Long before I finally set foot in Bhutan, I had dreamed of visiting a monastery in this Himalayan kingdom so marvelous it has become an iconic landmark of the tiny country. Its cliff-side location provides a spectacular setting and its name evokes curiosity: Tiger’s Nest. While Bhutan is in fact one of very few places in the world where the tiger population is thriving (thanks to large swathes of protected forests and religious reverence of the Bhutanese toward the big cat), the monastery owes its name to a story of Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, who is credited for introducing Tibetan Buddhism to Bhutan in the eighth century.
In sixth-century India, a new brand of Buddhism emerged, focusing on practices designed to hasten one’s progress toward enlightenment. Known as Tantric Buddhism or Vajrayana, it requires a close guidance of a master or a guru as it incorporates esoteric rituals, complex meditations, sacred dances, and other unorthodox means to accelerate one’s realization of his/her innate Buddha potential. Padmasambhava was the ultimate guru, and true to the spirit of this new school of Buddhism, he brought the religion from Tibet to Bhutan in an unusual manner: he flew from Tibet to this cliff in Bhutan, near modern-day Paro, on the back of a tigress. In one of the caves in this area, he then meditated for months and transformed himself into eight manifestations, representing different aspects of his being.
Almost one thousand years after the arrival of Padmasambhava to Bhutan, the fourth Druk Desi (secular ruler of the country) Tenzin Rabgye instituted the tradition of tshechu (a sacred dance festival to honor Padmasambhava who had performed the metaphysical dances to subdue bad forces) which are still practiced across the kingdom today. In 1692, at the location where Padmasambhava meditated in the eighth century, Tenzin Rabgye laid the foundation of a temple to fulfill the wish of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel – the unifier of Bhutan as a nation-state and the leader responsible for creating a distinct Bhutanese cultural identity separate from that of Tibet – who had died 41 years earlier.
And more than three centuries later, here I was in Paro, 10 kilometers away from Taktsang – the local name for Tiger’s Nest – readying myself to do the hike to the supposedly impressive monastery.
The night before our final day in Bhutan, I told Kinga about the weather forecast which said the following day would be cloudy with chances of showers. Our guide, perhaps out of optimism or the hope that he didn’t want to disappoint us, said conditions would be fine. It was the crowds he was more concerned with since Tiger’s Nest is the most popular site in the entire country. But coming from the world’s most populous island, I wasn’t too worried.
On the following day, ahead of leaving the comfort of our Paro hotel for the beginning of the hike to Tiger’s Nest, we witnessed a Drukair A319 taking off to the southeast amid thick low clouds that blanketed the mountains as far as the eye could see – it must be very exhilarating for those few pilots who are certified to fly in and out of Paro. The clouds were also a reminder of the postcard we were given on our first day in Bhutan, showing Tiger’s Nest perched on its precarious site overlooking the valley beneath overcast skies. I was hoping that the weather would turn out like how it was when Kelly went, but as soon as we started the hike I began to see that having clouds to block the sun wasn’t that bad after all.
Situated 900 meters above the valley, Tiger’s Nest is usually visible from the parking area as Kinga told us. But not today. We had to use our imagination to guess where its exact location was, but it was alright; we just followed Kinga and other tourists in front of us. Not far from the starting point of the hike, a repetitive clang reverberated in the mysterious ambiance of the otherwise silent forest. As the sound got louder, it became clear what caused it: a small creek turning a giant prayer wheel which was installed there to bless those who live downstream.
Along the way, multiple signposts reminding people about the importance of keeping the environment clean acted as markers along the dirt path.
“They should do the same in Indonesia,” James half-jokingly said to me since littering still is a big problem in my home country.
We were walking on the same pathway Bhutan’s kings as well as foreign royalty – including Prince Charles, Prince William and Kate Middleton – had taken to reach the monastery. The closest to convenience one could possibly get here is riding a horse, but we opted to go on foot since this was a rare opportunity for both of us who love hiking but can’t really do it in Jakarta as the nearest hills or mountains from the city are a few hours’ drive away (depending on the traffic). What was potentially quite a challenging hike beneath the blazing sun, thanks to the absence of trees shading the hiking trail, turned out to be not that difficult. The fact that the low clouds obscured much of the valley forced me to pay more attention to everything in the immediate vicinity.
Kinga pointed at a type of moss which he said solely exists in forests with very clean air; the car park by now was already far below us and the only rather strong scent in the air, apart from the trees, were horse droppings. We also spotted a yellow-billed blue magpie which was looking at us as though reciprocating our curiosity, a Himalayan striped squirrel that piqued the attention of a dog, and a spotted nutcracker surveying the misty forest below.
At one point, I realized it was Phuntsho who was keeping up with our pace. In fact, he was faster than us. But Kinga seemed to be having issues not far behind.
“He has a problem with one of his knees,” our driver told us. Worried, we asked Kinga about his condition and as always, he assured us that it was nothing to be too concerned about.
Like other hikers, at the halfway point to the monastery we took a quick break at a small café which provided biscuits to nibble on, milk tea to drink, and … cats! These little feline friends showed us their typical nonchalant behavior, with their eyes closed and bodies curled up. But when no one was paying attention, they would grab your biscuits, or whatever was left on your saucer. The cats were adorable and the milk tea was warm and soothing, but the real treat was when, all of a sudden, Tiger’s Nest revealed itself to everyone at our vantage point. It was a majestic man-made structure that seemed to defy logic, situated on the side of a steep cliff with nothing but thin air separating it from the forest below.
Not long afterward we continued our journey, and as we got higher rain started to fall. It was a delight when we reached a flat section of the path toward the end of the trek, and soon enough Tiger’s Nest came into view. The compound was bigger than what I had imagined, and to think that it was originally built in the 17th century was mind-blowing. In 1998, a fire destroyed the main structure of the monastery, but in 2005 it was restored to its original form, costing the kingdom millions of ngultrum (the local currency).
