Changing Planet

Ascending Bhutan’s Sacred Tiger’s Nest

PARO, Bhutan–It’s a steep climb to Taktsang, a monastery hugging the side of a rocky cliff 3,000 feet above the Paro valley in Bhutan. But the going is fairly easy if taken slowly, for the path is well constructed and maintained and the mountain air is fresh and cool. It requires ascending a thousand steps or more, with plenty of opportunities to admire the view and to catch one’s breath. For those of us who live at sea level it can be difficult to breathe comfortably while exercising vigorously at 10,000 feet, so a relaxed pace with plenty of rest is definitely the way to make this pilgrimage, as advised by our expedition leader, Bill Jones.

Taktsang monastery on the side of a mountain overlooking Paro Valley in Bhutan. Photograph by David Braun.
Taktsang monastery on the side of a mountain overlooking Paro Valley in Bhutan. The World Heritage site is featured prominently in the National Geographic book “Sacred Places of a Lifetime,” a showcase of the world’s most powerful and spiritual places. Photograph by David Braun.
The National Geographic Committee for Research and Explorations at the start of the walk up to Taktsang monastery. Photograph by David Braun.
The National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration at the start of the hike up to Taktsang monastery. Photograph by David Braun.

The pilgrimage to Taktsang, also known as Tiger’s Nest or Tiger’s Lair, is (literally and figuratively) the high point of any visitor’s sojourn in Bhutan. For the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration delegation, it was the final stop of a week-long visit that had taken us around the western part of the kingdom, visiting dzongs (monastery fortresses), temples, and the wintering grounds of white-bellied herons and black-necked cranes. We’d had plenty of time to acclimate to the altitude and there had been at least two long walks through farms and villages to prepare us for the steep climb to the Tiger’s Nest.

Wall painting of Padmasambhava on Paro bridge by Baldiri, Wikimedia Creative Commons.
Wall painting of Padmasambhava on Paro bridge. Image by by Baldiri, Wikimedia Creative Commons.

Flying in on a Tigress

Taktsang is said to be the holiest site in Bhutan. It’s where Guru Rinpoche, also known as Padmasambhava, materialized some 1,300 years ago on the back of a flying tigress. Finding shelter in a series of caves, he meditated for some three years and then set about converting the Bhutanese to Buddhism. The monastery that commemorates this auspicious beginning was built nine centuries later, in the 1600s, although the buildings we see today have been replaced several times, including major reconstruction completed in 2005 after a fire devastated the structure and its contents in 1998. But as the Bhutanese point out, buildings are temporal and meant to be renewed; the ideas and philosophies they represent cannot be destroyed.



Thousands of prayer flags frame a 200-foot waterfall below the Tiger's Nest Monastery. Photograph by David Braun.
Thousands of prayer flags frame a 200-foot waterfall below the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Photograph by David Braun.
Small reliquaries known as "tsa-tsas" contain the ashes of the dead and are placed on ledges in the vicinity of Tiger's Nest. Photograph by David Braun.
Small reliquaries or “tsa-tsas” containing ashes of the dead on ledges in the vicinity of Tiger’s Nest. Photograph by David Braun.

The final approach to the monastery after a climb of around two hours is over a bridge across a waterfall that drops 200 feet into a sacred pool. The entire area is wrapped in prayer flags, while crevices in the rock are crammed with tsa-tsas, small reliquaries containing ashes of the dead. One last brutal flight of steep steps hewn out of rock delivers pilgrims to the monastery, which for our visit was blanketed in low-hanging cloud, adding an aura of heaven to the place.

Entry to the sanctuary is granted on condition that shoes, cameras, cell phones and other electronic equipment are left at the gates. A security guard patted us down to make sure we were not smuggling cameras and he instructed us to button our jackets as a mark of respect for the holy place. Inside we were given a tour of various temples and other chambers crammed with Buddhist icons and heaped offerings of food and money. Flickering traditional butter lamps cast a warm ethereal light.

