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Asia 2010 Bhutan Travel Stories

The Day I Met the King of Bhutan

Spotting the King of Bhutan is not as difficult as you may think. It already happened to us once in our short time here, as one of our earliest moments in Bhutan was watching his majesty make a grand exit from the Paro Festival.

A man of the people, he crisscrosses his kingdom making public appearances. As we made our way east along Bhutan’s only cross-country road (which Sither, our guide, had affectionately named “Highway 1”), the King followed a few days behind, stopping off at small towns along the way.

Little did we know that our paths would cross once again in a small town in the valley of Bumthang called Ura.

Ura: A Town Deserted

House in Ura
An Ura-style house

A town full of charm, Ura is famed for its unique style of architecture, which was primarily what we had come to see. But when we stepped out of our van and started wandering the town, it was immediately apparent that something very strange was happening. This otherwise lively town was almost completely deserted. In fact the only person we saw in the entire town was a lone potato farmer who was plowing his field.

Plowing the FieldA man plowing a field

Commotion Up The Road

It soon became very clear that there was a great deal of commotion going on back at Highway 1. Sither pulled out his bird watching binoculars, which showed a huge mass of people with impromptu ovens set up that were burning holy smoke, a white smoke achieved by burning coniferous leaves. According to Sither, the King’s motorcade had stopped so he could greet his subjects.

Soon enough, the crowd began to dissipate. The King was clearly back in his motorcade which continued moving eastward. Enthralled by what we had just seen, we handed the binoculars back to Sither and turned to continue our walk.

The King is Coming!

Suddenly the entire town came running back, exclaiming in Dzongka, the Bhutanese language, that the King was heading for Ura’s temple. Despite having seen the King a mere 5 days earlier we thought, “what the heck!” and joined the throngs of villagers in the rush up the hill.

The temple was a chaotic scene as folks scrambled to get the place ready for the King’s arrival. Security Guards wandered the crowd, reminding foreigners that no one but the official photographers were allowed to take photos of the King (which sadly means that I have no pictures).

Waiting to Greet the King
Villagers await the King’s arrival

Villagers were placed in an orderly line on one side, as the temple’s Abbot stationed himself by the gate. Holy Smoke billowed strongly in the cool afternoon breeze and horns blared through the temple windows as villagers began to sing a welcoming song.

Burning Holy Smoke
Burning the Holy Smoke

Then, that unmistakable young, charismatic face with the unique yellow robe made an appearance through the gate.

Enter, the King of Bhutan

The King made a brief appearance, quickly greeting the locals before stepping inside the temple to pray. While he was inside, his assistants unfolded a large appliqué to be hung on the outside of the structure. Ropes were lowered from the second floor windows and attached. As His Majesty returned outside, the appliqué began to rise, showing its stunning depiction of Guru Rinpoche, an important figure in Buddhism here.

Appliqué Presented by the King
The appliqué presented by the King

The King led the townspeople in prostrating themselves before the image. As he explained how the appliqué was a gift from him, he apologized for it being too small to properly cover the temple and promised that next year he would return with a larger one.

Then came something rather unexpected…comedians, 3 of them, who were traveling with the King. As they entertained the crowd in Dzongka, I couldn’t help but think about Bhutan’s claim to fame…”Gross National Happiness.” Perhaps a way of contributing to that?

After their lengthy act, the King made his rounds through the crowd, chatting briefly with a few random villagers as he thanked everyone for coming out to welcome him. As he made his way to the gate, the villagers broke into a farewell song as the horns made a re-appearance through the temple windows.

Horns Welcome the King
Horns playing a goodbye song for the King

A One-on-One With His Majesty

But the King did not exit. Instead he made his way through the crowd and walked directly up to us. He spoke in perfect English, thanking us for visiting his country.

He wanted to know where we were from, noting that he went to (a prestigious private) high school in Massachusetts before heading off to college in the U.K.

He spoke of the difficulties his country faced, particularly being wedged between the two most populous nations on Earth (China and India), and their struggle to hold onto their national identity, especially when faced with so much pressure to modernize quickly (in particular, he made mention of having scoffed at continuous suggestions that casinos be built in the country to attract Chinese tourists).

At the end of the conversation, he individually shook each of our hands.

As he exited the compound, we all looked at each other in shock. Did we really just meet and shake hands with the King of Bhutan?? He had spent more time talking to us than he did to any individual Bhutanese national.

A Perfect Moment

Sither noted that the King usually does like to chat with tour groups (relaying a story about encountering the King on a trek and having His Majesty, an avid photographer, critique a visitor’s camera!). And we couldn’t help but notice that we were the only group of foreigners left at the temple. Yes, there were others originally, but they had quickly left after watching the King make his entrance. (So, if you want to up your chances of talking to him, ask your guie to hang around till he leaves!)

