- Dean Bainbridge
Kinda Into The Tiger's Nest
Of all of the experiences I was seeking in Bhutan, without a doubt, the pinnacle was going to be Paro Taktsang, The Tiger's Nest Monastery. I was not disappointed!
The Tiger's Nest is Bhutan's most iconic attraction. It's also the most sacred site in the kingdom, inspiring Buddhist pilgrimages from every corner... and from across the Himalayas.
Before I get into my trek into this fantasy landscape, lets go through some facts.
In the 8th century, it was established as a holy site after famed Guru Rinpoche flew there to meditate. He was on the back of a flying tigress. (Did I say facts?)
In the 1600's it became the monastery of Paro looking much as it does today. Despite its precarious position, it's actually a complex of four temples. Its unique structure is a combination of crafty stonework and natural rock. The Tiger's Nest is roughly a five hour hike - not including your time in the temples - and you reach an altitude of over 3,000 metres (10,000 feet). One hell of a workout but the most magical one you'll ever have.
This is how I experienced it.
It was my last full day in Bhutan. I was overwhelmed and exhausted but my new friend Anup wanted this experience to be one of my last in his kingdom. This had a practical reason as well as a nostalgic one. I had fully acclimatised by now. We set out early from my accomodation in Paro so we could beat the heat and tourists. A 30 minute drive up the valley got me to the 'base camp'. Here, the local craftspeople were just laying out their colourful blankets and arranging their wares for sale. Trinkets, clothing, walking sticks and fresh fruit. This is where you would hire a horse or mule for the ride up. They're only permitted to go half way and are not allowed to bring you down, to spare these beasts of burden from injuries. (I was told that there's a greater chance of injury on a horse than on foot).
Anup and I went on foot. Our witty and wise driver Mr. David although he had a knee injury and would only be going as far as the horses. As I stared up to the mountain tops a kilometre above us, a band of mystical cloud hid the nest from me. I was not ready yet, apparently.
My training up to this point had included months of high incline hiking and elevation training, and I thanked myself for persisting as the terrain was hard and the incline brutal. Anup understood that this was a kinda pilgrimage for me so he allowed me to go at my pace while he hung back. I'd proven my general abilities over the last week so he trusted me. I dodged cracks, sheer drops and the occasional returning horse as I crept ever onward under a canopy of ancient cypress and pine trees. Each step felt as if I were alone. I remained silent concentrating on the now, being mindful of my steps but also trying to record this forever in my memory.
It was not until we reached the midway point that I saw it.
There's a balcony-like plateau half way up where a giant prayer wheel spins, ringing its bell on every slow and steady revolution. Here is where horses are rested before heading back down. A long row of small old prayer wheels is there for good luck and you can't resist but spin them all. The path splits in two. One takes you slightly downward and around a bend to a cafeteria. The other takes you up. At about 90 minutes in, I'm now told that the last half is where it starts getting hard!
The path now gives way to boulders and rocky outcrops but the canopy becomes more dense. It's cooler on the shady path and lichen hangs from the pine trees like old men's beards. Forget what you think of the Himalayas. This path feels like rain forest hike, albeit
one that is often closed during winter due to snow. Bhutan's climate is extraordinary.
As before, I felt like I was walking alone. I don't know if it was the exhaustion, the altitude or just a general feeling of accomplishment, but I found myself thinking about my family and the distance between me and them. I suddenly felt selfish for doing this. Then I thought about my mum back home in a hospital very unwell. I thought about how much time and meaning I have invested in this... and through a gap in the trees, I saw in the distance the golden corner of a pagoda roof. A hint of the icon I have coveted for years. There was nothing but thin air between it and me - and an epic void of space across the valley. I was short of breath but there was some other sensation that making it hard to breath... and i realised I was crying. Hiking with tears running down my cheeks and racing the sweat.
Apparently, runners get this phenomenon too. Adrenaline and combination of physical and emotional pressure bubbles up and takes hold.
The climb became a thin narrow and level path around the summit. I let myself feel this state and then calmly walked to a point where I could see the viewing platform. The famed vantage point where you look down upon the monastery, before descending into it. I saw there was a group of several Indian tourists taking selfies there. I did not want my fist proper view of Taktsang to be through a crop of selfie sticks. I sat on a rock and sipped my water. I wiped the tears away and meditated. Before long, Anup arrived chatting to another guide who is on tour with a large and enthusiastic American. He asked if I was okay and I told him my reason for hesitating at the final turn. He waited for them to move on and then spurred me to come see the most beautiful place in the world.
Words can't adequately describe it but fortunately a photograph does a great job.