Taktsang's main structures were rebuilt after a fire all but destroyed the complex in 2005. A consortium of international donors restored the site, listed in National Geographic's book "Sacred Journey's of a Lifetime," to its former glory. Photograph by David Braun.
Taktsang’s main structures were rebuilt after a fire all but destroyed the complex 16 years ago. A consortium of international donors restored the site to its former glory in 2005. Photograph by David Braun.

Holy Water

In one temple we encountered a monk watching over a door sealing the cave used by Padmasambhava all those centuries ago. It is opened only once a year in a special ceremony, perhaps like Easter Sunday in the Vatican’s St Peter’s basilica. The monk blessed us and poured saffron-laced water into our hands which we brought to our lips and splashed on the crown of our heads. In the next sanctuary we found a monk chanting sacred texts. He too splashed holy water into our hands for our mouths and heads, and he offered us something to eat.

We were alone in the third room we visited. Our guide stood with us at the door and explained the chamber’s purpose and the iconography on the altar, including a sitting statue of Padmasambhava. Then he invited us to sit quietly on the floor and meditate a while about where we were and what we were seeing.

Cross-legged comfortably on a mat, feet pointed in respectfully, I first thought what a difference it made to be looking at the icons without the encumbrance of a camera. I became conscious of the complete silence of our situation in the clouds thousands of feet up on the side of a mountain deep in the Himalayas.

As I listened to the silence and stared into the fierce eyes of one of the statues my mind shifted abruptly; into my head came the memory of my mother who passed away 34 years ago, and I thought how much she, a Buddhist at heart, would have wanted to visit this remarkable holy shrine. Just then a bird trilled loudly from the ledge of an open window right behind me, and I imagined it was my mother’s way of telling me that she heard me, and that she was with me in this special place.

It is not uncommon for people to have some kind of spiritual experience at Taktsang, Bill Jones, our expedition leader, told me after we had left the monastery. Bill has led groups to Bhutan more than a hundred times, taking perhaps a thousand people up to the shrine. “I can’t tell you how many people have told me that something happened to them spiritually up there,” he said when I told him my story about the bird and thoughts of my mother. I also learned that the bird that had interrupted my reverie was a rufous-breasted accentor (Prunella strophiata), a common resident throughout the Himalayas. (You can listen to its song here.)

The two-hour stroll up the mountain to Taktsang is through forests of rhododendron and pines, with many birds and smaller animals to be enjoyed. Photograph by David Braun.
The two-hour stroll up the mountain to Taktsang is through forests of rhododendron and pines, with many birds and smaller animals to be enjoyed. Photograph by David Braun.

Birds are abundant in Bhutan. Everywhere we went we saw crows on houses and monasteries. We learned that schools had been relocated and electricity cables buried to make wetlands safe for the black-necked cranes (Grus nigricollis) that migrate from the Tibetan Plateau, where they breed in the summer. To make this annual journey, the cranes must fly through extremely harsh conditions over the world’s highest mountains. Residents of  Phobjikha say they see the birds circle Gangteng Monastery three times when they arrive at the valley’s marshes for the winter, and three times again when they begin their return. It’s one more spiritual connection between the people and wildlife of Bhutan.

Led by the royal family, the government has committed to protecting Phobjikha Valley for the cranes, and also to keeping more than half of the rest of the country as natural forest. Wildlife corridors have also been set aside for elephants, tigers, leopards, and all the animals smaller than them, to be able to migrate freely between national parks in both Bhutan and neighboring India.

Surrounded entirely by China and India, the two most populous nations on Earth, Bhutan’s isolation and its ancient spirituality have enabled the country to hang on to much of its culture and natural heritage. But as the country continues to modernize and open to the world, Bhutan will be challenged to stay this way. The teachings brought to Taktsang by Padmasambhava 1,300 years ago include belief in the power and value of nature. Keeping the faith might be what empowers the country to choose the right way forward.

