Bhutan stirs a misty-eyed yearning in even the most seasoned travellers. Roughly the size of Switzerland, this diminutive mountain kingdom is wedged between China and India, sloping from heights of 7,000m on its northern border with Tibet to the relatively low-lying altitudes of its border with India. It's a remote Buddhist stronghold of soaring, Himalayan peaks; tranquil countryside dotted with traditional farmhouses, monasteries and temples, claret-robed monks, fluttering prayer flags; and fast flowing slate-coloured rivers. The Bhutanese call it Druk Yul or "Land of the Thunder Dragon" in their native tongue, Dzongkha.
The majority of Bhutan's population of just under 700,000 adheres to the Drukpa Kagyu school of tantric, or Mahayana Buddhism. Spirituality permeates all levels of life and there are more than 10,000 religious monuments, known as stupas or chortens, and more than 2,000 monasteries scattered across the country.
Most visitors' first glimpse of the country are of the majestic Paro valley in western Bhutan. This wide, fertile valley sits in the shadow of Mount Jhomolhari, the county's highest peak that is regarded as a
Just beyond Paro lies Taktsang Lhakhang or the Tiger's Nest temple, one of the country's most sacred pilgrimage sites. All dimly lit rooms and flickering butter lamps, it is perched at a staggering 3,000m on a sheer cliff face, reached by an arduous hike up the mountainside. Legend has it is that this is where the Guru Rinpoche, who is credited with bringing Buddhism to Bhutan, arrived from Tibet on the back of a tigress.
From Paro, visitors usually travel east to the sleepy Bhutanese capital Thimphu, with its celebrated Changangkha temple and handful of sights such as the National Museum (nationalmuseum.gov.bt), housed in the 17th-century Ta-Dzong building, and the Royal Textile Academy (royaltextileacademy.org). The latter highlights the country's rich, living tradition of delicately hand-woven and naturally dyed cloth, with several examples available for sale.
Further west is the fertile, sub-tropical Punakha Valley, where the capital was located until 1955. Its arresting dzong (fort), on the confluence of Mo and Pho rivers, is one of the country's finest examples of 17th-century architecture. The nearby Phobjikha Valley is the winter home of the black-necked crane and the 17th-century Gangtey Goenpa monastery.
Central Bhutan is home to Bumthang, notable for its cheese production. It's a bucolic picture of orchards, farmhouses, monasteries and temples such as the historic Jakar Dzong. Eastern Bhutan is one of the least-visited parts of the country, home to the Sharchop ethnic group and the imposing Trashigang Dzong.
Bhutan was a feudal society with many different ethnic groups until the 17th century when it was organised into 20 districts run by a dual system of religious and secular authorities. The country's current hereditary monarchy was established in 1907 and its monarch, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who took over from his father in 2006, enjoys widespread popularity. His father, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck was responsible for opening up this kingdom to curious visitors 40 years ago next year. Under his guidance, the Bhutanese authorities have been keen to protect the traditional values of the world's only remaining Buddhist kingdom. National dress has been compulsory since 1989, archery is the national pastime and most farming is still manual. Visitor numbers are controlled and mountaineering is forbidden – the high-value, low-impact strategy means that daily tariffs of between US$200-$250 including transport, guiding and accommodation are imposed on tourists.
Best foot forward
Trekking is one of Bhutan's most alluring draws, with gasp-inducing views of the Himalayas and the chance to observe local life as you pass through valleys chiming with yak bells and villages that still only see a trickle of visitors.
There are 23 official treks across