Why a flying tigress? Well, because during the 7th century, Guru Rinpoche – Bhutan’s “Precious Master” (the one who brought Buddhism into Bhutan) – flew to a cave here on the back of a flying tigress. That tigress was a transformation of his Tibetan concubine: Yeshe Tsogyal. Guru Rinpoche then meditated at a holy cave here for 3 years, 3 months, 3 weeks, 3 days and 3 hours, to subdue the demons there.
At around 1692, Paro Taktsang / Taktsang Monastery / Taktsang Palphug Monastery (popularly known as “Tiger’s Nest Monastery“) was built around the holy caves here. Unfortunately, a fire in 1998 completely burned the monastery down. In 2005, Bhutan’s Fourth King of Bhutan commissioned the rebuilt of this monastery & temple complex, at a cost of more than USD$2m.
What an amazing background story about Tiger’s Nest!
Paro Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) is a sacred site, a heritage symbol. It would be odd to leave Bhutan without paying a visit to its most iconic landmark.
Perfectly planned to be the climax of our Bhutan trip,
On our 6th morning in Bhutan, finally it was time to hike to this legendary monastery – Paro Taktsang.
This post was originally written after my first time hiking Tiger’s Nest in Dec 2017, with my family. Most of the information here is related as per that experience. In Dec 2019, I hiked Tiger’s Nest again as part of a spiritual program called Neykor.
After breakfast at the hotel, reaching the valley base at about 9am, our guide, Namgay, from Druk Asia, insisted on carrying my backpack (perks of my petite size I guess! =P) for me, then proceeded to stuff in 5 bottles of mineral water and adjusted the straps to fit his build. My Mum & I each acquired a walking stick from a stall. As for my brother, I’m sure he trusts in his own balancing skills very well, and off we embarked on our hike.
You have two options to do your Tiger Nest Trek
(without the help of a tigress)
Option 1. Ride a horse to shorten the journey
For a small fee, you can ride a horse/donkey/pony/mule halfway up. The animal will take you from the valley base to somewhere below the cafeteria (sorry I’m not too sure where’s the exact drop-off point), then you continue hiking uphill. The animals are not allowed to carry people downhill though, so you’ll need to walk down regardless.
People will tell you it’s completely safe, but I was there and noted the animals had been trained to walk at the edge of the cliff. Human hikers get the priority on the safer side of the trek to Tiger’s Nest. If using a horse isn’t riskier, I don’t know what is.
Other than the danger, there’s also a deeper, spiritual reason why the riding method is not a recommendation. If you ride an animal up to get to Paro Taktsang, you split the good merit accumulated from the journey – with the animal. In the higher spectrum of matters, it’s never good to make an animal suffer for your convenience.
To the locals, the hike to Tiger’s Nest is considered a pilgrimage, and you’ll accumulate very good merit to hike on foot all the way to the monastery.
If you’re in good health generally and have good legs, I say skip the animals!
Option 2 (recommended): Hike to Tiger’s Nest on foot!
From the valley base, you’ll gain 900m in altitude and finally reach Tiger’s Nest at a height of 3,120m. Isn’t that exciting to hear?!? Tiger’s Nest ranks top of the places to visit in Bhutan. I’ve been waiting for this hike!
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The terrain on Tiger’s Nest trail
The trail in dry weather is dried soil, sand, rocks, and gravel – dirt path. At times, the views get spectacular. It was super tempting to constantly stop and take photos (and actually to catch our breath 😂).
1.5 hours since starting off, we reached the cafeteria
.. where I had a big cup of coffee and much-welcomed sugar crackers!
Sitting outdoors, we admired Tiger’s Nest from here. Best cafe view ever, don’t you think? 😍
After recharging our energy, we continued on our way!
11.40am: Seeing Tiger’s Nest monastery nearer now
Finally, we reached this section with great views of Tiger’s Nest. We’re so near now! Our guide sat nearby while we waited for our turns to snap photos at the ledge. Luckily, it wasn’t too filled with people this season (winter in December).
