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Tiger Tiger Burning Bright

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10.01.2009

Advantages:
It's a beautiful iconic image of Bhutan

Disadvantages:
It's a long hard walk to get there

Recommendable Yes:

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48 Ciao members have rated this review on average: very helpful See ratings
exceptional by (28%):
  1. hiker
  2. anonymili
  3. RICHADA
and 12 other members
very helpful by (72%):
  1. TheHairyGodmother
  2. Soho_Black
  3. scuba_angel
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A real 'Must-See'

To go to Bhutan and not see the Tiger's Nest would be like going to Agra and not bothering with the Taj Mahal or missing the Eiffel Tower on your first visit to Paris. If one image symbolises the exotic, mysterious and timeless nature of Bhutan, it's surely the Tiger's Nest or, to give it its more formal name, the Thaktshang Monastery. Clinging precariously to the side of an almost sheer rock face more than 900 meters above the valley floor, this is the must-see attraction of all must-see attractions. However, there's one big difference between the Tiger's Nest and most iconic attractions: it's a really tough one to reach.

Your Knees Might Not Thank You

Considering that the average age of visitors to Bhutan is high and the majority are old aged pensioners, it's a bit cruel to put your top attraction in such an inaccessible place. For the benefit of those who always ask, even when it's already clear let me put it in capitals - THIS IS NOT AN ATTRACTION FOR THOSE WITH LIMITED MOBILITY. Actually, if I'm brutally honest, Bhutan is not a country for those with limited mobility. We had 20-30 years advantage over most tourists in Bhutan but we still struggled. Now I know that there is a member on the site (Hi Hiker!) who has been to the Tigers Nest and my guess is that she probably ran up and down without breaking a sweat but for those of us with a history of knee problems, it's not a stroll in the park.

Just to make it more tricky, the monastery is generally visited near the beginning of a visit to Bhutan due to its proximity to the country's only airport, so many visitors will still be acclimatising to the altitude and the reduced oxygen levels. Consequently the Tiger's Nest is more of a challenge than you might be led to believe when a nice tour company sells you a trip from a website decorated with images of this monastery. Even for the young and relatively frisky this is not what you could call an easy ascent and our guide told us that the climb is very similar in places to the rigours of the Jumolhari base camp trek. I'm unsure if that's true or if he was just being kind.

My knees sometimes seem to be about 30 years older than the rest of my body
Pictures of Taktshang (Tiger's Nest Monastery), Bhutan
Taktshang (Tiger's Nest Monastery), Bhutan The Temple
It's just breathtaking
and I've had a lot of injuries due to playing ice-hockey in my youth. I sacrificed the ligaments of my right knee to my sport and the cartilage of the left has taken a battering from having to over-compensate from my right knee on too many hiking holidays. With such a knee history, I did start the walk with some trepidation and took my walking poles with me on my holiday just for dealing with this one attraction.

So What is It?

Before I moan about the agonies of the ascent, you might be wondering what the Tiger's Nest actually is so I'd better not assume you already know. Taktshang is the most famous of Bhutan's many monasteries - and I'm not exaggerating when I say 'many'. Bhutan does monasteries like the UK does Starbucks coffee shops; there's one on every corner. The monastery got its nickname ' The Tiger's Nest' from the belief that the Guru Padmasambhava (the man who brought Buddhism to Bhutan) visited the site of the temple on the back of a flying tigress in the 8th century. He stayed for three months meditating in the cave that now forms one of the main temples within the monastery.

The first sanctuary at Taktshang was built by Nyingmapa lamas (note lama as in religious chap not llama as in south American cameloid) in the 14th century and the temple was rebuilt in the 17th century, restored in the 19th and 20th and devastated in 1998. The most recent renovation and rebuilding has been completed and the Tiger's Nest is once again open to the public.

Getting There

Our driver dropped us at the car park at the base of the climb and we set off through some gentle woodland, passing a water-driven prayer wheel that rang out several times each minute as the wheel rotated and knocked against a bell. We watched scornfully as parties of less brave and bold travellers hired horses to take them up the mountain but as the path got steeper and rougher under foot, we did wonder if they might have had the right idea. When I say 'path' of course I use the term very loosely for this is not a paved way. It's very rough, very unstable under foot and most importantly extremely steep. After rain it would be almost deadly. I did wonder how the horses were coping in some places and I think being on one would have been very frightening.

