Bhutan’s Tourism Council has a ‘High value, Low impact’ policy with a minimum daily package requirement. There is also a minimum daily fee per tourist which ranges between $200-$250, excluding Visa fees, but including accommodation, meals, a tour guide and travel inside the country among other things. All Visa’s and packages are to be paid directly to the Tourism Council via a travel agent (who receives their fees after guests depart).
Bhutan only opened its borders for foreign visitors in 1974 and has seen a steady growth in tourism since then. One of the main attractions of the country is Paro Taktsang, or Tiger’s Nest monastery. The monastery was built around the Taktsang Senge Samdup cave. It is said that this is the cave where Guru Padmasambahva (who introduced Buddhism to Bhutan) meditated for 3 years, 3 months, 3 weeks, 3 days and 3 hours, in the 8th century. The Guru was taken to the cave on the back of a tigress- giving the monastery its name. It is said that the tigress chose the place and tributes to her can be seen in the Hall of Thousand Buddhas in the monastery.
In the first half of the 17th century, then-ruler Ngawand Namgyal had the idea of building a monastery near the holy caves. The commencement of the construction was initiated and carried out by his successor, Gyalse Tenzin Rabgye, who placed the first stone of the monastery in 1692.
In 1998 the monastery caught alight and was nearly destroyed. Emergency services struggled to reach the area due to its unique location. It is also this location that makes it such an attractive site for visitors. (The monastery underwent restoration after the fire and was back to its original form by 2005).
The monastery seems to be precariously balanced on the cliffs, 3120 meters above sea level and the upper Paro Valley and can only be reached by 3 mountain passes. Two of the passes meanders through ‘a hundred thousand fairies plateau while the third pass takes visitors through a pine forest decorated with prayer flags to invite positive energy, vitality and good luck while providing protection from evil forces.
The Monastery is based on traditional Buddhist architecture with white buildings and golden roofs. There are 4 main temples and a number of dwellings – all interconnected by staircases carved into the rock. Nearly every building has a balcony that offer views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.
Inside the temple is a gold-plated dome and golden icons. The courtyard of the temple houses a prayer wheel which is rotated by monks every morning to mark the beginning of a new day.
The monastery has 8 caves, 4 of which are fairly easily accessible. Tholu Phuk is the cave that Guru Padmasmabhava first entered on the back of a tigress and Pel Phuk is where he meditated. Today the monks of the monastery should live and meditate in these caves for 3 years.
Tiger’s Nest Monastery is one of the main cultural, religious and tourist destinations in Bhutan. It not only offers a truly unique experience to visit an important religious sight but also offer visitors a glimpse into Bhutanese culture with spectacular views along the way.
*A version of this article first appeared at www.zafigo.com