Our first view of the incredible Tiger’s Nest Temple Complex was a small white dot, high above us, clinging to the side of the mountain. We were very excited to begin the steep trek to get a closer look.
The flight into Paro was one of the craziest landings we’ve ever had. As we began descending we could see mountains on both sides of the plane. Descending further we could see individual trees on those mountains. Then, the plane turned almost 90° as the valley turned. The plane started to shake as the winds picked up. The ground was getting closer and it didn’t seem like there could be a runway in the narrow valley below, but then we landed and came to a screeching halt. We had arrived in Bhutan!
Nestled in the Himalayas, Bhutan is a recently democratized kingdom that has been closed off from the rest of the world for years. It’s a devoutly Buddhist country with strong ancient traditions and customs. The government measures its success by its GNP (Gross National Happiness) rather than the usual GDP (Gross Domestic Product).
Paro is the second largest city in Bhutan, but at 15,000, it’s more like a quaint mountain town. All the buildings in town are made in the traditional Bhutanese architectural style. They are made with a stone base layer topped with condensed mud walls and are usually 2 stories high. The exteriors are stunning with brightly painted walls and intricate carvings and paintings on wooden eaves and window sills. Paro is set in the Himalayas on the Paro Chhu (River). This setting along with the traditional buildings make Paro a very picturesque town.
On the hill above town is the Para Dzong (Fortress) built in 1650. The outside is an impenetrable looking stone walled complex with a Watchtower further up the hill.
Inside, the Fortress feels magical with a large courtyard surrounded by stone walls with colourful flags and drapery hanging everywhere.
We were lucky to be here during one of the annual festivals, Paro Tshechu. Held in the lower courtyard, the main event was a theater and dance show. Men dressed in elaborate, bright yellow costumes with masks representing various deities, were dancing in a large circle. Clowns were in the middle of the circle acting out ancient legends, many of which involved wooden penises! The phallus symbol is a part of myth and folklore in Bhutan and is supposed to aid in fertility, offer protection from evil and dispels malicious gossip. Bhutanese came for this 3-day festival from the surrounding villages and were all dressed in their best traditional attire. We felt lucky to be able to experience this tradition.
Tiger’s Nest Temple is one of the most important temples in Bhutan. It’s a short drive from Paro to the base of the trek. As soon as you start trekking you can see the temple complex high above, on the side of the mountain in a seemingly unreachable spot. The trek is steep on steps and then a dirt trail up a neighboring buttress.
After 40 minutes we reached a tea-house across from the temple giving us our first close- up view. It’s even more impressive in person. The white stone temple complex was built around an important cave on a small ledge, 450 m above the valley floor. On one side of the complex is the mountain wall, on the other is a sheer granite cliff. We continued to trek closer, being even more impressed by its beauty and its precarious position on the mountain.
At the entrance you must check in with the police who take your bags, cameras and electronics. It’s so interesting inside that it’s too bad there are no pictures allowed. There are dark, stone staircases and winding hallways connecting each of the 8 temples. Each temple is a small room with stone walls that are decorated with bright banners and flags. Some walls are painted with figures of deities and gurus. In each temple is a shrine to one of the Buddhist gurus. The cave is only open one day a year, so we didn’t see it.
We trekked further up the hill above Tiger’s Nest to see 2 rarely visited meditation temples. One was very old and built into a small hollow in the mountain. It was another amazing site. Bhutan has impressed so far and we’re excited to see what else is in store.
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