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The most magical of Himalayan kingdoms, Bhutan is a small country nestling in the eastern end of the Himalayas. Seeking to preserve its unique culture it has guarded itself against unchecked tourism and modernization and even now remains a rare destination for most travelers. As well as its colorful religious and social traditions, Bhutan is the guardian of some of the world's most beautiful mountain scenery.

Although as large as Switzerland, Bhutan's population is well under a million people, and its sparsely inhabited hill and mountain tracts are a natural paradise. In the central valleys, life goes on much as it has for centuries. The focus of communities, and the traditional seat of authority both spiritual and temporal are the dzongs, fortress-like monasteries often clinging to impossibly steep mountain slopes, or ravines overlooking deep, clear rivers.

A Buddhist land, Bhutan's religious practices largely follow those of Tibet. Commemorative chortens dot the landscape while faded prayer flags are stretched around homes and monasteries. Red-robed lamas can be encountered on hill paths, turning prayer wheels as they journey across this rugged country.

Stretching from foothills on the Indian border to snow-clad peaks, Bhutan offers an unspoiled habitat for a huge variety of flora and fauna. As mountain streams tumble down steep, thickly forested mountain valleys they pass through thick belts of pine and rhododendron, oak and alder and, lower down, groves of bamboo and oranges. Small-scale farmers cultivate rice in terraced paddies and millet and barley on the higher slopes.

You can fly into Paro from Kathmandu, a spectacular way to traverse half the length of the Himalayas, from one fertile hill valley to another. Paro, Bhutan's second town, is also home to the National Museum in the Ta Dzong. The majestic Paro Dzong fort commands the valley from above the town.

The capital, Thimpu, is only two hours' drive from Paro and is the best place to encounter Bhutanese culture. You can visit the Tashico Dzong, seat of the Bhutanese government, which was constructed without using a single metal nail or support. Wandering in the bazaar area you will have a chance to buy traditional handicrafts including of Bhutan's famous hand-woven cloth.

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