Bhutan: Taktshang Goemba, “The Tiger’s Nest”
By Anna Etmanska
“Do you want to ride a pony?” my guide flashed a brilliant smile and stared at me expectantly from across the table.
A chunk of ema datse fell off my spoon, while a variety of kinky scenarios raced through my brain.
Considering our previous conversations about the flying phalluses painted on Bhutanese houses and the sexual conquests of The Divine Madman Drukpa Kinley, this was indeed a loaded question.
My guide was hot, and I had been flirting with him mercilessly for the past week, but somehow I was sure we were thinking of different kinds of ponies.
No Need for a Pony
Yet his question had me baffled, confused and embarrassed at the same time.
I got my mind out of the gutter and asked, “What do I need a pony for?”
“You’re right! You’re fit and strong. No need for a pony,” he answered.
The look on my face must have been priceless, because after a split second of hesitation, he added, “We’re climbing to the Tiger’s Nest tomorrow. You didn’t forget, did you?”
Oh crud! I did forget.
“And if you don’t feel like walking up the hill, you can ride a pony part of the way,” Sonam, the guide continued.
Red Hot Chilies With Cheese
We were sitting at the Red Rice restaurant in Paro, eating fiery local specialties (chili in everything) and resting after a long day of driving, walking and climbing.
In Bhutan, you either trek or you drive, and both activities are equally exhausting. Bhutanese roads are not for the faint of heart, even if you’re experiencing them from the passenger seat.
I bravely dug into my bowl of tears-inducing ema datse – chilis in a cheese sauce, which after several days of getting used to, turned out to be surprisingly palatable. Eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner, it’s as traditionally Bhutanese as you can get. But that you need to have an asbestos-lined mouth to consume it, that’s another story…
Sonam, the guide was still looking at me, expecting an answer.
“You said you didn’t like trekking, but it’s an auspicious day tomorrow, and you will be the only foreigner going there,” he continued. “Just you and local pilgrims. And you can’t come to Bhutan and NOT visit Taktshang Goemba.”
Oh yes! The Tiger’s Nest. Trekking. Uphill. The agony of these words has finally sunk in. But he was right; I couldn’t leave Bhutan without visiting its most sacred national treasure. Even if it involved a long walk up the mountain…
It Started With a Guru
To explain the importance of this most sacred monastery in Bhutan, you need to start with Guru Rinpoche. In fact, to explain just about anything about Bhutan, you need to start with this Guru Rinpoche.
He was an actual historical figure and lived some time in the 8th century. How much of his life story is real, and how much was embellished later by his followers is anybody’s guess. But, he is regarded as the second Buddha and credited with bringing Buddhism to Bhutan.
That he also had miraculous powers, could subdue demons and evil spirits, and traveled in the company of five sexy tantric consorts, goes without saying…
One of those consorts, Yeshe Tsogyal, who before meeting the Guru was an Emperor’s wife, transformed herself into a flying tigress and carried the saintly dude from Tibet to Bhutan on her back.
They landed on a cliff in Paro, where, after pacifying a local demon, the Guru meditated in a cave for three months. What his tigress lady friend was doing during that time, nobody knows. Later, a monastery was built in this holy place, and hence its name – the Tiger’s Nest.
Building The Sacred Nest
The builders of the monastery were not put off by the fact that the Guru landed on a sheer cliff some 900 meters above the Paro valley floor. Apparently, in their work they were aided by dakinis – celestial beings, who transported the building materials up the cliff on their backs.
Do I need to mention that those poor dakinis were female?
When the monastery was destroyed by a fire in 1998, it took the renovation team until 2005 to reconstruct it. This time, instead of celestial helpers, the workers had to make do with a cable lift.
“Do you believe in Guru’s story?” I asked my guide. To me, flying lady tigers and tantric magicians are the stuff that fairytales are made of, but Sonam looked very serious.
“Absolutely,” he answered.
Up And Up And Then Up Some More
We started early the next morning and by 8 AM, we were already at the foot of the mountain. The wind was chilly, I was grumpy, and even before we set off, it began to rain. Unusual for December, my guide assured me.
Just my luck. Not only was I going to hike uphill, now I was doing it in the rain!
I didn’t have much time to complain. After passing a chorten at the start of the trek, we entered the woods. The gentle ding-ding-ding of the prayer wheel in motion – powered by water from a stream nearby – reminded me it was no ordinary mountain hike.
I was reminded of it once again by a sign exhorting me to “Walk to Guru’s glory! Take back memories of a Kingdom. For here in this kingdom rules an unparalleled benevolent king.”
The trail climbed through pine trees and rhododendrons, switchbacking steeply upwards, and my guide explained that freshly arrived tourists should walk slowly, because the altitude can be quite challenging.
In those polite words, he told me to hurry up – after all, I had been in the country for almost a week.
Kira Or Gho?
We began to walk faster and caught up with a group of elderly pilgrims, feisty ladies carrying woven baskets on their backs and holding branches turned into walking sticks. Some dressed in kiras, and some in more comfortable outdoor attire – western tracksuits and windbreakers.
“They carry kiras in their baskets,” Sonam explained, seeing my surprise.
Kira, a national dress worn by female Bhutanese is required to enter the monastery. Guys must wear the male equivalent – gho. The traditional dress is compulsory not only for entrance to sacred sites but also to schools, public offices and government buildings.
