Bhutan 21.05.2020 David Abrams
Clinging to a ledge on a near vertical cliff face, against a backdrop of pine-forested mountains and waterfalls, the ‘Tiger’s Nest Monastery’ – or ‘Paro Taksang’ – is to Bhutan what Big Ben is to London and the Colosseum is to Rome. Its mix of refined Buddhist architecture and sublime setting perfectly encapsulate the exotic style and defiant spirit of the Himalayan kingdom. As the country’s defining photo opportunity, the monument attracts a steady stream of visitors. But this one Instagram classic you will have to work for: the monastery may only be reached via a 5–6-hour hike, much of it uphill. So that coveted selfie may require a bit of puff!
In this blog we set everything you need to know to plan your hike, from timing the trip to photographic tips. Booking advice is available by phone, email or live chat with our expert Bhutan consultants at the TransIndus office London, contact details for which appear at the end of this article.
When to Go to Bhutan?
The bet periods to travel to Bhutan are from March to May and September through November. At these times the weather is dependably dry and temperatures moderate. Snowfall is possible in March or October, though only a light dusting that won’t impede your trek.
How much does it cost?
Because it charges all visitors a mandatory daily fee, Bhutan has a reputation as an expensive country to visit. But it isn’t! Currently, the fees are $200 for off peak (Jan–Feb & June–July) and $250 for high season (March–May & Sept–Nov), all of which can be offset against the cost of accommodation, meals, transport, guides and entry tickets to monasteries and other monuments. To be fair to Bhutan, there aren’t that many countries in Asia these days where you can travel comfortably, staying in decent hotels, eating well, and accompanied by expert guides, for under $250! So don’t let talk of the daily tariff put you off.
Daytrips are nearly always offered as a package, and Tiger’s Next Monastery is no exception. Tour operators will make all the necessary bookings well in advance. You pay for the excursion when you book your holiday.
Anyone looking to keep costs to an absolute minimum should consider visiting Bhutan as part of a Small Group Tour.
How to Get There?
The start of the trail to Paro Taksang lies around a half hour’s drive from Paro. Local taxis are available, but if you’re arranged the trip as part of a package with us, then you’ll travel in a luxury saloon car (or air-conditioned bus if you’re on a group tour).
The trek to Tiger’s Nest Monastery takes between five and six hours, depending on levels of fitness and the number of stops at cafés you make along the way! Most people begin around 9am. Zigzagging through the pine trees, the path itself is largely unsurfaced and uneven, though ascends at gentle gradients for the first few hours as far as the café-restaurant where most visitors pause for lunch at midday. A half hour on from there brings you to a terrace that’s at the same height as the monastery on the opposite side of the ravine – a famous viewpoint where majority of the photos of the monument you’ve seen will have been taken.
From here on the path rises and falls more steeply, winding via a series of staircases over stream gullies, waterfalls, rocky cliffs and fields of moss-covered boulders. Throughout this section, the physical effort is rewarded by more and more amazing views back down the valley and out across the surrounding ridgetops and mountains. A flight of steep steps takes you up the final climb to Paro Taksang itself.
Paro Taksang in its present form was constructed at the end of the 17th century, around a sacred cave where generations of monks and saints were known to have meditated. Among them was Guru Padmasambhava, the itinerant missionary who first brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century. Local legend asserts he flew to the site on the back of a tigress, and remained there meditating for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours precisely.
The original complex was destroyed by fire in 1998, but completely rebuilt and today looks exactly as it did in its prime, with pristine whitewashed walls, gilded roofs and eaves painted the same auspicious burgundy colour used to dye the robes of the resident monks.
The buildings interiors are richly painted and decorated in the Tibetan style, with fabulous mythological murals, thangkas and butter sculptures. If they’re not occupied with their studies, young novices will probably accompany your visit, using the opportunity to practise their English and show you the traditional Bhutanese games they play in their free time.
Due to the duration of the walk, most people arrive at the monastery around midday, when the building is in direct sunlight. This isn’t ideal – camera sensors struggle to cope with the bright reflection off the white walls – but by 3pm in the autumn and spring, the sun will generally have set behind the surrounding ridges, leaving the complex is shadow. The strong backlight may cause problems, but you can easily re-balance the highlights and shadows in post.
For the iconic shot of Paro Taksang from across the ravine, you’ll ideally need a decent zoom lens with a focal range of at least 70mm – perfect for capturing the monastery with its dramatic backdrop.
Do bear in mind that cameras are not allowed inside; you’ll have to leave yours, along with your phone, at the safe deposit at the entrance.