National Geographic President and CEO Gary Knell turns a prayer wheel prior to ascending the mountain to the Tiger's Nest monastery. Photograph by David Braun.
National Geographic President and CEO Gary Knell spins prayer wheels prior to hiking to the Tiger’s Nest monastery. Photograph by David Braun.
CRE member Keith Clarke and David Braun pause for a photo en route to the Tiger's Nest monastery. Photograph courtesy of David Braun.
CRE member Keith Clarke (left) and David Braun pause for a photo en route to Tiger’s Nest. Photograph courtesy of David Braun.

National Geographic President and CEO Gary Knell led the Committee for Research and Exploration on a tour of the Himalayan kingdom to meet with grantees, listen to briefings from government officials and environment groups, and observe science, exploration, and conservation in the field. The delegation visited dzongs and other religious places,  wildlife sites, and  had an audience with King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. The Society has funded nearly two dozen research projects in Bhutan, two of which were active at the time of the National Geographic visit.  National Geographic published its first article about Bhutan in 1914: a compelling account of explorations and surveys by John Claude White, a British Raj administrator and an accomplished amateur photographer. Read (and enjoy the 100-year-old photos) here: Castles in the Air: Experiences and Journeys in Unknown Bhutan

Taktsang is built on a series of ledges on near vertical rock cliffs thousands of feet above Paro Valley. Photograph by David Braun.
Taktsang is built on a series of ledges on near vertical rock cliffs thousands of feet above Paro. The monastery is some 10,000 feet above sea level. Photograph by David Braun.

12418031_10153900711084116_8462971761216697621_nDavid Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.

He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.

Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship

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Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn
  • Jennifer Tasker

    So wonderful to see these photos and read about your experience climbing Taktsang. I was privileged to travel to Bhutan with Nat Geo with Bill as my Guide in Oct 2014. An amazing place, an amazing climb and journey, an amazing guide and an amazing company.

    Your description of spending time in the temple room in silence and having a Spiritual experience with your mother brings tears to my eyes. The 20+ minutes we spent in that room was the highlight of my trip; words cannot describe it. Thank you.

  • Phub Dorji

    The photos were looking so real. Amazing photography guys and post was also very informative.

  • Sunil Mathur

    I visited Bhutan with my family in nov 2014. The entire experience was amazing and our last activity was the trek up to Tiger Nest Monastery. It was a wonderful experience and the surprising thing was that my mother, at over 69 years of age managed to complete the trek as well.
    I will surely return to Bhutan.

  • Natalie


    Thank you very much for sharing your experience. We will travel to Bhutan this October. I could not find any information regarding best time of a day to photo the Tiger’s Nest. Please advice me. Thank you very much for your help.

    Best regards,

  • Purva Sharma

    Lovely experience and pictures! Beautiful …
    we are planning to visit in January.
    I wanted to know if the tracking is possible in the last week of January as there will be snowfall.
    Any suggestion will be helpful. 🙂

  • Julie Molen

    June 2016. At age 75 I made the trek with the help of a horse and my “push me pull me” grandson. It took our group of 6 about 6 hours to make the trip up and back, That night found us in hot stone baths at a centuries old farmhouse where we spent our last night of a two week visit to Shangri-La.

  • wint mather

    I have visited Mt. Whitney, Ayer;s Rock, climbed Yosemitre
    Valley, but Tiiger’s Nest is the most exciting of all!
    A great experience, as is all of Bhutan! Wint

  • sandra kushner

    Especially for Julie Mohen — how terrifying were the steep drop-offs, how narrow the path

  • Mark Flanigan

    Just climbed it today! What a breathtaking (literally and figuratively) experience…

    Out of curiosity, what is the approximate distance in meters or feet if one climbs up and down from the main entrance? I haven’t been able to find it anywhere (only the distance above sea level).

    Cheers and don’t miss this amazing site!