What we all agreed on was that it was a truly stupendous experience. Here we were, in the country for a mere 5 days, and had seen their King twice, even getting to meet him! I mean, how many countries in the world today could you visit where you could just randomly encounter the Head of State??

It was the perfect complement to my grandmother’s departure from this world yesterday. What can I say but, I don’t think anything else on this trip could possibly top this experience!

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By Aaron

Hey there! I'm Aaron and this is my travel site, where I document my adventures to all corners of the world. My love for travel started at the ripe old age of four, when a midlife crisis uprooted my family to Ecuador for five years. Since then, I've been to countries on 4 different continents. When I'm not blissfully on the road, I reside in New York City, where I become the ultimate travel junkie and spend my days dreaming up my next great adventure! Read More...

81 replies on “The Day I Met the King of Bhutan”

Gorgeous photos, Aaron! I love this story. I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll be able to visit Bhutan late this year or early next year. It’s high on my list.

For now, I’ll live through you.

Thanks! Yeah it was quite the experience! I only wish we’d have been able to photograph him, but he wants to control his image, I guess. And you should totally try and get to Bhutan. Worth. Every. Single. Penny!

It was a pretty incredible once-in-a-lifetime experience! And it’s worth every single penny you have to spend while you’re there (which is a whole lot of pennies!).

P.S. I love your URL!

Thanks for the well wishes for my grandmother. She had visited Bhutan and absolutely loved it and when we arrived there it was easy to see why she wanted her ashes to go there (and the spot our guide suggested couldn’t possibly have been any better).

And yes, he is a wonderfully charismatic King! It’ll be fascinating to see what direction he takes the country in, as his father abdicated in 2008 in favor of switching from and absolute to constitutional monarchy. Though they now have a democratically elected government in place, the King retains ultimate veto power and his ideas hold great sway.

Wow, this is just so .. interesting and amazing. These villagers are just so… full of respect, and the pictures are absolutly great, such a beautiful country… The Ura-style houses look very nice, such epical it looks like, it takes me to the thought of adventure. Also, great story, I’m amazed by this. Keep up the good work and thanks for sharing peace from Bhutan. Have a great day, Maria.

Thank you! The architecture in Bhutan is defintiely one of the highlights, as if feels like stepping into a fairy tale! The villagers are also so incredibly friendly (far more so than any other country I’ve visited). And yes, it is a stunningly beautiful country!

Glad you enjoyed the story!

Hehe well in the wake of “The King’s Speech,” maybe I could push “The King’s Applique!” 😛 Glad you enjoyed!

Bhutan looks and sounds like a very nice place… I loved the pics you’ve posted, very colorful and lively! 🙂 Hope to visit this down-to-earth place someday!

Thanks! Bhutan certainly is very colorful and lively! If you go, try and arrange your trip to coincide with one of the festivals! They’re just full of color! A fantastic introduction to the country!

It’s pretty unique and pretty incredible! It literally feels like stepping into a fairy tale, which is far more than I can say about any other country I’ve been to! Thanks for the comment!

That sounds like an amazing trip, I can’t believe you managed to meet him twice and he sounds lovely. My friend and her family spent several years living in Bhutan and apparently they met him quite a few times.

After seeing all those lovely photos, I just want to visit Bhutan even more! =)

Indeed it was amazing trip and he is truly a fascinating and friendly man. How was your friend able to live in Bhutan??

I’m afraid I don’t know as we lost contact years ago when they moved as I was only around 9 or 10 when I knew her, but I think it was something to do with her fathers job. I just remember her telling me that it was very difficult for foreigners to travel there and that tv was banned.

It was magical just visiting their house as it was full of decorations and objects from bhutan and really made me want to visit.

Ah that’s a shame! As with most places, the craftsmanship there is just exquisite, so I’m sure their house was just incredible!

And I think times may have changed a bit, as some hotels we stayed in did get satellite TV, though it’s possible that was just around for the tourists…

I know, right?? I think it’s a great testament to just the kind of place Bhutan is… he is truly a king of the people!

Wow, what a great fantastic trip!!
Looks like a nice king of bhutan. How old is king of bhutan anyway? by the way I love your photos.
Regards

He’s in his early 30’s. His very popular father abdicated in 2008 in favor of switching to a constiutional monarchy from an absolute one.

And thanks!

That is so freakin AWESOME! I was dying reading this, how cool!! What an amazing experience. I loved the bit about comedians. I love this King! I want to go to Bhutan!

Thanks! It was a VERY cool experience and he was certainly a very cool king. It was great to see a shining example of their attempts at “Gross National Happiness,” which was instituted by the current King’s father and is Bhutan’s serious claim to fame! And seriously, start saving your pennies for Bhutan because it is simply unreal!

It really is absolutely stunning and I would highly reccomend it to anyone!* Start saving your pennies!

*Guarantee of king meeting not included.

