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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!