Like an improbable mirage from a James Bond movie, the Tiger’s Nest hangs off a sheer cliffside drop, nestled among green foliage, 10,000 feet above sea level. But there’s no espionage here, in the mountains of Asia’s other hermit kingdom, Bhutan. Colorful prayer flags drape the forest path and a waterfall flows near this sacred Bhutanese monastery, where one of the holiest figures in Buddhism was said to have arrived in the country more than a thousand years ago.
Though the name evokes a secret cinematic lair, the roots of the Tiger’s Nest are more folkloric. According to legend, in the 700s, a Tibetan missionary known as the Second Buddha mounted the back of a tigress and flew up to this remote mountaintop in the Eastern Himalayas, where he is said to have taken up residence in one of the cliff’s caves for three months, three weeks, three days, and three hours of meditation. After, he spread Buddhism to the Bhutanese. The country continues to celebrate his legacy today with an annual festival in his honor.
Officially called the Taktsang Palphug Monastery, the four connecting temples of the Tiger’s Nest were built in 1692, tacked onto the rock face in homage to the holy leader. Today it’s believed to be one of the highest temples in the world. When the original complex partially burned down in a fire in 1998, killing one monk and damaging valuable artwork, it took seven years for the government to renovate the Tiger’s Nest back to its ancient glory.
The hike to the monastery is an arduous two-hour long climb without handrails, passing through hanging foliage and looking down at the sheer drop below. Mules are available to take visitors up through the surrounding forest, but rules are strict: a guide must provide an escort, and photography is not allowed within the compound.
As a whole, Bhutan has long been wary of tourists, restricting visitors to strict and expensive organized tours that has made it one of the most untouched places in Asia. Bhutan was a monarchy until the reigning king decided to open the country up for elections in 2008, ushering in a parliamentary democracy. The country, with a population of just 725,000, has an insular nature preserving it as a time capsule. In many ways the small nation sounds like an enigmatic Shangri-La: citizens still dress in traditional clothes, cigarettes are illegal, and the country is deeply Buddhist. Most famously, the government famously puts such a premium on its citizens’ well-being, it measures “Gross National Happiness” and calls it more important than the typical gross domestic product.
The Tiger’s Nest contributes to the happiness measurement. As one local told a National Geographic reporter weary from the climb without a flying tigress to carry him there: “In our most beautiful places, we build temples and monasteries, and everybody goes there. In your most beautiful places, you build five-star resorts, and only the very rich go there.”