Hi mr.Aaron thanx for visiting and loving our small country and king…
it was glad to go through your article…really interesting

thanx a lot….

Thanks! I really loved your country and your King! Such a wonderfully unique place! Whereabouts do you live?

Awww thanks! It really was a fantastic experience in a truly fantastic nation! Glad you appreciated the story!

Now that’s a great way to roll out the red carpet for tourists. Personal greeting from the king himself. Love those photos, I’m itchin’ to go to Bhutan.

Hahaha right? I’d highly recommend saving up money to head to Bhutan…it’s totally worth it!

OMG… you’re a lucky man. Not only did you get to meet King of Bhutan, you got to converse with him as well! The King of Bhutan is such a friendly and cool king! I suppose
the locals there are nice too.

I seriously hope my husband would agree a trip with me to Bhutan. The country is ranked high in my travel list.

The people in Bhutan were so nice it was almost eery! In fact, the very first night we were there, my mom turned to our guide and said, “There’s something about the people here…” So true! Bhutan is a really incredible country. Hope you can make it there some day!

Haha right?? It was a pretty awesome experience! Thankfully, this isn’t the one experience that I hoid all travel experiences up against! Glad you liked the post!

It certainly was a memorable experience! Still ranks as the number 1 random travel experience that I’ve had, in fact!

Hi Aaron, Sounds like a humbling experience. I was invited to a reception by the Kazakhstan Ambassador, but that doesn’t compare! One of my colleagues has just returned from Bhutan with great stories, I’m very jealous, maybe next year.

I have added a link for the post to The Bloggers Guide to Bhutan I’m developing. Love the blog by the way.

Kind regards, Si

Hi Si,

Glad you enjoyed the post! It was a truly fantastic experience, though I imagine a reception by the Kazakhstan ambassador would be as well! Thanks for linking to it!

Aaron

What a unique story! I’m sure you will remember that your whole life. I’ve wanted to get to Bhutan for quite some time, and look forward to it even more now. Thanks for sharing!

You should definitely go to Bhutan. It’s a truly incredible country and visiting it is literally like stepping into a fairy tale!

Haha thanks Leslie! It was a VERY cool experience! And as I learned from Twitter, he’s only accessible when he wants to be. Someone it seems was turned away when they stumbled on a high level cabinet meeting or something. Go figure!

Hi Aaron! I saw you were in Egypt recently, and I was wondering if you had any advice for us. My partner and I are hoping to go next month, but have been a little freaked out by what people are saying on the message boards about harassment of female travelers. We always dress modestly and try to blend in, but we don’t want to feel like we can’t go out in public, either. Any insight?

Hi Megan,

I can’t speak much to the harassment of female travelers, but I did meet many female solo travelers and the seemed to be enjoying themselves. I think you’ll definitely stand less of a chance of being harassed since there will be two of you. You might want to check out Solo Female Traveler, as she was just in Egypt as well.

Thanks! It’s a really fantastic place that’s worth every penny it takes to spend time there (which is a whole lot of pennies…).

Wow! It looks like this is a country with great cultural heritage! The whole town was empty as they were waiting for the king to come.. This is really amazing!

I have heard that there’s no electricity in Bhutan is that correct?

No that’s not true. Everywhere we went had electricity. There were certain places that didn’t have power lines (mainly due to it being a bird sanctuary) but the governemnt gave people solar panels to generat their own electricity.

Hi Aaron,
Very nice story! Reminded me of my own visit there in 2009 and I saw the king from a distance. The Bhutanese really adore and respect their monarch. Congratulations!
cheers, Priyank

THanks Priynak! I’ve found that to be true in a number of other monarchies (like Thailand) but it was wonderful to experience it up close up and personal!

Cheers! Aaron

Thanks! It sure was quite the memorable experience! And I would definitely encourage you to save up your pennies and make it to Bhutan, as it’s a pretty unreal destination! Glad you enjoy my blog!

Funny that I just stumbled across this looking up info about Bhutan for my trip. Hilarious story though and it may tell a little bit that he spent more time with tourists than his own people. But then again, he may have just wanted to brag about that high school! Great story, Aaron!

Haha well, to be fair, we asked where he went, he didn’t voluntarily tell us (Phillips Academy Andover, if you’re curious…and Oxford). He also didn’t seem like bragging type. Our guide did note that we probably would not have had that experience had other groups of foreigners been there. Maybe he somehow knew that I would go and write about this experience and it would be great PR for his country? 😛

I’m researching about the King of Bhutan thinking “I wonder if I’ll ever meet a royalty ever” and you’ve seen him TWICE, shook hands and had a conversation. just WOW. I’m jealous and I need to hop on the next plane to Bhutan :p!

Hahahaha! I would be willing to bet that I was just lucky, though our guide did mention that he’ll frequently stop and chat with tour groups, especially when trekking. He apparently tried to fix this guy’s camera!

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