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Being in Bhutan
The hidden Himalayan Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon reveals a few of its most treasured secrets to the lucky few
Monks, demons, clowns - Bhutan's fun and beauty revealed

I gave my beloved a choice of two destinations for my 40th birthday present - the Okavango swamp in Botswana or Bhutan.

I was quite merciless in taunting him with his choice as he struggled for breath just turning over in a sleeping bag at 4,000 metres in Bhutan's Eastern Himalayas. The Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon is literally and metaphorically breathtaking.

But the joy of Bhutan lies as much in its unspoilt people as it does in its awesome (not keen on that word but it is appropriate in this case) landscapes. Picture-postcard snow-capped peaks, rivers and forests conceal serene monasteries and monks, farms and villagers.

Strictly following their Buddhist principles, the Bhutanese number less than a million and are polite, friendly and eager to make sure you enjoy their country. And they are so refreshingly honest.

Andy and I wore traditional dress to an annual festival in the capital, Thimpu, that celebrates the arrival of Buddhism in Bhutan from Tibet more than a millennium ago. Our guide, Sonam, positively swooned over His Nibs' robes without mentioning mine. I eventually gave in and asked what he thought of my attire. "I don't like the colour," he grinned rather sheepishly.

Then there were the invitations into the small, isolated monasteries nestled on top of the mountains. Sonam would lead us into the prayer rooms where the monks would be performing some ritual or ceremony and we would protest that it was intrusive and voyeuristic. Well, he was having none of that. The Bhutanese were apparently happy to show visitors their work, play and prayer and perhaps we should just get over it. But it was a bit like a bunch of Bhutanese tourists showing up at a wedding, standing at the back of the church while the tour guide explained "this is how they get married in the UK". I don't think the bride's mother would have been as ecstatic about it as a Buddhist Abbott.

I trudged up a mountain with 3kg of Buddhas in my backpack ready to be blessed by the monks in a Dzong. The smooth, polished, wooden floors of the gompa surrounded by the technicolour icons and enveloped by incense imbued calmness and serenity - just like the rest of the country. Yet some of our party felt there was a sinister control and oppression at work.

It's true that parliament is just a few years old, the monarchs having finally relinquished absolute power. Smoking is not permitted anywhere (foreigners must be discreet) and a bottle of wine costs £20. There is no crime and the homeless are taken in my the monks, who beg for their own living from the people. Not democracy as we know it because there is no "I" and decisions are made for society and a greater good but the internet and satellite TV are freely available.

Teachers are rated higher than medics and engineers and tiny schools in the middle of nowhere are being upgraded with Japanese money into high-tech centres of learning. Squished between a billion Indians and a billion Chinese, the Bhutanese government sees its future in maintaining its national identity (everyone wears traditional dress, all the time) and thoroughly educating its people.

Those who don't buy into it are free to leave and a young Sonam couldn't wait to get out and study for his degree in India. He told us he soon became disillusioned with the avarice and people trying to rip him off. He came home to stay, although he admitted he'd quite like to go on a shopping trip to Thailand. They're not perfect and there is a none-too-small problem of Nepalese refugee camps deporting/repatriating people who claim Bhutanese citizenship. But they don't hold their citizens under house arrest (unlike the UK and Burma).

Having briefly experienced the corruption, crime and pollution that came with the millions of tourists who now visit neighbouring Nepal, I can see why Bhutan only lets 15,000 foreigners visit every year (and for a very high price). It's a magical place that receives a lot of money from the EU and US to preserve its forests that face an increasing burden of breathing for the planet. But that might just save it as one of the last few remaining places where you can feel like an explorer from 100 years ago discovering a new paradise.