Even when the clouds occasionally obscured the monastery, the entire vista was as surreal as it was humbling. Modern-day visitors are ‘pampered’ for they can climb down the stairs at the end of the hike. But in the past, people had to navigate this potentially dangerous pathway on foot, by horse and possibly donkey as well, carrying loads of building materials to construct such an elegant Buddhist structure in this least probable place. We carefully went down the stairs, crossed a bridge with a beautiful waterfall to our left and the lush valley to our right, climbed a little bit more, and finally we arrived at the gate of Tiger’s Nest. After storing all of our belongings at a designated locker room, Kinga guided us through the multiple structures and chambers inside this peaceful compound.
The air was cool and fresh, the prayers were solemn, and even some Mainland Chinese visitors also prostrated in one of the prayer halls, a sight that caught both James and I by surprise. Tiger’s Nest is one of those places that must be visited to be believed, for its architecture and its old murals are true wonders to be treasured. “You work in a bank, right?” Kinga looked at me when we were inside one of the buildings. “This is their bank,” he continued while pointing at a hole in the floor a few levels deep where visitors and pilgrims dropped donations for the monastery. We all chuckled.
Kinga was right about the crowds. Despite the far-from-ideal weather, a steady stream of tourists kept coming to Tiger’s Nest and that made us decide to return to the entrance after lingering for a few minutes in a far corner of the monastery. Then it rained even more heavily, forcing James and I to don our hooded waterproof jackets. Carefully we went down and up again on the slippery stairs to where we had been before, continuously checking on the view of Taktsang when we reached safer spots to take photos.
While going up is James’s forte, I always enjoy going down more including this time, or so I thought. The rain had made the dirt path muddy and very slippery, and keeping my balance proved to be no mean feat. Kinga informed us which part of the path was easier to step on, as well as the places to avoid. We tried our best not to fall, but then at one point I stepped on the wrong side and slipped forward. Luckily Kinga was just a meter away in front of me, and with his quick Spider-Man reflex he put his right hand before my torso, preventing me from suffering a humiliating fall.
Two hours later, we found ourselves back at where we had started the hike, this time with Tiger’s Nest visible on the cliffs behind us. I could not stop marveling at this remarkable structure, but we had to return to our minivan and head to a nearby restaurant for a much-needed lunch. At the curiously empty venue, we both looked like we’d had a very bad day. But no one else was there except a friendly waitress who might have secretly laughed at us upon seeing how messy we were. It wasn’t long until the dishes arrived, and without even telling Kinga that we would prefer to have local food, he’d already ordered only Bhutanese dishes for us. We couldn’t have been happier, and it turned out the food here was one of the tastiest we had throughout our stay in the country. Still, I couldn’t fathom why the place was devoid of other visitors.
In the afternoon, we took a break for several hours, had a refreshing hot water shower, and just chilled while waiting for a plane to land or take off from the airport. When it got dark, Kinga and Phuntsho took us to a farmhouse to have a hearty Bhutanese meal for the very last time before we had to say goodbye to this beautiful country the next morning. The farmhouse occupied a multi-story structure just outside Paro, and inside we were seated on the floor of what seemed to be the living room. On one side of the wall a painting depicting Bhutan as a part of a complex network of temples and monasteries with Tibet as the focal point was a reminder of the kingdom’s past connection with its neighbor to the north across the mighty Himalayas.
A friendly old woman appeared from the other room, carrying a metal tray with several medium-sized pots filled with some Bhutanese dishes we were already quite familiar with. Ema datshi (cheese and chili) was of course part of the menu, and there were also two dishes with beef, and red rice, a quintessentially Bhutanese source of carbohydrates. Just as we started eating, suddenly the power went out, leaving us with our meals in a pitch black room. Kinga and Phuntsho instantly took out their cellphones and turned on the torchlight, and so did I. Moments like this make me appreciate the convenience modern technology has provided us, although there are times when I loathe it for it allows people to creep into my personal space. When we finished our meal, the electricity had still not been restored, which was a shame since the house itself was filled with interesting items.
Phuntsho drove us back to town. From afar, Rinpung Dzong’s white walls were beautifully illuminated, as were those of Ta Dzong’s, but the bright lights were such a stark contrast to where we had just come from a few minutes earlier. We went to a spot near the entrance to the bigger dzong, took some photos of the imposing structure, and then James proposed the idea of buying Phuntsho and Kinga some drinks at a local bar or café to have a chat before we would bid them adieu the next morning. Phuntsho knew a place, obviously, since he lives in this town, and drove us there.
At the second floor of the venue we exchanged stories – them about Bhutan and us about Indonesia and Hong Kong – with us naturally encouraging them to visit Indonesia one day to see the Southeast Asian country’s plethora of ancient Buddhist monuments, including Borobudur – the world’s largest Buddhist structure.
“Bali is one of the places I want to see the most,” Kinga said, further affirming the popularity of this Indonesian island that far outstrips the rest of the country where it belongs.
It would be exciting to see these two gentlemen come to Indonesia one day for they had shown me the stunning beauty of their country. I can say for certain that Bhutan was worth every penny of the trip. It is easily one of the most memorable places I’ve ever traveled to, and it is in everyone’s interest to see this small kingdom thrive for many generations to come without sacrificing its pristine nature and unique culture. In the end, to Kinga and Phuntsho (if they read this), and those who wish to come to Bhutan, tashi delek!*
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*Tashi delek is an auspicious and versatile expression used in Bhutan and other Himalayan regions whose meanings include: wishing you well, good wishes, congratulations, cheers, good luck, and so on.