Btw, there are some 800 steps of a stone staircase before you’ll reach the monastery
At the very last part of the trail leading to the monastery, there’s a series of some 800 stone steps you need to conquer. You’ll walk down the majority of the steps first, cross a small bridge past a 200-foot-tall waterfall which drops into a sacred pool, continue more steps upwards, and finally arrive at the entrance. For many people, these stone steps can be a struggle. But, it’s not a competition. You can and should take your time.
Arriving at Tiger’s Nest Monastery
At the entrance, Namgay gathered our cameras and handphones into my backpack, to be kept away together in a locker. After he cleared security with some documents, we entered. My Mum was demoralized to see further steps to climb. A stranger cheerfully said it’s just these steps here, there’ll be no more afterwards. He was lying, but it was a white lie 😉 You’ve already gotten this far!
Namgay then led us through the temples (think of them as shrines – little individual religious rooms) at Tiger’s Nest. With no gadgets to distract, no access to social media, no way to post Instagram Stories, no photographs to shoot from cameras, we listened in full attention to his relating of stories of Guru Rinpoche and the monastery.
Some of the temples contain huge stupas and statues.
It’s amazing to imagine how the people brought them to this monastery! Namgay depicted a story of one statue (I think it was Guru Rinpoche’s) which was initially at Punakha Dzong, bound for Tiger’s Nest. The devotees attempted to carry the statue upwards. The trail to Paro Taktsang was very challenging and a struggle for the humans. The statue actually told the people to leave it there. A speaking statue! So, the people left the statue there and continued to the monastery. By the time they reached Tiger’s Nest, that huge status was already there. Whoa.
I did do further reading afterward, but I guess some magic is best left untouched.
Trek Difficulty Level of Tiger’s Nest
There’s one part of the trail before the cafeteria, where you can take the longer but less steep route or, the shorter but steeper route. Don’t ask me how to identify where this part is, because I don’t know. But your Bhutanese guide might know exactly where.
I took the former in 2017 & the latter in 2019. For the steeper route, it can get quite tiring. For both hikes, I took frequent, short breaks.
If you’re in pretty okay or good shape, each direction should take you between 2 to 3.5 hours. How you get to Tiger’s Nest would be how you descend.
How far is the trail to Tiger’s Nest?
The total distance to get to Tiger’s Nest is about 9.5km (the shorter route), according to the tracker on Apple Watch for my 2019 hike.
Getting to Tiger’s Nest on Dec 2017:
• At 9am, we began the hike with my elderly mother.
• By 10.30am, we had reached the cafeteria.
• At 12.30pm, we entered the monastery.
Hiking to Tiger’s Nest on Dec 2019:
• We started at 8.30am.
• By 9.30am, we were having coffee & resting at the cafeteria, waiting for the rest to reach.
• At 11am, we reached the viewpoint with the metal railing and stopped quite long, doing media shoots etc.
• At 11.40am, we stepped into Tiger’s Nest.
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Tiger’s Nest trail terrain
These photos were taken in the first week of Dec ’19!
In terms of the terrain, it’s much of a ‘walking upward hike‘ all the way – might get pretty steep sometimes but not crazy like how Mt Batur in Bali was to me. Neither do you have to get on hands or knees or hold onto trees for balance unlike hiking Preikestolen in Norway. It’s important to wear shoes with sufficient friction, sole and ankle support (more about my shoes at Tips section below).
The biggest challenge for hiking Tiger’s Nest is probably the quick elevation, letting you gain 900m in height soon to reach the monastery at 3,120m. Take your time to get there and listen to your body, especially breathing ease/difficulty.
For the hike down, it can get a little slippery. Watch your steps. We’re very grateful to our Druk Asia guide for always keeping a lookout for my Mum, and of course the winter weather for holding up!
Should you persevere to reach Tiger’s Nest?
During the days before in Bhutan, the small hikes were posing a challenge for my Dad (73 years old, not too fit) already, so he opted out of this hike to Tiger’s Nest totally, choosing to rest at the hotel (our guide arranged lunch for him with the hotel). The rest of us, including my elderly Mum (almost 70 years old), made it to the monastery with no hiccups.