    • David Maxwell Braun

      Found this professional guide site with elevations at the different stages of the climb: Guide to Hiking Taktsang (Northwest Rafting Company):
      Length: 2.6 miles (one way)
      Starting Elevation: 8,525 feet
      Max Elevation: 10,232 feet

  • Jose mccool

    Hi I am keen to do this climb but have a fear of heights. I am okay if the path is wide enough and a am not close to a steep drop. What do you think?

    • anupama

      The path is definitely narrow in many parts with sheer drop on the edges. And till the cafeteria it is a rather a dusty climb with ponies and horses hurtling down in groups!

  • Ramana Prasad

    I trekked to the holy Taktsang monastery on 16 May 2017. It rained almost continuously which made the climb tough, tricky and arduous. But, the pain and tiresomeness was soothed by the pristine beauty of the green mountain ranges enveloped by mist and clouds and gurgling waterfalls. The best feeling came to me on nearing the top which gave a spectacular view of the holy site perched at the edge of a majestic cliff. It is an architectural wonder and simply breathtaking and I got an exhilarating feeling when I finally made it to the temple after a gruelling trek. I truly believe it was a divine force which helped to climb and prostrate at the feet of Guru Rimpoche…

  • Sangha Ratna Syangden

    Hiking up to Taktsang Monastery isn’t just an adventure or a simple religious visit. It’s an out of the world experience. After crossing the small bridge at the foot of the waterfall, those few steps I had to climb to the monastery complex, I felt I was climbing the steps into the heavenly realm. It was overwhelming and I couldn’t stop a few tears. I feel blessed.



  • sharad kukarni

    Just on 19th May, 2017, at the age of 81 I had a privilege to climb the Tigers Nest in Paro-Bhutan and enjoy the trek which is really difficult at this age. However, if the weather is in your favour , one can do it. The place is beautiful and full of thrill and anxiety.

  • varadan cetlur

    went trekking to tiger’s nest Monastery on the 9th june 2017.
    Let no body tell you the hike was easy. It was difficult but worth every bit of the effort that went into the hike. The views were breathtaking. The serenity un believable. The enormity of the full experience hits you when you start returning to the base camp. No shortage of oxygen at any stage. Wonderfully friendly people all around. No ponies, no horses please. Just do it and conquer the Tiger. By the way I am 65.

  • Andy

    It is a very hard climb. Make sure your doctor agrees that this is a climb you can complete. ( I found out later that I had a hole in my heart. This explains why it was extra difficult for me.) It took my group the entire day to climb up and back. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity. The views were nice, but the most fun was trying to blindly put your finger in the hole of the rock! The worst part about it were the stairs. After you get to the top you see stairs and you are so grateful. The stairs are unforgiving going from the temple up. Make sure you wear a jacket.

  • Joyce

    I did it in May 2017 and loved it. It is beautiful but also a time to reflect on good things. The climb of hill and stairs were not at all hard for me. My challenge was descending the stairs as they are uneven and the rail is not always in reach. I am 82.

  • Pam

    I made the trek December 5, 2017 which is considered as off-peak season but there was still a lot of tourists who wanted to see the famed monastery.

    Coming from a tropical country and working in the middle of the desert, I had difficulty adjusting to the altitude plus it was my first time to hike. It was really amazing once you see it. We went to all the temples including the Tiger’s Nest temple where you have to squeeze and climb down inside a dark and small cave. Not for the claustrophobic.


    Just arrived home to Australia after climbing Taktsang, what an amazing experience, my husband died in April so it was a very moving & spiritual time to be there, sitting in the temple, no noise except the sound of the prayer flags, overwhelming.

  • anupama

    An absolute must do for those who visit Bhutan or rather visit Bhutan to attain this bliss. Plenty has been written about the beauty of the monastery and the vistas that await you and it is all true down to every syllable. One can admire the beauty through photographs but the feeling can only be experienced. I did this hike in Nov.2017 as part of my medical college reunion – an all ladies trip. Every step was worth it!

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