There is a small stupa shrine here where devotees leave the ashes of loved ones. Impossibly long lines of prayer flags tethered to the top fly out across the void like a crazy zip line. I think thats got to be one of the best views on the whole planet. Together, we made our way down the killer 150 odd stone steps into the cliffside pass that separates the stupa shrine from the monastery.
A waterfall cascaded from the summit high above over the granite cliff and into a pool. A small pipe has been set up for pilgrims to fill their bottles with the purest, and most divine water. It's tradition to cup your hand under it, take a sip them splash the rest over your third eye. I did this and it truly felt magical.
We came to another set of 150 odd stone steps leading up from the waterfall and fountain to the monastery entrance. There's a rickety walkway up to a tiny little monk shack or hermitage which you can hire for a week of silence. You won't find that on Air BnB.
My legs were as heavy as lead by now but we continued up. Even my surefooted guide was breaking a sweat. Finally.
At the entrance there is a building where Anup presented my visa, permit and passport. Absolutely nothing electronic is allowed to pass through the gate so everything was stowed except my drink bottle. The policeman gave me an unenthusiastic pat down and in the native Dzonga tongue shared a few words with Anup. They know each other! I wondered how many bloody times he's done this hike now, but his discretion is admirable.
I made my way up the final steep stone steps to the gate. The only security they use here is of the zen variety. One that has protected this sacred site from evil for almost 400 years.
A burning sage bush.
I removed my shoes as I was invited inside. My hand touched the brass door frame and its was cold. So cold. I could feel the engravings press into my skin and I just wanted to hold it tighter. So I stayed, gripping the door frame.
Anup wondered what the hell I was doing and told him in one step, I will become someone else. In my mind, I took a snapshot of my hand against the brass dragon etching. I let go and stepped inside the Tiger's Nest.
NOTE: Out of respect for the Bhutanese culture, the monks and rinpoche's of Taktsang, and the devoted pilgrims that cross the toughest terrain on the planet to get to the same point I did, I'm going to have to be a huge tease, and stop right there. I feel like you have to earn the karma to understand it's treasures.
What I can ask you to do is imagine a dimly lit yet colourful room filled with monks throat singing while thick clouds of incense fill the air.
Imagine tiny ancient wooden windows with rough smoky glass panes that look out over a sheer cliff face to the valley floor over a kilometre down.
Imagine a stone chamber that almost imperceptibly becomes a granite cave.
And imagine a tiny room filled with a thousand butter lamp candles and a heat that sucks the thin air from your lungs.
As I exited the monastery through the main gate, I certainly felt different. Bolder, braver, more mindful maybe. But sad. Sad because every step from here on in, was a step away from the Bhutan I had come to adore. And step toward home. The end had begun.
Back under the waterfall, and up the steps we went. I stopped for a rest at the stupa shrine.
It occurred to me that I hadn't thought to ask anyone the most important question. What is the meaning of life? Then I looked at the base of the shrine and saw some characters I knew very well. There, engraved in stone sanskrit letters, was the mantra 'om mani padme hum.'
It means the jewel is within the lotus. The beauty is deep within us. The light is in the dark.
It is my favourite mantra. And I've have the bloody answer tattooed on my arm for years!
I sat and remembered a ritual I had planned to do here. Inside my necklace pendant was a small rock I had taken from my own mountain back home, Mt Barker. I placed it in a crack of the stonework and picked up a fragment of stone right next to it. This piece of stupa stone sat perfectly inside my pendant where it remains today. Just as a piece of my special place now sits among the temple stones of Bhutan.
The journey down was mostly silent. We were tired and the sun was high making it a very hot trek down to the base camp. Mr. David shook my hand and I hugged him back. I gave Anup my best version of a formal Bhutanese gratitude handshake. You support your shaking hand in a gentle sweep, make eye contact and bow as you shake. I felt honoured every time a Bhutanese did it for me and I wanted Anup to understand that I was in his debt.
On the car trip back out of the valley to the hotel, the lads told tales in Dzonga while listening to their favourite Spotify playlist, Classic Country. I was as tired as I had ever been and it was my final night so I had to pack and get ready for an early transfer to the airport.
Despite all this, I barely slept a wink. Im an insomniac anyway, but I had so much to process. So much to remember. So much to return to.
It was like trying to sleep with the light on... but it was the kinda light you never want to extinguish for fear that you'll not get it back.
The Tiger's Nest was the most complex experience I've ever had. Awe and adrenaline. A workout for my spirit and my body. This was the jewel in the lotus for me, and I'll always carry a piece of it with me... just as I have left a piece of myself there.
(and I'm not just talking about the stones!)
For a little video of the trek, go to the video page or just follow the link.
It you want to discover the nest for yourself, let Anup take you.