Some hikers will choose to stop at the viewpoint with the row of prayer wheels, while others prefer to call it a day at the cafeteria and turn back. Whether you should hike all the way to Tiger’s Nest or not really depends on your fitness level, but I’ll say don’t push it if your health is not too good and especially if you’re an elderly person, or has known heart/lung medical conditions.
What to know BEFORE you make your trek to Tiger’s Nest Monastery!
- The weather and your luck will determine your hiking outcome. Sometimes, clouds will cover the monastery. At times, it rains and judging the steepness of the slopes, you’ll do good to wear hiking shoes with good friction. (Ps: it hardly ever rains in Dec in Bhutan, but if it does, it’s a sign of snow soon.)
- Cars can only stop at the carpark at the valley base. The only way up from the carpark is by foot or by a horse.
- You’ll need to remove shoes before entering the temples within the monastery. Having socks with you will be a good idea, because the flooring is cold and your feet will get dirty too.
- If you’re feeling too tired, you can rest at the cafeteria. From the cafeteria, it’s still a significant distance and quite a steep hike to Tiger’s Nest.
- The cafeteria also has lunch available (vegetarian food, not too tasty TBH, but imagine the staff having to hike up every day to cook and clean – gotta give them credits!).
- Resources say the monastery closes from 1pm – 2pm for lunch, but when we were there, I checked with our guide and he was sure that it won’t close. We were inside Tiger’s Nest Monastery from 12.30pm to 1.30pm.
What to wear for hiking to Tiger’s Nest
When we got off the vehicle at the carpark, the 9am temperature in winter was definitely chilly enough to make me hop around from being cold.
(Dec 2017) My guide and driver advised us to leave our very thick winter jackets in the car, because we’ll get hot very fast while hiking. They were right.
It’s very cold at the monastery.
Very glad I packed my down jacket in my backpack in Dec 2019, as it felt very cold at Tiger’s Nest itself!
After adjusting my health with TCM, I hiked Tiger’s Nest again in the first week of Dec 2019, and finally felt how cold it actually was at the top. This time, I had packed my down jacket and winter gloves in my backpack, and took them out to wear at the monastery, and could still feel cold. In Dec 2017, I probably had not been able to feel the actual coldness because my body wasn’t too sensitive to the surroundings.
You should be in respectable clothing.
Paro Taktsang is a monastery with temples within, plus many religious statues, and monks around.
Please don’t just wear shorts, T-shirts, sleeveless tops, sheer clothing, or merely sports bras revealing the mid-riff (#InstagramInfluenza). Your jacket should be zipped up, caps and sunglasses removed, before entering.
I’ll recommend layers that you can add/remove and still carry along without much burden. When you’re hiking, you’ll get warm very fast. At the monastery itself, it gets cold, especially the floor.
Wear proper shoes, not slippers.
We hiked on a sunny day and the ground was dry. If it’s wet weather, the ground will turn muddy and slippery. Make sure your footwear is appropriate for the weather you’re going. Falling and twisting an ankle will be no fun for everyone.
I saw some elderly ladies wearing slippers, struggling along the stairs towards the monastery. In sunny weather, the ground is dry terrain though it can still get slippery cos of the sand. I wore Skechers trainers (light and very comfortable) in Dec 2017 and they were sufficient. In Dec 2019, I wore proper hiking shoes which provided me ease of mind with good friction.
When it rains, the ground turns into mud and you really don’t want to slip and fall. Btw, your shoes will be coated with dirt and dust after this hike.
Opt for thicker, darker socks.
You’ll have to remove shoes before entering the inner temples – which are about 6 or 8 of them. The floor is very cold, hence thicker socks will be good. Also, skip the white socks or you’ll have to discard them later.
