This was my fourth visit to the monastery and I approached full of anticipation. I remembered the suspension bridge, the meadow where a toddler played with a bow and arrow, the handful of trekkers ready to tackle the climb. The bridge was still there but the meadow was jam packed with cars and people of all ages were lacing up their walking boots.
Wow! Things had changed in Bhutan but as I set off along the trail, I promptly realised that beneath the new veneer, this tiny Himalayan kingdom was as enchanting as ever and Paro Taktsang was no exception.
It’s only a short drive from Paro to the start of the trail but if you plan to walk up to over 3000 metres, allow at least a few days to acclimatise or save this for the end of the trip. Clinging to a rocky ledge 900 metres above the valley, seemingly inaccessible across a deep ravine, the ‘Tiger’s Nest’ is Bhutan’s most sacred and iconic landmark. It is named after a tigress that flew from the east, they say, carrying on her back Guru Rinpoche who brought Buddhism to the valley. The trek takes 2-3 hours, including rests, suitable for anyone reasonably fit, but if you want great views without the effort, you can hire a pony to the half-way point, just steps away from a rustic lodge with a panoramic terrace.
Beyond the initial boulders and shrines, the trail enters a forest of blue pines and oaks. Lichen hangs from high branches in long feathery strands, rhododendrons add colour in the spring and primula and orchids peep in the undergrowth. The path meanders, dusty and steep, and in the thin mountain air, even the fittest have to stop now and then to catch their breath. Birds twitter in the trees, invisible streams tumble in the forest and only the occasional tinkling of pony bells betrays the presence of tourists. There are rare glimpses of the valley and although Paro Taktsang remains out of sight most of the way, you begin to feel the vibes long before you reach the lodge.
Forty-five minutes or so into the trek, a row of prayer wheels promises good karma and moments later you are sipping tea on a terrace framed in marigolds, looking out to the awesome Tiger’s Nest, so close yet so far across the chasm.
You cannot imagine how you will ever get there but above the tree line, the climb is slightly easier and dotted with holy sites, here the Guru’s footprint, there a dark rock with a hole to purify your soul, a crystalline spring or a row of tiny urns on a ledge, containing ashes from the dead. On the edge of the precipice, the last viewpoint begs for a photo stop and a quick rest before you head down 775 steps to the rickety bridge where a waterfall plunges 60 metres into a sacred pool. Prayer flags flutter in the breeze, lining the path with myriad colours, enticing pilgrims and visitors to the monastery’s entrance up another flight of steps.
Bags and cameras must be left in the lockers then it’s time to explore the temples, shoes off every time, and the Guru’s meditation cave down a wobbly ladder. Oil lamps flicker in the semi-darkness, incense tickles your eyes and in this mysterious maze filled with gurus and gods, multi-coloured butter sculptures, murals and offerings, the scent of marigold garlands fills the air. It is customary to leave a donation before stepping back out into the sunshine where the panorama takes your breath away. Framed by mountains in every shade of green, the Paro valley meanders far below, the river tumbling over the stones, the luminous paddies, the traditional farm houses with carved eaves and frames and auspicious signs painted on the walls. When your head begins to spin on this thin precarious ledge you almost feel you could fly, just like the Guru who changed the soul of Bhutan over 1200 years ago.
Paro Taktsang is open every day, 8am-5pm, but closes for lunch.
For travel to Bhutan visit www.bluepoppybhutan.com/en/
Silver Travel Advisor recommended partner Cox & Kings.