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Reaching new heights in Bhutan

by Catherine Marshall

Women are reaching lofty heights in Bhutan’s once male-dominated tourism industry, writes Catherine Marshall.


Surely a woman must have thought up Bhutan’s most famous site, Tiger’s Nest Monastery, since it perches with the most exquisite agility and the softest of footprints on a sheer cliff-side in Bhutan’s province of Paro. But it was the Buddhist monks who trekked up here in 1692, hacking their way through mountainous bush and carving steps into sheer granite, to get to a sacred cave scooped from the cliff.

It was here in the 7th century that Guru Rinpoche – the second incarnation of the Buddha and Bhutan’s most revered master – had meditated and subdued the demonic deity that had been troubling this region’s people. Technically, a female had visited the site, for the guru had flown here on the back of a tigress. Centuries later, the monks enclosed the sacred cave with a temple and a monastery, and it still balances – however precariously – upon that mountain today. (The monastery was almost destroyed by a fire in 1998 and it was rebuilt, using saved artefacts, to meet its UNESCO World Heritage-listing standard.)

A Buddhist monk poses at Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Bhutan

But since the monastery opened to tourist traffic in 2005, it has attracted all manner of people to its lofty heights. Tourists slog up the pathways that have been gouged from the mountain; the lazy ones among them ride packhorses to the first lookout. Devout Bhutanese Buddhists make this most sacred of pilgrimages, for the monastery is a place they believe they should all visit at least once in their life.

And in contrast to its beginnings, today there are just as many Bhutanese women as men on this route. They scramble up tricky-to-negotiate shortcuts, carrying snacks to eat along the way and gifts to leave upon the altars of the monastery’s many temples: butter for the lamps, sugar and biscuits and apples and pears for the gods. They lead packhorses up and down treacherous paths.

And they guide tourists, too. On the way down we meet Seema Gurung, who is breaking into this once male-dominated field. She began guiding two years ago, and in that time has climbed to Tiger’s Nest Monastery an astonishing 27 times. Families are worried about their daughters leading tour groups, she laments; they wonder what they will do when the time comes to settle down.

But this is the job for her, she smiles triumphantly. Far above her, up near the clouds, the monastery dangles off a cliff-side. The only way is up, it seems to be saying.  TTW

Catherine Marshall was a guest of The Classic Safari Company, the Tourism Council of Bhutan, and the Unique Tourism Collection. Photos © Catherine Marshall.

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