The most magnificent hike in Bhutan: The Tiger’s Nest

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.

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Traditional Bhutanese paper making

Dezo: The Art of Traditional Paper making in Bhutan

Towards the end of my trip in Bhutan, we made a stop on the way back to Paro in Thimphu to visit a traditional dezo (paper-making) factory called the Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory.

Bhutan takes immense pride in its culture, history and traditions and the government has tried hard to keep the Kingdom’s artistic heritage alive through its art schools and community programs offering education in the centuries-old traditions of painting, weaving, woodwork and paper making. A visit to a workshop or factory producing these amazing handicrafts is a must for any traveler to Bhutan.

Traditional Bhutanese paper making


Breathtaking Bumthang: Bhutan’s Cultural Heartland

On my fifth day in Bhutan hiking the Trans Bhutan Trail, I woke up in Bumthang, the spiritual and cultural heartland of Central Bhutan. Given its beautiful landscape, rich local culture, and sacred historic pilgrimage sites, Bumthang is one of the most coveted tourist destinations in Bhutan. Home to some of the oldest Buddhist temples and monasteries, and awash with breathtaking fertile valleys of buckwheat and potato fields, Bumthang is astoundingly serene. Even more so on the cusp of winter.

That morning, I rose early to a glowing sunrise and was delighted to see the entire valley covered in frost. I stepped out on my balcony and marveled at how the harvested fields were sparkling, and the low-hanging clouds were blanketing the valley.  This is the coldest part of Bhutan and in another few months, it would be difficult to reach given the icy roads.

Morning mist over the valley of Bumthang, Bhutan

Morning mist over the valley of Bumthang, Bhutan

I was fortunate because this was the first and only time during my nine-day trip that I was spending the night in the same hotel. It would be the furthest east I would travel in Bhutan before heading back to Paro on the long, mountainous roads. Thankfully we were taking two days to travel back east due to the difficult nature of the roads. I don’t think my stomach could handle the long drive all in one day.

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Trongsa Dzong

Day Four Hiking the Trans Bhutan Trail: Trongsa

After a magical day hiking the Trans Bhutan Trail from Pelela Pass to the village of Rukubji where we stopped to enjoy a traditional Bhutanese meal at a local farmhouse- it was time to move further east to  Trongsa. It was day four of my hike along the Trans Bhutan Trail (TBT) and it was hard to believe how much we had already covered.

Map of six day hike on Trans Bhutan Trail

Map of my route on the Trans Bhutan Trail. Map credit: Trans Bhutan Trail

Since we left Paro, we had driven 226 kilometers along snaking mountainous roads with three hikes along the way, stopping for the night in Thimphu and Lobesa. We were literally only scratching the surface of this mighty ancient 403km trail that passes through 27 gewogs (villages) and nine dzongkhags (districts) of Bhutan. To hike the entire TBT, it would take 28 days and a lot of camping. The further east we traveled, the further back in time it felt and the more isolated it became. I only saw a couple of tourists at my hotel but no one on the trail.

Trongsa is a small village strategically positioned between the beautiful fertile valley of Punakha and the cultural heartland region of Bumthang in Central Bhutan. Separated both east and west by high, deeply-forested mountains, Trongsa is most known for its breathtaking dzong (fortress) which is perched high above a gorge with a drop so sheer to the south, it almost looks like it is floating in the clouds on a misty day.

Trongsa Dzong, Bhutan

Sunset view of the Trongsa Dzong from my hotel room at the Vangkhill Resort

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East Iceland

It’s Time to Slow Down

As I woke up this morning to the rising sun and the singsong of birds, I checked my clock and once again it was only 5 am. I went back to sleep as best I could but the bright light made it impossible. Here in Minnesota, it is the longest day of the year, the summer solstice, and the sun won’t even set until a little past nine. The days are long and bright, and lately, I’ve felt like I don’t have a moment to stop and catch my breath.

For the past several months,  I’ve felt like I’ve been running on a treadmill, burning the candle at both ends and rarely stopping to just be present and enjoy life. The past six months  – and the past three in particular – have been a whirlwind with a lot of things on my plate which has turned into unhealthy stress and anxiety. So today, I’ve made a decision that it is time to slow down, to be present, and to catch my breath. To reflect on what I’ve learned over the past three months and move forward.

This post is more of a check-in on me and my life. It is not a traditional travel story. I decided to write it because sometimes people don’t see the human behind the voice. While everything looks so perfect and beautiful on social media and on a blog filled with amazing travels, life still has its many ups and downs. Taking a pause to reflect on where I’ve been and how far I’ve come helps me feel grateful for all I have despite the challenges. It also is a way to connect more with others who may be experiencing a similar moment in time that is perplexing and hard.