• Uniqlo Airism sports bra
• Uniqlo Extra Heat-Tech long-sleeved top
• Knitted sweater (viscose blend)
• + a Zara down jacket at the monastery
• leather gloves
• Uniqlo Extra Heat-Tech pants
• Onzie yoga pants (exact same pair as the first trip)
• Uniqlo Heat-Tech socks
• Quechua hiking shoes (Forclaz 100 mid women’s waterproof mountain hiking boots)
• Uniqlo Airism cotton tank top
• Soft knit sweater from H&M, not thick at all
• Onzie yoga pants (Shop on Evolve & get 10% off with code YIELDKIT)
• Cotton thin socks
• Skechers trainers
More tips for your trek to Tiger’s Nest!
Don’t hike Tiger’s Nest on your first few days in Bhutan.
First, for altitude reasons. Secondly, if you hardly work out, your legs will ache not the next day, but the day after! I came across another tour company’s itinerary with this as the second day’s activity – zZzz. (I used Druk Asia and couldn’t be more satisfied with my choice!)
Sunscreen + sunglasses are a good idea.
The sun can get in your eyes. And also, the sandy ground can be very bright from reflecting the sun’s rays.
Bring a bottle of water with you to rehydrate.
Pack some snacks with you.
At the cafe, you can get tea/coffee and sugar crackers to replenish some energy before continuing to the monastery. At the monastery, I heard people saying they’re really hungry, and still have a long way to hike down to the cafe. My Mum ate my emergency packet of biscuits to replenish her low energy at the monastery. By the time we reached the cafeteria for lunch, it was already almost 3pm.
Buy Rent a walking stick before you start.
For nu50 or USD$1 each, you can
rent buy 1 or 2 sticks as you wish at the valley base, where all the horses and local stalls are at. There’ll be no more stalls after this section. The walking sticks will give you much better balance, especially for the hike downwards. I chose one thin but sturdy one so it’ll not be too heavy (and so I have the other free hand for using my camera). You don’t need to return the walking stick, but you can’t take that stick up the plane either, so please just return it instead of discarding at your hotel or airport. 🤓
Hike smart and regulate your speed.
Don’t be silly and try to cover a lot of ground quickly while walking, then stopping to pant. Hiking to Tiger’s Nest is not a competition. Instead, go at a regular hiking speed but still take frequent, short pauses in order to not overwork your heart. You’ll gain elevation very fast, which means you’ll feel short of breath very quickly.
When hiking up, keep to your right, if you see or hear horses coming from the front or back.
For safety reasons, we always stopped to let them pass (and they kick up a lot of dust). They’re trained to keep close to the edge of the cliff. We saw a donkey kick a man because he was blocking their path, no kidding! Your guide should always be with you and take care of you.
Don’t ride the horses when it’s wet weather.
Actually, don’t ride the horses.
Watch out for horse poop on the ground.
Drape a scarf to cover your nose.
You’ll probably only read this on my travel blog. The horses and other hikers will kick up dust from the ground when they’re ahead of you, regardless uphill or downhill. I found my scarf extremely useful as a filter!
Use the washrooms at the cafeteria before continuing your way.
The toilets at the cafeteria are clean and have taps. (I didn’t visit the monastery’s toilets but I did read that they’re in quite appalling conditions..)
Before entering the monastery, you’ll need to have your bags, cameras, mobile phones, stored in lockers.
They’re very strict about not allowing handphones and cameras into the monastery. Respect this rule and pass your bag to your guide to store in the lockers outside the monastery. But before keeping everything away..
Keep some small notes with you if you’ll like to make offerings inside the monastery.
At Tiger’s Nest monastery, there’re about 5-8 temples from what I remember.
Disconnect from the outside world so you can hike mindfully.
There’s very limited data connectivity throughout the trail, which is great because it makes you stay in the present moment!
If you have a tour guide, he’ll lead you all the way to the monastery, then explain the stories of the temples.
For others’ consideration, if you really need to listen to your pop music, use earphones, not blare the music. Other people are meditatively doing this hike and would appreciate a quieter time =)
Have you hiked to Tiger Nest’s before? Or thought of going?
Here’s a digitally-manipulated photo I created shared on my Instagram!
Hiked: December 2017, December 2019
With special thanks to Druk Asia. Full credits are at the end of my first Bhutan post.
Information resources: Paro Taktsang | Bhutan Tourism Board
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