackets and water are essential.