THIMPHU - The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, after being closed to the outside world for centuries, is cautiously opening up to individual tourists.
Bhutan, a Buddhist kingdom squeezed between China and India, opened its door to tour groups in 1974, receiving one tour group each year. It raised the quota gradually but accepted only tour groups.
In 1990, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck privatized businesses and allowed the private sector to run travel agencies. Dozens of travel agencies emerged. Last year, Bhutan received 7,000 tourists who joined tour groups. This year, it lifted the ban on individual travellers.
But developing tourism is not the goal of King Wangchuck because he fears that tourism may destroy Bhutan's cultural tradition and spoil its scenery. So Bhutan controls tourism with staggering charges - 180 U.S. dollars per member of a tour group, 230 dollars per individual traveller. The money must be paid one month in advance.
High as the charge is, many people still think it is worthwhile to visit Bhutan which is described by many Westerners as Shangri-La.
Bhutan's formal title is the Kingdom of Bhutan. In Bhutanese language Dzongkha, Bhutan means Druk Yul - Land of Peaceful Dragon.
Legend says that Bhutan's history began in the eighth century when Tibetan lama Padmasambhava flew to Bhutan on the back of a lioness to spread Mahayanan Buddhism.
That explains why Bhutan's language Dzongkha is similar to Tibetan and one tribe of Bhutanese can be traced to Tibet. The other two tribes are local Bhutanese and Nepali.
Bhutanese dresses resemble Tibetan dresses. Bhutanese houses look like Tibetan houses - white walls and red rooftop.
To enter Bhutan, one must take Bhutan's national airline Druk Air which offers two flights a week between Bhutan's captal Thimphu and Nepal's capital Kathmandu.
One can also enter Bhutan by car from Siliguri, an Indian town bordering Bhutan.
I flew Druk Air from Kathmandu to Paro, Bhutan's second-largest city. The plane landed on a runway in a valley. Greeting was a terminal which looked like a palace and snow-capped Himalayas dotted by white-red houses.
My guide placed a hata - a white silk scarf - around my neck in the traditonal Tibetan way of blessing a visitor. We set off in his car for a two-hour ride along mountain road towards capital Thimphu.
At my hotel in Thimphu, I found European and Japanese tourists who were taking sightseeing tours or trekking tours ranging from three to 30 days.
Bhutan travel agencies provide guides who speak English, French and Japanese.
Tourists can visit Bhutan all the year round, but the charge is lower in winter. They can visit schools, hospitals, monasteries, a paper-making factory, a library in Thimphu or trek through mountains to the borders with Nepal, Tibet and India.
Thimphu has one main street - lined with trees with small shops one either side. A lone policeman directs traffic at the road crossing in city centre.
On the surface, Bhutanese seem to lead a peaceful and content life, but what they feel inside needs probing. To outsiders, their life is simple and dull. They have hardly any entertainment after dark. Thimphu has one cinema showing mostly Indian films and a dozen restaurants where people can eat and drink. Most people listen to the radio or watch TV at home.
Sunday is a day for washing clothes and taking a hot bath at home. "It takes us half a day to do the washing and a couple of hours to heat the water for bath. After that, you are so tired you don't want to do anything else," a technician at the Bhutan TV station said.
But some men spend their Sundays practicing archery - Bhutan's national sport - on mountainsides while women bring them alcohol and food and sing and dance.
Bhutan exports electricity to Nepal and imports daily necessities from India. It imports slaughtered fish and poultry because Buddhism forbids killing.
Buddhism plays an important role in Bhutan. The government builds monasteries and looks after the monks' lives. In each region, there is a main monastery called Dzong which supervises hundres of small monasteries. Built like a round castle or a group of castles, a Dzong can be ten storeys high.
Some three hundred monks live in a Dzong. Six young monks share a room with their guru.
Bhutanese are well informed about the outside world. With the arrival of satellite TV, they can watch dozens of channels like CNN, Zee TV as well as channels from Malaysia and the Middle East.
But the outside know little about Bhutan because it was closed to the outside world until 1962 when Bhutan built its first road, linking it to India. Bhutan's national airline Druk Air was set up in 1987.
Bhutanese owe their country's prosperity and stability to King Wangchuck.
"Our president seldom goes abroad. He spends all his time visiting the countryside to find out people's problems and help solve the problems," said Dago Beda, manager of Etho Metho Tours & Treks.
Most Bhutanese are law-abiding, but a few break the law. Bhutan has jails for thieves and political prisoners. The biggest crime is stealing from monasteries - a crime punishable by death.
There is no prostitution in Bhutan because Bhutanese see sex as something natural. If a man loves a woman, he can climb through the window into her house and spend the night. If a girl gives birth out of wedlock, the child stays in the girl's family and people don't look down upon him or her.
Due to the invasion of the Western world's "civilization," Bhutan is being polluted. Bhutanese dare not drink water from river because the river is polluted. Young people want to go to Europe and the United States. Rich people build villas and buy cars. Lamas (Buddhist monks) are gambling.
My guide Phurba said: "Some lamas, after they have lost in gamblng, go to Taiwan in the name of preaching Buddhism. They know that Taiwan people are rich and give huge donations to lamas. After they have collected enough money in Taiwan, they come back to continue gambling."