Paro, Bhutan. Paro Taktsang, also known as the Tiger’s Nest), is a prominent Himalayan Buddhist sacred site located in the cliffside of the upper Paro valley.
A temple complex was first built in 1692, around the cave where an important guru is said to have meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours in the 8th century. He is credited with introducing Buddhism to Bhutan and is the patron deity of the country.
The monastery is located 10 kilometers (6.2 mi) to the north of Paro and hangs on a precarious cliff at 3,120 metres (10,240 ft), about 900 meters (3,000 ft) above the valley. The rock slopes are very steep (almost vertical) and the monastery buildings are built into the rock face.
These stats are important, because a trek up to the monastery is considered unmissable for the views and the chance to collect merit for your life. So off we went to today to do the unmissable, reaching the trailhead around 8:30 in the morning.
Now, there are three ways to get up to the Tiger’s Nest – in which there are no longer any tigers, by the way. You can walk for about two hours, ride a mountain pony, or fly on the back of a magic tiger, if you are a Tantric magician.
After a bit of study and learning that the ponies always cling to the edge of the mountain, and that, yes, sometimes accidents do happen, I opted to walk, being extremely optimistic about the path. Don and I used the walking sticks available for rental, and were extremely grateful we did. Lots of folks were setting off, some just ambling up the first incline as if it were a walk in the park.
Nobody had actually mentioned that the narrow trail was covered with rocks and tree roots, and that it took great concentration to maneuver each step – at least for me and my sticks. And then, when you hear bells coming, the ponies are on the way and you have to move to the side of the mountain.
At a certain point early on, we agreed that I would be holding back Don and B.J. our guide, so Khem (our driver) and I forged our own path. Khem watched me like a hawk, because losing a tourist is probably very bad karma, let alone a poor career move.
Thank goodness for cell phones. About 45 minutes into our walk, Don called Khem to say that he knew I would never make the next part of the ascent. My choices were to hail an empty pony coming up the mountain, or to start back down. The ponies only go partway up, to the tea house, so everyone has to walk back down, which would be about twice the distance I had already covered. I chose to go back, as my knee situation was not happy about that climb. So, after an hour and a half, Khem and I returned to the trailhead, not too much worse for the wear. Khem kept sending B.J. and Don pictures of me – rather like a proof-of-life from kidnappers. My endurance may not sound impressive, but I did have a lot of fun on the way back, telling everyone just going up how easy the trip had been. I can’t help it if they assumed I had made it to the top.
Now, Don and B.J. persevered much much further. They got to the tea house for a rest and kept on going. The monastery beckoned, but it was still off in the distance.
They got to a magic point almost parallel to the monastery, and then Don saw what it would take to reach the Nest. There was a valley in between them and there are 700 steps down to a suspension bridge, and 700 steps up to the monastery. Don’s vertigo went into overdrive there, and he just knew he couldn’t make that part of the trip. But B.J. assured him that he had made a proper pilgrimage and earned his merit badge, so thank goodness it was not in vain. The road down included a rain and hailstorm, so I am going to assume he is extra blessed today – and that some of that rubs off on me. What a trooper!!!!
To counter the stress and strain of that expedition, our hero went off to the unmissable conclusion of the trek – a hot stone bath. As a local website says:
“The hot stone bath is a ritual in itself, riverside rocks are heated till red hot and gradually dropped into a wooden tub filled with water and scattered with Artemisia leaves. The burning rocks heats the water gradually and thus release minerals in to the water. Traditionally these bath are done near a river bed with plenty supplies of stones and water and preferably after dark in the open air. However, more luxurious version of hot stone bath are offered by different hotels and resorts, which are more suitable to the general standards of visitor. It is still kept authentic to a certain level were a visitor can enjoy the bath in a traditional way without having to feel the discomfort.”
Don here: That’s a pretty good description of the experience. However, I was taken to a 300-year-old farmhouse that had a newly built out building with some two dozen hot-stone tubs in different rooms. First, I was given a tour of the house, which is pretty much original, with grain storage on the first floor, living quarters, including an original kitchen on the second floor, and an open attic area on the third floor. That’s the classic design of all farmhouses in Bhutan.
This house was built by a somewhat affluent farmer and included an elaborate private temple, which, since it was private, allowed photographs. This is a good representation in a small scale of all the Buddhist temples we have visited.
Then, I was taken to the bath house. At one end of the building was a raging wood fire piled high with the stones. This faced a corridor where the hot stones would be dropped into the wooden tubs in the rooms on either side.
I was shown my room. Although there were three tubs in the room, I had the good fortune to experience this alone. The water was already heated to what I considered to be a high temperature, but my toughened guide said that that was not hot enough. Once I got in the tub and wanted the water to be hotter, I would just rap on the inside of the wooden wall to the corridor and yell out “More stone.” Once I got used to the temperature, I did just that and someone dropped a hot stone in the water on the other side of the wall and I could hear the water boiling. The idea is that you keep the water circulating around those stones.
All was fine for a while and then I felt my heart pounding and my body temperature rising to an alarming level. Remember, I had just climbed a mountain, too! I was told that they would come fetch me after I soaked for 45 minutes. I think I lasted about 15 minutes before I jumped out, dried off and called to have the door – which was locked from the outside – opened.
B.J. came in and felt the water and told me that it was barely hot enough. He said that all people in Bhutan take these baths twice a month. I’m guessing, however, that the early deaths of the kings of Bhutan from heart attacks have more to do with sitting in those hot-stone baths for too long and too often instead of some type of ancient curse.
Just my opinion.