Category Archives: travel tales from faraway

I’m really proud of these little stories. One day there’ll be more :)

Is the hike to Bhutan’s Tiger’s Nest as hard as you think? And did she get to the top?

I’d been working myself into a sweat about this before we’d even left Australia – physically and mentally. The Tiger’s Nest … that iconic, ridiculously photogenic monastery wedged ridiculously high on a ridiculously sheer cliff in Bhutan, had become my Rocky Balboa moment (in my mind’s eye) and I was determined to a) get to the top b) not embarrass myself in front of the family and c) conquer my paralysing fear of heights.

So a couple of months prior, finally accepting that I needed a firm hand (ideally holding a whip), I engaged the help of a personal trainer. Many squats later, I believed I was ready to take on Taktsang Lhakhang as it’s known and revered by the Bhutanese.

Our trip to Bhutan was just a week and the hike was scheduled for our last day, so it sort of loomed over us me for the whole visit.  “How high is it?” “How steep is it?” “How sheer is the drop when you cross the bridge under the waterfall at the very top?” (I had imagined this for months as an ancient, see-through, rocking, fraying, ropey suspension bridge with nothing below it but a frightening 900 metre drop to the valley floor.)

The week had been warm so we planned to leave early at 6am. It was a great decision. We were first out of the gate and we had the mountain, the mist and the resident dogs to ourselves.

Walking to The Tiger's Nest, Bhutan

We often talk about how certain scents can transport you back to a time or moment decades earlier. The Australian bush has that effect on me, especially after rain. But walking in the Bhutanese mountains was completely unfamiliar. It was aromatic, damp and mystical and I could imagine it weaving its way into the hearts of the Bhutanese.

Nature is the source of all happiness

Normally from the carpark you can see the monastery high above but not this morning. The mist shrouded the valley and we tramped a quiet, firm, dirt path through the forest, the only sound a little stream making its relieved way through the valley, having survived the deadly drop up top.

The beginning of the walk to the Tiger's Nest

Prayer flags and stream at The Tiger's Nest

Initially the path was gentle but after just 5-10 minutes it moved up a gear. We quickly found ourselves zigzagging our way up the steeper parts and pushing off from our heels under the instruction of Penjo, who takes month long treks into the distant wilds of Bhutan.

I’d put up my hand the day before when he asked if anyone wanted walking sticks. That was a good decision too. Apparently they reduce the stress on your knees by 25% on the descent. They were great on the way up as well, helping you feel secure in unfamiliar territory.

An hour later we paused for a picnic breakfast and just as we finished, the mist lifted and there she stood, the Tiger’s Nest, in all her impossible loftiness.

Breakfast stop to The Tiger's Nest

Up, up, up. Steeper and steeper. Still we had the mountain to ourselves. No death defying drops or vertiginous stomach lurches as the path was surrounded by forest on either side.

Darcy in the forest

And then all of a sudden it wasn’t. Cue the fear. Cue the panic. Cue the stomach lurches.

The rock ledge of nothingness

Dogs overlooking the Tiger's Nest

By all accounts the view was fabulous. I was glued to the rock face admiring the minutiae of the grassy hillside.

You want me to walk that!

Step by step. Step by step. You can do this Marg. You can do this.

And I did.

A final down.

And then a final up.

glimpses from the tigers nest

The Tiger's Nest, Bhutan

And there we were at the entrance to the Tiger’s Nest.

First through the door. In a little over two hours. Da dahhhh!

Marg at the top of The Tiger's Nest

A tour of the monastery. A marvel of engineering and craftsmanship. It burnt down in 1998 and was completely rebuilt seven years later. I talk about it in more depth here if you’re interested.

The crowds started to arrive and it was time for us to go. We had had the best of it. The sun was getting up and the heat of the day upon us.

A last look with clear skies.

I climbed that! :)

The Tiger's Nest, Bhutan

Hot stone baths later in the day for all.

Enjoying a traditional hot stone bath scented with sprigs of valerian.

Enjoying a traditional Bhutanese hot stone bath scented with sprigs of valerian.

A glass of red. Or three.

Gantey Palace

And a final night with friends of old.

Steve, Pek, Kinley and Marg

We had waited over 30 years to make this trip. She did not disappoint. The Land of the Thunder Dragon has left an indelible mark on us all.

As for the walk? Yes, it was challenging. There were a number of people we passed on the way down who were pulling out, happy to enjoy the view from the halfway cafe. But they were significantly older and it was quite hot by then. Go early, take some walking sticks and you’ll be fine. Maybe throw in a whip.

