From below, the ascent to the Taktsang Monastry, seemingly perched in a precarious spot on the face of a cliff, is daunting.
The Taktsang, or Tiger’s Nest, temple complex is built on a cliff face overlooking Paro Valley.
Standing 3,120m above sea level and almost 1km above the Paro Valley floor it overlooks, the temple also known as the "Tiger's Nest" is one of Bhutan's most stunning landmarks.
The temple complex's location is designed to mirror the great faith of Bhutanese Buddhists, and it is regarded as one of the country's holiest sites. Its remote and picturesque setting has also proven an attraction for pilgrims and tourists alike, despite the steep climb.
While preparing for the trek, I turn to my guide, Jamyang, and ask whether it will be cold or warm at the mountaintop.
"It is difficult to explain," Jamyang replies. "You will be frozen and sweating. You would not understand the answer until you climb up the sacred monastery by yourself."
A pony service to climb the mountain costs US$20 (600 baht), but it goes half way and tourists need to climb the rest themselves.
When pilgrims are about to start off from the foot of the mountain, the temperature feels freezing. However, it is not far along the steep, dusty trail that hikers start peeling off their jackets and winter accessories, piece by piece.
"Why did the Bhutanese have to build a temple in such a place? It is extremely difficult to access." I shoot the question at Jamyang, guessing every exhausted tourist would want to know the answer.
"We believe that the more obstacles there are to making good deeds, the more merit we will get," he said.
After climbing up for two hours, I eventually take a break at a coffee shop midway. It feels quite good to have a break, sipping warm milk tea while taking in the view of the temple, looming larger on the cliff face from this vantage point.
I reflect on how Bhutan has relaxed many of its regulations. In the past, no tourist was allowed to enter any temple and a climb such as this would have been impossible. As Taktsang is one of the country's most sacred places, tourists were once only allowed to see it from this cafeteria.
I start walking again, trying to get there before noon when the temple will be closed for a lunch break. More than an hour later, my legs quivering from a series of extremely steep steps, I round a bend and see the temple is poised at eye level further around the mountain.
There is a fantastic view of the Tiger's Nest from here. The temple complex clings to the steep cliff like a swallow's nest. Colourful prayer flags are hung across the chasm, with one of their ends tied to the temple. A small stream from the cliff top pours down into the chasm, landing near the snow on the bank below.
There is no question why the scenery and the beautiful temple is able to lure pilgrims and tourists to endure the struggle up the mountain.
The temple complex in its modern form was built in 1692, although the site has a longer history. The complex is built around the Taktsang Senge Samdup cave, where Bhutanese Buddhists believed their spiritual leader, Guru Rinpoche, meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours in the 8th century. Guru Rinpoche introduced Buddhism to Bhutan and is now considered a deity there.
Legend holds that a former wife of an emperor, known as Yeshe Tsogyal, willingly became a disciple of Guru Rinpoche in Tibet.
She transformed herself into a tigress and carried the guru on her back from Tibet to the cave, where he undertook the meditation. Because of this, the place came to be known as the "Tiger's Nest". It has been considered a holy place since the 11th century.
Many Tibetan monks came to meditate here. More monasteries were created in the area when lamas from Tibet established their monasteries after the 12th century. Taktsang evolved again in the 17th century.
Standing before the temple, I am told to keep all mobile phones and cameras in a bag, to be left in the guard's room. Photography is strictly prohibited in the area. Tourists will be accompanied by a guide while exploring the place.
The monastery buildings consist of four main temples and residential shelters which are all designed around the cliff, the caves and the rocky terrain. All the buildings are interconnected through steps and stairways of rock, although there are a few rickety wooden bridges along the paths and stairways.
Each building has a balcony, providing lovely views of the Paro Valley below. Visitors will be tired and exhausted, but delighted to witness the amazing temple complex, as I was.
- Taktsang is located 10km north of Paro. Visitors are required to hike about 7km to access the temple complex, which takes a round trip of between four and six hours.
- To get a Bhutanese visa, tourists are required to buy a package tour from authorised tour operators only. For more information, visit www.tourism.gov.bt.
About the author
- Writer: Peerawat Jariyasombat
Position: Travel Reporter