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Bhutan - Trek

In the Happiness Kingdom - Bhutan - Climbing the Taktsang and Paro

June 04, 2015

When I tell people that I just came back from Bhutan invariably the first question is:

Did you climb Taktsang?

I did climb “Taktsang” or “Tigers Nest,” a monastery that is a red gem almost suspended amidst sheer granite rocks at an altitude of over 3000m or 10,000 ft. Taktsang is almost a symbol of Bhutan, and looking at it from ground level it evokes disbelief and awe –how on earth anybody built something like that and that too over 300 years ago before any mechanical equipment is beyond me. The only explanation that occurs to me is that mountain goats were enlisted onto the construction crews!

The last leg of our journey in Bhutan was in Paro, which is a quaint town in west Bhutan. It is also the starting point of one of the well known treks to Jomolhari (a sacred mountain peak), which I had done a few years ago in Bhutan. Driving from Thimphu to Paro, we crossed the town and Main street enroute to our hotel Zhiwa Ling a few kilometres out of the town. The hotel combines modern day luxury with traditional Bhutanese craft –woodcarving, stonework and paintings adorn the impressive lobby and rooms.

Our plan for the day was to climb the Taktsang, which is right outside Paro town. We drove out a few kilometres to the starting point . Colourful stalls selling crafts and jewellery by the locals lined the street, but I was looking for just one thing: a good wooden walking stick to help me make the uphill journey. It was available for just 50 Ng(local currency which is pegged at par to the Indian rupee and is currently about Ng 65 to 1 US dollar)

Armed with my trusty walking stick, a good pair of walking shoes and a determination to get to the end, we set off with our guide. It is mostly a gentle climb with some steep bits but it is uphill all the way! The path is a well-formed mud path flanked by tall trees with plenty of boulders. A few minutes into the walk we stumbled upon a colourful traditional temple-like structure  with a stream flowing through and spinning the prayer wheel inside it! We stopped to drink the crystal clear water and also filled our bottles. When was the last time we could do that back home in India? Probably 50 years ago?

The next hour was a steady uphill climb. By now the trees had given way to brilliantly flowering rhododendron bushes and the Taktsang came into sharper view, looking rather intimidating. Looking down, we were rewarded with stunning views of the snow-capped mountains on one side and the Paro valley on the other. An hour and a half after we started walking, we arrived at the only café/restaurant on the route-The Taktsang Cafétaria. In case you do not want to walk you could ride a mule up to a point that is near the café but you have to walk the rest of the way.

The café is a great place to stop and stare. We rested a while to catch our breath and had a cup of chai while exchanging notes with fellow travellers on their way down. We also got a close-up eye level view of the Taktsang monastery. It seemed like it wasn’t too far away, but that was an optical illusion, as we discovered we still had quite a climb to get to the second view point and then a descent and up again… phew! Refreshed and rested we continued the journey and about 45 minutes after we left the café we were at the edge of the mountain and the Taktsang was within touching distance. We were at the edge of a cliff and had to cross over to the opposite side where our journey would end.

The last leg of the journey was about 25 minutes and for this  “hugging-the-cliff-don’t-look-down” stretch, the path was stepped- initially descending, then flat, and finally a steep climb to the main Taktsang complex. What a feeling when you look down at the place where you were but a few hours ago wondering how on earth you were going to get to the top of the world at the edge of the cliff and you realize you made it!Taktsang is regarded as one of the holiest places in Bhutan and got its name after Guru Padmasambhava, the Indian saint who came to Bhutan in the 8th century AD and flew into the cave riding a tigress. Legend has it that he then assumed the wrathful form of one of his 8 manifestations to subdue the evil spirits in the vicinity. The foundations of the monastery were laid in the 17th century. All personal belongings including phones have to be left at the facilities at the entrance .We explored the complex which is built on several levels and has many temples inside, including a little passage leading up to what is thought to be the Tiger’s Cave. Local lore has it that there was a real tigress residing in the cave.

It was soon time to head back, although this time it was much quicker and easier than the uphill journey coming up. We didn’t take any breaks, and we did it in half the time it took for us to come up. Note: Watch out for the slippery mud and boulders on the way down and use your walking stick!

At the end of a long and hard but exhilarating day we were ready for some pampering at the Zhiwa Ling spa. A Bhutanese stone bath welcomed us. The bathtub was made of wood and placed outdoors in the garden. The bath is filled with clean cold water and then heated big round river boulders are dropped into a cornered section of the tub. As I lay in the bath, I felt like I was cooking (in a good way!) with leafy medicinal herbs floating around me and melting away the post-Taktsang trek soreness. The heat of the water and the minerals released from the rock along with the local herbs are considered to have many health benefits.

The goal for the next day was to explore downtown Paro and soak in the last day in Bhutan. Main Street Paro (there is really only one street)is an interesting mix of local stores and touristy craft ones. We visited the Paro Dzong and the National museum. Bhutan is famous for the many Tsechu s or festivals . I did not witness one this time but hope to catch one next time! Oh yes, there definitely will be a next time.

And what’s a vacation without some coffee? Champaca Café in Paro is my pick for my favorite cup of coffee in Bhutan….

Some tips for those visiting Bhutan

  • All tourists (other than Indian, Bangladeshi and Maldivian nationals) need a visa to travel to Bhutan and must book the holiday through an approved Bhutan tour operator or their partners.
  • There is a minimum daily package value that is a must for tourists. The details are available on the Bhutan Tourism website or your tour operator
  • There is only one airline Druk Air that operates in Bhutan and flights are limited –so plan your dates well ahead and check flights first. Again your tour operator will manage the flights and the visa for you.

And welcome to the Happy Kingdom… I want to keep going back.

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About Me

I am a banker by profession, traveller by passion.

I have found time to travel to many countries and live in 2 countries (3 if Scotland ever does becomes one!) and 6 cities during my career in finance. I was a diplomat first and started in the Indian Foreign Service with my first posting being Paris – The City of Light. And began my lifelong love of travel and coffee there! An MBA followed and I’ve been in finance since.

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