And the bridge? Heavy, wooden and wide. Not a shredded bit of rope to be seen anywhere.

Steve shot some GoPro footage right at the end of the walk. You have to watch the last bit with your head on the side but apart from that it great, puts you right there in the moment :)  Hit the little cog on the bottom right and watch it in HD.

That’s it from Bhutan.

For now (she says dreaming of future visits).

Hope you’ve enjoyed the posts. x

If you’ve landed here and would like to see the previous posts I’ve done on Bhutan here are the links.

Bhutan and a tale of walking a Himalayan tightrope. (a longer piece that reflects on the whole visit and the reason the trip had been over 30 years in the planning)
Nearly not getting into Bhutan
Punakha, Bhutan aka seventh heaven
Bhutan and the Thimpu Drubchen Festival

The Bhutanese airline, Druk Air is the only airline that flies into Bhutan from a number of hubs in Asia. We flew in from Bankgok and out to Kathmandu.

You have to travel with a guide in Bhutan. We used Yudruk Tours and Treks. They organised our flights and itinerary.

Every visitor pays a tourist fee to visit Bhutan. That fee, depending on group numbers, translates to between $200 and $250US per day and while that might sound expensive, especially for a family (which it is), it does cover everything – your guide, transport, accommodation, food and entry fees to all facilities. When you take into account that it also includes a $70 contribution to community projects it is not unreasonable. The only thing you have to put your hand into your pocket for is alcohol and gifts. Students are entitled to significant discounts and it is worth talking to different tour companies to try and negotiate the best rate because as we discovered, talking to other travelers, the discount varies dramatically from company to company.

Hope that’s useful. If you have any other questions please feel free to ask.

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Bhutan and the Thimphu Drubchen Festival

I could quite happily have sat on the steps of the Thimphu Dzong and just spent the whole day people watching. The fabrics in Bhutan, the weaving, the combinations of patterns and colours are like a human kaleidoscope.

drubchen festival bhutan

drubchen festival bhutan

But as much as I was enjoying my people watching …

drubchen festival thimpu bhutan

… it was time to tackle the Thimphu Dzong and the crowds.

drubchen festival thimpu

For a little while we thought this was all we might see, caught in a hot human impasse.

the human impasse thimpu

But fortunately we had a local friend in a red scarf and like Moses parting the Red Sea, suddenly the crowd opened up and we had a welcome path to some fresh air and a close up view of the annual Drubchen Festival.

drubchen festival thimpu bhutan

jester

the dancers details

dancer drubchen festival

A glimpse of the Chief Abbot, the most important monk in Bhutan…

a glimpse of the chief abbott

monks watching the drubchen festival thimpu bhutan

A rare photo opportunity from on high.

drubchen-festival-thimpu-crowd

drubchen festival thimpu dzong bhutan

And an equally rare opportunity to catch up with an old friend from university days.

kinley and co

Crazy where life takes you.

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Punakha, Bhutan aka seventh heaven

“Keep an eye out on the road to Punakha, they might be roasting corn,” she calls out as we’re leaving.

And as we drop down below the clouds – after a bone jarring couple of hours on a road scheduled to be finished later this year – there they are.

I love these moments, standing by the roadside, chatting away with the help of our guide, Penjo and driver, Wangchuk.

roasted roadside corn bhutan

It’s Saturday and we get wind that the weekly food markets are on.

punakha food market bhutan

Bhutan is chilli central at the moment. Everywhere we go the roofs are covered in red chillies, drying in the sun.

little girl with hair clip bhutan

The national dish is Ema Datchi, a wickedly hot dish of chillies and yak cheese, a little like feta.

punakha market bhutan details

I’m snapping away madly …

chillies

And the boys are busy negotiating a price for a whole sack. They’re so funny together.

penjo and wangchuk

weighing chillis bhutan

I am dragged away and taken for a walk to a Madman’s Temple through rice fields a week or two away from harvest.

rice fields punakha

And then on to the mighty Punakha Dzong.

punakha dzong detail

If I could I would take you inside but I can’t. No photos are allowed within the temples. There are 40 gold plated columns inside the innermost temple, embossed with thunder dragons. It stops us in our tracks. This is the emotional heart of Bhutan, the ancient capital.

punakha dzong details

A peaceful night’s sleep and a little hike deeper along the valley.

punakha valley

Lunch by the river and Steve leaves a little piece of himself behind.

steve in bhutan

And me? Well I’m just in seventh heaven.

marg in bhutan

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    Hi I’m Margaret Hogan, an Australian based designer, writer and artist.
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