“Slow down and everything you are chasing will come around and catch you.”

– John De Paola

June 2023 family hike in Wisconsin

Big Changes

There have been a lot of big changes in my life (new career opportunities, hip replacement, son graduating high school and preparing to “leave the nest”, teaching my younger daughter to drive, and a house remodel to name a few).  The biggest of all, I am at the point where I am reinventing myself. In two years, my daughter will also be leaving to go to college so there is no better time than the present to figure out what I will do next.


How a hike in Italy helped me heal from a total hip replacement

Never would I have imagined that I would have to have a total hip replacement at age 51. Nor would I realize how hard a hip replacement was and what to really expect after having a total hip replacement. I had experienced on-and-off pain for over nine years on my right side but never attributed it to needing a new hip. Instead, I thought everything was related to a tear in my labrum, a thin piece of cartilage that goes around the hip. While I avoided surgery then, it never fully disappeared.

My hip replacement story

It took a year of physical therapy to get rid of the pain and I was back at running again, hiking, biking, skiing, and living my normally active lifestyle. Yet last summer I did a workout that was truly the straw that broke the camel’s back. I did a series of squats and twists with weights and the next day my right IT band was on fire. I thought it was just a sore muscle until it did not go away for weeks and only got worse. That is when I went back to my doctor and they did the X-ray that provided the surprising news. I had nothing left, was bone on bone, and could try PT but eventually would need a full hip replacement. I was truly stunned.

Once the news let out, the questions began. Everyone asked me, “Does it run in your family?“. No. My dad is 80 and still runs and never had a hip replacement. “Did you do something to make this happen to you?”. No, not really. I just lived my life. The questions stressed me out more than the news itself so I simply quit telling people.

51-year-old me at the Dochula Pass, Bhutan

I have been active all my life. Growing up, I was a dancer for 15 years, and a competitive swimmer for five years. I was a runner for 30 years. I downhill ski, Nordic ski, bike, and hike. But when I asked my surgeon why it happened to me so young, he simply said “Bad luck“.

Rububji, Bhutan

A Stop in Rukubji: A Traditional Farmhouse meal along the Trans Bhutan Trail

Our hike along the Trans Bhutan Trail (TBT) from Pele La continued down through a vast open meadow, passing by a campsite of semi-nomadic yak herders and a few local farmers along the way. My guide Singay and I were headed to the village of Rukubji where we would stop and enjoy a traditional Bhutanese meal at a local farmhouse. As one of the first authorized trail guides of the TBT, Singay has been setting up a network of passport ambassadors along the way who offer food and lodging to intrepid travelers.

I was looking forward to having a traditional meal and learning more about the Bhutanese way of life for many of its people. Per the World Bank, roughly 60% of Bhutanese live in rural areas today as opposed to almost 96% in 1960, before the first highway was built. The past 60 years have seen more change and modernization in Bhutan than ever before.

As we entered the village, Singay told me that Rukubji is known for its special Lhakhang (temple), Kuenzang Choling. It is believed that the temple was built over 300 years ago by a Lama named Tshendhen Duelwa. Unlike most temples, it is not built on a ridge with a view out over a valley, but rather on an extended plateau and close to two rivers. Local legend says the temple was built on top of the head of a snake demoness which was subdued by Duelwa.

Rukubji is also famous for its unique local dialect. While Dzongkha (which translates into the “language of the fortress”) is the official and national language of Bhutan, there are over nineteen spoken dialects throughout the country. Given its mountainous topography, many communities have been isolated for centuries and developed their own unique dialects that can still be heard today.

Rukubiji, Bhutan

Entering Rukubji, we pass by the community farm set against the backdrop of the deep, dark forest. 

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Hiking through the meadows below Pelela Pass, Bhutan

Hiking the Trans Bhutan Trail: Down from Pelela Pass

I woke up early to the glorious sunshine splashing through my hotel window in Bhutan’s Punakha Valley. It was my third day in Bhutan and my second day of hiking along the Trans Bhutan Trail and I could hardly wait. After yesterday’s hike, I had already fallen in love with the beauty, culture, and mystique of this extraordinary place. Today’s hike would bring us on yet another marvelous adventure. We would begin at the top of Pelela Pass down through a semi-nomadic yak herding community, and on to a traditional farmhouse in the village of Rukubji. It was going to be a day to remember.