Perhaps the most depressing thing about the start of the trek to the monastery is that you can't see anything of what is to come. You walk through woodland without even the slightest glimpse of the prize that awaits you until over half way. Mind you, that's probably a good thing because after about an hour of slogging along, we finally saw the first view of the monastery and it was still a very long way away.

The first landmark on the climb comes when you reach a small prayer wheel and see your first view of the monastery. Be sure to walk clockwise around the wheel because the last thing you want at this point is any bad luck. Or maybe if you're as tired as we were, you'll just stagger round the wheel. The next landmark is a very welcome one; it's the so-called cafeteria view-point. There's a large metal hut that serves teas and coffees and very welcome biscuits, offers toilets and a good place to sit down and simply stare open-mouthed in wonder at the monastery. On the down-side, you'll also become aware that there's still a really long way to go. Most of the people who had come up by horse stopped at this point and spent a long time just looking. Some were brave enough to continue on foot.

Our guide explained that from the cafeteria we still had a long climb to get above the level of the monastery. Then we would head down several hundred stone steps, cross a waterfall and then climb up a few hundred more. But having come so far, you can't really back out at this stage and I was determined to get there. We were reassured by somewhat unbelievable claims that the next stage wasn't as bad as what we'd already done. And so, filled with biscuits and new energy, we set off.

Sure enough, this second phase didn't seem so bad and I suspect it was because you can see the temple and be driven on by its inspiration. We reached the highest point of the climb and looked down on all the steps that were still to come and just slogged on. A young monk was sitting on a rock at one view point, quite happy to watch all these crazy tourists and to have his photograph taken. A party of ladies from Singapore called it a day when one fell over on the steps and scared herself.

When we finally reached the monastery there was a tiny sense of anti-climax. This is an attraction where the goal itself can be less than the anticipation and the journey. The Tiger's Nest is best viewed from a distance rather than too close-by. The temple as it stands today is a modern rebuilding of the original one which has been damaged and rebuilt many times, most recently by a devastating fire which required so much work to rebuild the place that it only opened again to the public a few years ago. My guidebook which dates to the early 2000s was written when visitors could go no further than the cafeteria.

We removed our shoes, left our bags and cameras and headed into the monastery. In itself, it's not so remarkably different from many other Bhutanese monasteries. We gained access to three or four different temples, including one which is built around the cave where Buddha Padmasambhava meditated and where another leading lama was said to have been born. We were lucky to arrive at just the right time before the caretaker monks all knocked off for lunch . It's not the sort of place you can just pop back to a bit later.

Suitably inspired, we started the walk back to the cafeteria and the steps were taking their toll on tired legs. The meal when we arrived - which of course was fully vegetarian - was fantastic or possibly we were just so hungry that we ate like horses. The final descent back to the car park was painful in the extreme and my legs were so stiff I could hardly get up and down stairs for several days later. But it was still an attraction that I wouldn't have missed for all the world.

A final word on the Ciao Ratings


Ciao asks for ratings on price, transport links and family friendly. These aren't easy to rate on their simplistic scales. The price? I'm not sure if it costs anything - you can only go with a registered guide/tour and all the entrance fees are included in your overall package. You certainly won't see money change hands when you get there. Transport links? You can only go with your guide and he'll get you there but I doubt there's a bus stop anywhere near by. And finally, family friendly? Well if the whole family are fit as fleas, no problems at all and no reason why they shouldn't go - but in reality we saw precisely zero tourists with kids on our entire Bhutanese holiday. Ask yourself if your kids would think a monastery was a cool place to go to - and then ask if they'd walk a couple of hours uphill to get there.
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Comments about this review »

hiker 12.03.2009 21:15

Exceptional review - & that opinion has nothing to do with the name check. Though I must go check my own scribbles to make sure I didn't claim to get up to the Tigers Nest. We were THOSE tourists who passed it by. I agree that it is a complete non-sequitur to go to Bhutan and NOT do the nest…but as encouragement to those who don't think they will make it, the rest of the country is staggeringly beautiful enough not to worry. Lx

anonymili 30.01.2009 12:44

Sounds and looks fantastic but that walk would probably do me in! I remember having to walk up to a monastery in Sikkim and we had to stop for a break 3 or 4 times, our driver who accompanied us was 10 years younger than my cousin and me and even he was out of breath! x

kiss_me2070 20.01.2009 12:29

I dont have any E's left! Another great review, x

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This review of Taktshang (Tiger's Nest Monastery), Bhutan has been rated:

"exceptional" by (28%):

  1. hiker
  2. anonymili
  3. RICHADA

and 12 other members

The overall rating of a review is different from a simple average of all individual ratings.



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