Words: DEBABRATA SARKAR
Photographs: HIMANSHU PANDYA
GREAT FROM India
GREAT FOR Peace and quiet, hiking and great food
Perched rather precariously at the edge of a cliff, high up in the clouds, sits a monastery with a name as evocative as its view. The Tiger’s Nest, or Paro Taktsang Monastery, is to Bhutan what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris or the Opera House is to Sydney. Except it’s much more. Partly because, to properly lay eyes on the monastery, you have to hike up (or ride up on horseback) a mountain for about three hours and also because of the incredible spirituality that is woven into the lives of the Bhutanese people. These aspects essentially transform it into a living, breathing part of their daily lives. It’s not just about a story that has been passed down through generations, it’s more a matter-of-fact account of what went on in the hills back in the eighth century.
It doesn’t take long to put your mind at ease in the temples. Listening to the monks go about their bass-voiced chants, smelling the thick incense floating in the air and seeing the meticulously-carved idols and painted walls sets you free in a parallel world. But then again, the hike through the pine forest, with the occasional furry monkey staring at you, rest stops with benches overlooking Paro Valley, clouds wafting in and out of your way and spring water taps for a quick drink, all prepare you for the experience. Not to mention the light-headedness that comes with climbing to about 10,000ft. Still, the physical strain itself is fairly manageable, especially after a long break with a hot cup of tea on the sundeck of a café that sits half-way up the trail. So, if there ever was a doubt whether going up to Taktsang Monastery is worth the effort – the answer is a resounding ‘yes’.
But, don’t get jumpy about it. The strain of the thin mountain air is very real and spending a couple of days relaxing in and around Paro is essential to acclimatise. Stroll through the main market, which is right out of a typical classic-western set with rows of shops lining both sides of the street, and cars, instead of horses, parked alongside. Here, you’ll find a great assortment of quirky memorabilia and handicrafts to take home with you. Drop in at the Sonam Trophel Restaurant, hidden away in the market, and dig into a serving of tasty pork momos and ginger potatoes with a bottle of Red Panda (wheat beer brewed in Bhutan) close at hand. There’re only a few tables to go around, so you might need to wait, but once you’re within the cosy confines of the wood-panelled room, you won’t regret the wait.
You can also lay your curiosity to rest about the magnificent Rinpung Dzong, in the middle of Paro, which is visible from pretty much anywhere in town. A short drive away from the market and en route to the National Museum, the tiered courtyards of the monastery set it apart from the others. It even played a key role in actively repelling Tibetan invasions in the past. The National Museum houses Bhutan’s ancient heritage, culture and way of life while also offering views of the Rinpung Dzong and Paro town.
However, it’s the simple things that really make Paro so incredibly endearing. Like the fact that there are very few people to get between you and the crisp mountain air as you pick a spot to spread out a blanket on the banks of the Paro Chhu, where you kick off your shoes and sip a cuppa while watching the clouds wafting past the hills.