As a result, kiras and ghos are the most distinct features of Bhutan that foreign visitors notice. Simply put, the national dress is everyday attire for everyone, from immigration officials at the Paro airport, to gift shop clerks, to countryside peasants.
Luckily, western chilips (foreigners) are exempt from the traditional dress rule, and I was assured I could enter the monastery wearing pants.
Buddhist For a Week
Another group of pilgrims on the path… This one – going DOWN!
“Just what time do these people start this hike anyway? 6AM?” I thought to myself.
Sonam had explained before that today was an auspicious day and that we’d see many Bhutanese. And he was right. I was the only westerner.
“It’s the low season now,” he said. “In the summer, on average 80 foreigners a day visit the Tiger’s Nest.”
Because entering the monastery requires a special permit, which must be arranged in advance from the National Commission for Cultural Affairs, the country has a detailed record of who made the pilgrimage, when, and in whose company.
My guide’s agency managed to secure a number of such permits, even to places normally closed to foreigners.
Apparently, when I mentioned I had studied at a Buddhist University in Japan for one semester, they assumed I was a practicing Buddhist, and applied for additional religious permits on my behalf. Bhutanese customer service at its finest!
And all through the trip, I was wondering why they were dragging me from one obscure monastery to another.
Are We There Yet?
“We’re almost there,” my guide cheerfully announced. “There” turned out to be a rest stop cum cafeteria cum gift shop with probably the most impressive view in all of Bhutan. Elevation 2940 meters. Not a bad place for a cup of tea.
After a short break, we were back on the trail. About 30 minutes later we caught up with the group of elderly ladies, who were busy changing into their national dresses. A few steps further, the men were putting on their ghos.
Sonam pulled out a clean gho out of his backpack and began to change clothes himself. I felt underdressed, embarrassed and out of place.
“I don’t normally do this,” he explained. “But today, I’m not just a guide. I’m a pilgrim myself,” he said while swapping his hiking boots for a pair of black, dressy loafers.
“Oh yeah,” he added, “and I hope you’re not afraid of heights.”
I’m Terrified Of Heights!
From the lookout point at 3140 meters, the trail weaves down, carved in the side of the mountain. I forgot about humiliation and traveled the distance down to the waterfall on my bum.
I wasn’t the only one. An Indian woman on a pilgrimage decided that self-preservation was more important than fashion, and quickly followed in my bum-steps.
From the bridge at the waterfall, the trail divides; one path leads to a mediation retreat, and the other to the Tiger’s Nest.
To my surprise, I saw a green municipal trash can standing at the crossroads and immediately felt sorry for the garbage men who had to come here to empty it. (Later I found out that the cleanup is done by a Social Services charity organized by a group of college students from Thimphu.)
Take Off Your Shoes And Behave Yourself
Taktshang Goemba is an impressive sight from far away, but even more awe-inspiring up close and personal. A monastery carved in solid rock perched precariously at the top of a sheer cliff. A holy place in a world, where time stands still.
At the entrance to the religious complex, we checked in our bags, cameras, cell phones, and presented our credentials to the army officer on duty. Photography inside the Tiger’s Nest is strictly prohibited.
Leaving our shoes at the door, we followed a young apprentice monk from chapel to chapel. After offering our prayers to the eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche, my guide pulled out more substantial gifts – a pack of cookies, fruit and Diet Coke.
Because Sonam was well aware of my soft drink habit, the deities were presented with the soda on my behalf.
After a brief glimpse into the cave where the Guru meditated for three months, and more prostrating in front of the many holy statues, the visit was over. I was led to the donation box, where I duly deposited 10 euros. And then it was time to leave…
On the way down the mountain, we met two Aussies, who huffing and puffing asked me if the climb was worth it.
“Totally, mate. Totally,” I answered.
You must arrange your trip to Bhutan through a tour operator. There are myriads of them, about 300 in Bhutan alone. A good place to start looking is on the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators website.
Alternatively, you can use one of the big packagers like Intrepid Travel or World Expeditions.
Every tourist pays a daily fee, which varies from US$165 to $200 depending on the season and size of the group. There is a surcharge for single travelers, but traveling solo is the most convenient way to experience Bhutan.
Your daily fee covers your lodging, food, guide, and transport within Bhutan.
Independent travel is not possible, unless you happen to work for one of the many NGOs in Bhutan.
Getting there and away:
Druk Air, the national airline of Bhutan, is the only carrier flying into the country. You can either enter or leave overland, but one leg of your trip must be on a Druk Air flight.
Your travel operator will arrange your booking once you receive a visa clearance number.
Phuentsholing/Jaigaon is the only border crossing where you can either enter or leave the country. In Samdrup Jongkhar you can only leave Bhutan into Sikkim.
Visas are handled by your tour operator, and that’s the only way you can get them. You will be issued a visa clearance number, which you must present when checking in for your flight. The actual visa will be stamped into your passport upon arrival in Bhutan.
The above info does NOT apply to Indian nationals, who can go and prance around Bhutan as they please.
Anna Etmanska lives in Arctic Sweden, and as a freelance writer and photographer, she normally reports on such lofty subjects as immigration, education and social issues. She also likes to travel. A lot. And as every self-respecting travelholic, she has a blog to keep track of her misadventures. Visit her at Budgettrouble.com.