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Following the footsteps of the Divine Madman along the Trans Bhutan Trail

It was my first official day of hiking along the 500-year-old  Trans Bhutan Trail (TBT). We had set off early in the morning from Dochula Pass, at 3100 m (10,171 feet) walking through thick Rhododendron forests and whistling to scare off Himalayan bears and tigers. While thankfully we didn’t run into a bear or worse, a tiger, we did see a pack of gray-faced Langurs, a species of monkeys that live in the forests of Bhutan. Today’s hike would bring us along a special part of the TBT that is known as the “Divine Madman’s Trail” and of course like all things in Bhutan, there was a famous legend behind it.  “Bhutan is a land of stories,” Singay told me while we descended through the forest to a beautiful verdant valley. “What I love most about the Trans Bhutan Trail is that is a walking museum of history, legend, and culture. And this hike is no exception. Now we are following in the footsteps of the Divine Madman, Tibetan lama Drukpa Kuenley, who arrived in this part of Bhutan in the 16th century to fulfill his legacy of suppressing evil energies through his dharma teachings”. 

Setting off down the Divine Madman's Trail through beautiful Punakha Valley

Setting off down the Divine Madman’s Trail through beautiful Punakha Valley

 Traditional farmers working the land as they have for centuries

As I looked down the lush valley at the legendary arrow house in Thinleygang, Bhutan, I thought about the tiny trinket that has laid next to me on my bedside table gathering dust for over a decade. Follow your arrow it says, reminding me of a long-held promise to be hiking in Bhutan before my next milestone birthday. I couldn’t believe that just like the Divine Madman who had shot an arrow traveling through the high plateaus of Tibet to Bhutan, I’d ended up halfway around the world as the last guest of the season on the Trans Bhutan Trail, just before my 51st birthday.

I have driven near this valley many times as a child alongside my father to return to his maternal village each year,” said 28-year-old Singay Dradul, my guide.  “I had heard the legend of the Divine Madman and the infamous Chandana Lhakhang which means house where the arrow landed. But in all those years I had never actually visited the Arrow House until I became a trail guide.”

“And here we are” he smiled as we looked down the valley at a 16th-century traditional farmhouse. “Are you ready to meet the owner and her brother and learn the history of the arrow house?”

The legendary "Arrow House" (Chandana Lhakhang) Bhutan

First glance of the legendary “Arrow House” (Chandana Lhakhang) on the right

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2023 Mom and Daughter Trip to Fiji with GOOD Travel

GOOD Travel inspires travelers and tourism businesses to transform one of the world’s largest industries into a force for good. I learned about GOOD Travel three years ago and have loved their mission to promote sustainable, responsible travel ever since. Each trip GOOD Travel offers has been thoughtfully designed with the intention to give travelers a once-in-a-lifetime experience while contributing in a positive way to the communities and places we visit.  With the threat of over-tourism, climate change, and the rise in disrespectful tourism practices, I personally can’t think of a more impactful way to travel.

Meet GOOD Travel

GOOD Travel is a social enterprise founded in 2013 by four women from four continents with the vision of transforming the tourism industry into a force for GOOD. GOOD Travel offers group travel experiences that have been carefully designed to ensure travelers have a positive impact on the places and communities they visit. Ten years after its founding, GOOD Travel is continually working to evolve, grow and offer unique, regenerative experiences for their travelers. New this summer is GOOD Travel’s first mother-daughter trip to Fiji.

Fiji is known for its stunning beaches and warm culture. Photo courtesy of GOOD Travel

Dochula Pass Chortens Bhutan

Dochula Pass: If there is a will, there is a way

I arose early on my first full day in Bhutan to the sounds of stray dogs barking outside my window and the morning light shining on the mountains above the Trashi Chho Dzong  (fortress). Today was the first day of hiking on the 500-year-old newly reopened Trans Bhutan Trail and I could hardly wait. 

Room with a view. The view outside the balcony at my hotel in Thimphu. 

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Tashi Delek. Welcome to Bhutan!

After collecting my luggage, I took a deep breath and walked out of the airport to find my guide. To visit Bhutan, it is mandatory that you have a guide and a driver for the entire stay. Thus, these two people are who I’d be spending the next nine days with during my solo trip to Bhutan. While I get along easily with most people, I desperately hoped we would connect.

Dressed in a gray-colored gho, a pair of black knee-high socks and freshly polished black leather loafers, my guide smiled warmly holding a sign with my name. Nicole Melancon, Trans Bhutan Trail. 

Tashi Delek. I’m Singay. And this is Dorgi, our driver,” Singay said pointing to another young man dressed in a red and green plaid gho, Bhutan’s traditional dress“Welcome to Bhutan”. 

Little did I know, Singay, Dorgi, and I would be great friends by the end of the trip. We made the perfect team, and their jokes, laughter, knowledge, and passion for Bhutan made the trip all the more memorable.

My two new friends. Dorgi (on left) and Singay (on right).