To the outside world the small Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan is regarded as a modern-day Shangri-La. Nestled along the eastern side of the Himalayas, wedged between Tibet and India, Bhutan sees few outsiders. And the country likes it that way as it attempts to preserve its fragile culture and ecology. That has prompted Bhutan to strictly regulate tourism. But as VOA’s Steve Herman reports from Thimpu, it is possible for anyone with enough money and determination to visit. Here people call their nation Druk Yul – land of the thunder dragon. The Kingdom of Bhutan is nestled in the southern slopes of the eastern Himalayas, and landlocked between the Tibet Autonomous Region to the north and the Indian states
of Sikkim, Bengal, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh to the west and south. It lies between latitudes 26° and 29°N, and longitudes 88° and93°E. The climate in Bhutan varies with altitude, from subtropical in the south to temperate in the highlands and polar-type climate, with year-round snow, in the north. Bhutan experiences five distinct seasons: summer, monsoon, autumn, winter and spring. Western Bhutan has the heavier monsoon rains; southern Bhutan has hot shumid summers and cool winters; central and eastern Bhutan is temperate and drier than the west with warm summers and cool winters. It is estimated that between two thirds and three quarters of the Bhutanese population follow Vajrayana Buddhism, which is also the state religion. About one quarter to one third are followers of Hinduism. Muslim and non-religious communities account for less than 1% of the population. The current legal framework, in principle guarantees freedom of religion; proselytism, however, is forbidden by a royal government decision .
The land consists mostly of steep and high mountains crisscrossed by a network of swift rivers, which form deep valleys before draining into the Indian plains. Elevation rises from 200 m (660 ft) in the southern foothills to more than 7,000 m (23,000 ft). This great geographical diversity combined with equally diverse climate conditions contributes to Bhutan's outstanding range of biodiversity and ecosystems The sights and sounds of its deep connection to Tibetan Buddhism are evident just about anywhere a visitor goes. A religious musician, playing the jaling oboe, dressed in the traditional knee-length gown and huge white cuffs worn by most Bhutanese men is just one example of why this country the size of Switzerland is so appealing to travelers. The country is permeated with fortresses, known as dzongs, and monasteries. The air is crisp and clean, the views of mountains breathtaking. What Bhutan lacks in high-end tourist infrastructure it makes up in courtesy, safety and cleanliness, especially compared to other major regional destinations. Yet, Bhutan remains one of international tourism’s best-kept secrets. It attracts less than 20,000 tourists a year, not including thousands more Indians, here on business or holiday, who do not need a visa to visit.