It was over a decade ago that I first saw the famous image of the striking Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Bhutan that captured my attention. I was paging through a National Geographic Traveler magazine and there it was, the iconic Taktshang Goemba, more commonly known as the ‘Tiger’s Nest Monastery’ astoundingly perched on a sheer cliff face 900 meters (2,950 feet) above the Paro Valley. The image took my breath away and I knew someday I’d have to hike up to see it for myself. Fast forward to December 2022 and there I was in Bhutan, at the foot of Tiger’s Nest finally able to realize my dream.
Per my guide Singay, Tiger’s Nest is astonishing. When I asked why, he replied, “Sometimes words are better left unsaid. You have to see it for yourself.”
The Tiger’s Nest is undoubtedly Bhutan’s most famous sacred site and a must-see for anyone visiting Bhutan. Given its location (it is only 15 km northwest of Paro, home of Bhutan’s only international airport) the hike is generally done on the day before leaving the country. The monastery is only accessible on foot via a relatively strenuous one-and-a-half to two-hour hike up the mountainside, so it also was good to do after overcoming jet lag and doing some hiking to get my legs in shape.
I had just returned to Paro after a week of hiking along the newly reopened Trans Bhutan Trail, an incredible walking museum of culture, history, and mystique. And now, it was time to end my trip with a final hike up to the highly anticipated, much-awaited Tiger’s Nest Monastery. After all these years of dreaming about seeing it, I was almost there.
My guide Singay and I started our day early to beat any incoming crowds (there were surprisingly none), arriving at the trailhead a little past 8 a.m. It was a cool, cloudless morning, and when I looked up into the mountains I could vaguely capture a glimpse of our destination high up on its perch.
The trail set off steeply, instantly grabbing my attention, as we hiked up through a beautiful forest. The air was so fresh and pure with the scent of the trees tickled my nose. I could feel the sheer magic of the place as I listened to the sound of the birds chirping and bright colorful prayer flags flicker in the breeze. We passed a giant prayer wheel reminding me of all those times I passed them, giving them a spin while hiking in the Himalayas of Nepal. It could understand why this was one of Bhutan’s most popular day hikes.
About 45 minutes into the hike, we arrived at the first main viewpoint, a cafe where you can stop for a coffee or tea or use the facilities. We were making good time, hiking at a steady pace, even with my sore right hip (this was pre-hip surgery). We were the only ones at the cafe except for a pair of young men from India who wanted to join us on the ascent. We said sure with a chuckle because they had just both ordered a huge cup of tea and a pastry. “Go ahead,” they said. “We will catch up with you and meet you there“. Fat chance. We knew that despite being younger, they would not be able to keep up with us or catch up and we were right.
After leaving the cafe, the views of the Tiger’s Nest were incredible. It was hard to imagine how this masterpiece was constructed in 1692 nestled into the sheer face of a cliff. Besides its incredible feat of engineering, like most things in Bhutan, its origins are based on Buddhist legend. Tiger’s Nest is built on the site where Guru Rinpoche (the famous saint who helped bring Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century) is said to have meditated after arriving from Tibet on the back of a tigress. The monastery became known as the “Tiger’s Nest” and is one of Bhutan’s most sacred sites. Today, it consists of four main temples and still functions as a monastery for visiting monks who you can see making the climb up its steep slopes to the monastery.
As I stood looking at the final climb up to the Tiger’s Nest I said to Singay that this would be “the straw that breaks the camel’s back”. I knew deep down inside that it would be the last bit of work that my right hip would give me before my surgery and I was right. All of the cartilage was gone, I was bone on bone and needed a new hip (which I ended up having on March 1, 2023). But in the end, it was worth it. Not only would I get a new hip, but I was able to fulfill a ten-year goal of mine to go hiking in Bhutan shortly after I turned 50. And for that, I was utterly grateful.
We reached the monastery and Singay gave me a tour of the extensive network of Lhakhangs (chapels) which house images, murals, chortens, and a holy spring. I learned more about Buddhism and was delighted with Singay’s knowledge. Everything finally began to come together for me at the end of the trip.
That night, I ended my trip with a hot stone bath and a farmhouse meal. I felt quite nostalgic as it was by far one of the most unique and magical trips I’ve ever had. Bhutan was everything I’d hoped for and more and I can’t wait to someday go back.