As the Druk Air flight swoops down into Paro International Airport, passengers brace themselves for a rough landing. But the touchdown is smooth. Once you make it through customs at Bhutan's only airport-the rest of the country is only accessible by motor vehicles and the main highway runs from west to east connecting all the major towns - visitors are driven through the picturesque farming valley of Paro to one of nearly a dozen hotels. One of the oldest hotels, and the largest in Bhutan, Hotel Olangthang, is spread over 45 acres of wooded land on a hill overlooking the valley, and was first built as a guest house to accommodate royal visitors attending the coronation of Bhutan's fourth and current monarch, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk in 1974. Paro, a farming valley of about 15,000 people, is a major stop on the tourist itinerary. The popular Tsechu or spring festival attracts numerous visitors, both foreign and local, and often it is difficult to find accommodation.
With King Jigme's coronation Bhutan, popularly known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon, opened its doors to foreign visitors, allowing in a controlled number of high-end tourists interested in cultural and nature tours. To get an insight into Bhutanese history and culture, the national museum or Ta-dzong in Paro is a major stop for visitors. The museum, a former watchtower and fortress that overlooks the Rinpung Dzong, has a 349-year-old history and houses galleries of manuscripts, paintings, arms and armour, anthropology, numismatics and epigraphy, textiles, philately and bronzes. Established in 1968, Ta-Dzong houses over 3,000 works of art spanning 1,500 years of Bhutan's cultural heritage.
A 15-minute walk below the museum is Ringpung Dzong, a palatial, formidable-looking complex with a flagstone path that serves as Paro's administrative centre. Dzongs in Bhutan are the centres of religious and political authority, and tend to be palatial, with intricate decorative art. All dzongs, including the Trashichodzong, which houses the government and the throne of the King of Bhutan in Thimpu, are open to the public.
Another Paro must is a visit to Taktsang Monastery or the Tiger's Nest about a half-hour drive from Paro and a two-hour uphill hike. Widely pictured in travel brochures on Bhutan, the monastery is perched on a steep cliff and is currently undergoing reconstruction after it was almost destroyed in a fire some years ago. Walking up the steep hill, the echo of gunfire and blasting resounds around the valley as Indian troops posted at the border between Bhutan and China carry out exercises. The valley's acoustics make for an avalanche-like sound effect.
About 30 km from Paro is the Tselele Pass, the highest point in this part of Bhutan, from which mountains are visible on a clear day. Although it claims to have the world's highest virgin peak, Bhutan doesn't appear keen to promote mountaineering. "Most peaks here are sacred and in terms of height we can't compete with the Himalaya in Nepal, Tibet, India and Pakistan anyway," says Thuji Dorji Nadik, joint director of Plans and Programmes at Bhutan's Department of Tourism. "We'd rather concentrate on cultural and nature tours, make the most of Bhutan's natural, pristine environment."
While a proposal to sell scuba diving in pristine mountain lakes has been set aside for the moment, Bhutanese tourism entrepreneurs offer specialised trips in mushroom picking, fly-fishing, and birdwatching. Some are even exploring the possibility of promoting rafting and heli-skiing. More easy to come by than adventure trips, however, is cultural and nature tourism. Apart from the numerous dzongs and the monasteries that dot the Bhutanese countryside, the government and private sector are promoting the cultural heritage of Bhutan. Thimpu's main street houses a handicraft emporium, the recently opened national textile museum, and the post office where Bhutan's famous philatelic rarities abound. The Saturday market in Thimphu is also a must. Villagers gather here to sell their produce-fresh vegetables and fruit, as well as raw cheese and the ubiquitous chilli used in the national dish emadatsi, chilli cooked in a cheese sauce. In Thimpu, one can also visit Bhutan's one-animal zoo. The takin, the closest relative to the Arctic musk ox is found in Bhutan, China and Burma and looks like a cross between a large ram and a yak. A vulnerable species, Bhutan's national animal is bred behind a fenced enclosure on the outskirts of the town.
The capital also houses the National Folk Heritage museum, the National Institute of Medicine, where age-old herbal cures are studied and provided, and the National School of Arts and Craft, where students learn the art of thangka painting, carving, and pottery. The impressive National Library in Thimpu houses mostly religious texts. At the National Textile Museum, opened in 2000, researcher Tshering Uden Penjori shows us a collection of contemporary wear designed from traditional Bhutanese textiles that will be part of a national fashion contest. Apparently, outside of office hours and for invitations that allow casual wear, many Bhutanese shed their kiras , an ankle-length garment worn by women and ghos, the distinctive calf-length, skirt-like outfit worn by men.
Going to Bhutan can be expensive. Visas must be obtained prior to entry and can be organised through travel agents 15 days prior to a visit. Visas are issued on arrival for $20, and can be extended in Thimphu for up to six months at a cost of NU510 (about $10.50). The catch is the high daily tariff excluding hotels, food and other expenses, which runs to $200 during the high season in March-May and September-November, and $165 the rest of the time for groups of three or more. Single travellers pay an extra $40, and pairs $30. Students and diplomats get a 25 percent discount on the daily rates. A recent national tourism workshop is said to have discussed the current tariff regulations, and officials say they are aiming at a more market-friendly tariff, but don't expect it to change any time too soon. Flights are available on Druk Air from Delhi, Calcutta, Kathmandu, Bangkok and Dhaka. The Butanese currency, the ngultrum, is pegged to the Indian rupee, and Indian currency is widely accepted.