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The Kingdom of Bhutan has adopted a very cautious approach to tourism in an effort to avoid the negative impacts of tourism on the country's culture and environment. All tourists must travel on a pre-planned, pre-paid, guided package tour. Independent travel is not permitted. The package rate is fixed and controlled by the Government and is followed by all travel agents. There are still plenty of takers wanting to explore the breathtaking terrain of this astonishing country: the world's last Buddhist kingdom.
Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, lies at a height of over 2400m (8000ft) in the fertile valley traversed by the Wangchhu River. In many ways it resembles a large, widely dispersed village rather than a capital. The Tashichhodzong is the main administrative and religious center of the country; it was rebuilt in 1961 after being damaged by fire and earthquake. Its hundred-odd spacious rooms house all the government departments and ministries, the National Assembly Hall, the Throne Room of the King and the country's largest monastery, the summer headquarters of the Je Khempo and 2000 of his monks. The yearly Thimphu Festival is held in the courtyard directly in front of the National Assembly Hall. The Handicraft Emporium displays a wide assortment of beautifully handwoven and crafted products which make unique souvenirs.
Simtokha, 8km (5 miles) from Thimphu, has Bhutan's most ancient Dzong (fortified monastery).
The small town of Phuentsholing is a commercial and industrial center, as well as the gateway to Bhutan. A short walk from the hotel is the Kharbandi Monastery. Bhutan is well known for its stamps, and the best place to buy them is in Phuentsholing, where the Philatelic Office of Bhutan has its headquarters. The first and only department store of Bhutan is also in Phuentsholing. Punakha is the former capital of the country; situated at a lower altitude, it enjoys a comparatively benign climate. The valley contains many sacred temples, including Machin Lhakhag where the remains of Ngawang Namgyal, the unifier of Bhutan, are entombed.
Tongsa is the ancestral home of the Royal family. The Dzong at Tongsa commands a superb view of the river valley and contains a magnificent collection of rhino horn sculptures. The district of Wangdiphodrang is known for its slate carving and bamboo weaving.
A visit to the Paro Valley, where the Taktsang (Tiger's Nest) Goemba clings dizzily to the face of a 900m (2952ft) precipice, is highly recommended. Legend has it that it was here that Guru Rinpoche flew into Bhutan on the back of a tiger and meditated in a cave for three months. Other attractions in the area include the Drukgyul Dzong, further up the Paro Valley (now in ruins after the earthquake in 1954), which once protected Bhutan against numerous Tibetan invasions; and the Paro Watchtower, which now houses the National Museum of Bhutan. The temperate Punakha Valley houses many sacred temples, including the Machin Lhakhag in the Punakha Dzong. The 3100m- (10,170ft-) high Dochu La Pass commands a breathtaking view of the eastern Himalayan chain. You may even spot Bhutan's national animal, the takin - a peculiar-looking beast.
Bumthang is the starting point for four- and seven-day cultural tours through the rural villages, including Mongar. Tashigang, a silk-spinning district, has an interesting Dzong.
Useful information can be obtained from Bhutan Yodsel Tours and Treks (website: www.bhutaan.com).