Early in the morning, I woke up and found this red curtain with the shadows of the window frames. It looked very artistic so I took a photo of it.
The tour guide told me the people who served me breakfast were actually the descendants of the royal family so I took photos with them with excitement. Remember, I was staying in the guesthouse of their palace.
After all that excitement, the tour guide took me to the museum inside the palace. He showed me different exhibits including the scrolls of Buddhist scriptures, masks used in their traditional dance / plays, etc.. But because I went there after all the major festivals finished, I didn’t have a chance to watch any of the traditional dance. It was ok. There were also models of the characters in the museum. Some looked like a skeleton, some looked like a normal person. But all had dramatic facial expressions. I think all the traditional plays are pretty similar – you can tell which ones are the bad guys and which are the good ones.
We drove past some villages. The Bhutanese people looked as if they were still living in the past. It really felt like travelling back in time.
As we headed to Jakar, we went past a school in the village. The students had just finished school so I asked if the car could stop for me to take photos of the school kids. A few kids even posed for me. Their uniforms were so cute. I really like the Bhutanese clothes.
Education is free in Bhutan but I found on the internet that some families still can’t afford it. Maybe they can’t afford the uniform or stationery or? The website doesn’t provide any further information.
The tour guide asked me what I wanted to see in Bhutan again that night. Probably, he could sense that I was getting bored. I was a bit. I think the fact that I was travelling by myself and as I mentioned in my previous blog, I was isolated from other groups of tourists, I did feel bored. The hotel I stayed at this time received a group of tourists from Deutschland (again) and I think there was another group from America. The dining room was pretty busy. I said to the tour guide again, half-jokingly, that I wanted to see the King. Look, I really had no idea what else I could see. How about traditional performances? I think back then I just wanted to take nice photos.
The next day, we continued our journey in Bumthang. Before we hopped into the car at the lodge, I saw a Bhutanese guy in a serious manner waiting in the car park. The tour guide said he was the Minister of Home and Culture Affairs. He then told me at the end of October (just around two weeks before I visited Bhutan), there was a fire in this town. The fire burned down many houses. Many of the people lost their homes. Maybe he came to handle some affairs.
We visited some temples in the morning.
When we arrived at a local store in the village in Bumthang, the tour guide suddenly turned around, looked at the smoke coming out of a bin in front of a house and said to me, ‘you know what, you might see our King.’ That really surprised me, ‘REALLY?!’ He continued, ‘you see the smoke there?’ I then turned and looked towards the direction he was looking at. ‘Yes.’ I answered. He said, ‘we usually burn things like this before our King arrives.’ My eyes opened widely. I couldn’t believe it. Yes, I had been talking about this for two nights but I really didn’t expect it! ‘I think we should wait here.’ He suggested. Of course. He told me he had never seen the King in person too.
While we were waiting, I went into the store to have a look. They sold local stuff including honey. Unfortunately, I didn’t exchange any Bhutanese Ngultrum (or Indian Rupees which could also be used in Bhutan back then. I am not sure about now) so I couldn’t buy it. The price was very reasonable for a tourist.
After a while, the tour guide ushered me to another spot. He confirmed, ‘the King is really coming.’ He then said, ‘remember I told you about the fire in this town? Our King is coming for a ceremony of the re-building of the town. The monks will also be here to bless the town and the people. You see the tent there? That’s built temporarily for our King.’ Wow! The Royal tent!
Somehow our conversations changed to donations to the villagers and I said, ‘I can make a donation but I only have USD with me. Do you think they’ll accept it?’ The answer was of course yes.
Some other tourists were also lining up to see the King.
That was real.
I wasn’t dreaming.
My tour guide started briefing me about the etiquettes – ‘Do not take photos of the King. Do not talk to the King unless he started a conversation with you.’ Basically, you cannot ask questions but you can answer questions raised by the King. Also, no hand shaking. Use the Bhutanese way to greet the King, that is, put your two hands together in front of your face (like what I did in Tibet and Cambodia).
After the briefing, he asked me to stand in line. I asked him, ‘why don’t you stand next to me?’ He said, ‘no, I will be standing at the back. You go and see our King.’
So, there I was, standing with other tourists waiting for the King to arrive. One of the American tourists (he was an elderly) said to me, ‘you should stand here instead. Then you’ll be first in line and he’ll talk to you first.’ Wow! That was so kind of him. So, on my left stood a group of American tourists. Later I was joined by two Thai girls on my right. So, I lost my first spot but it was ok. I actually had no expectations at all.
Likewise, the King probably didn’t expect to see so many tourists here.
The monks and government officials arrived.
Then a car with the plate that said ‘Bhutan’ arrived.
There he came. The King of Bhutan in the car.
Back then, he was still single so there was no Queen in the car. (yeah, I thought I had a chance but I later learnt he had promised to marry a Bhutanese girl when he was young. It was love at first sight. That love story can be found on the internet.)
He saw us while he was still in his car and greeted us in the Bhutanese way.
His car then steered towards the tent with its back facing us.
He got out of the car.
He was wearing a black and white traditional Bhutanese Gor with a white scarf. He turned around and asked, ‘where are you from?’ All the tourists replied. I don’t think he could hear us clearly. First of all, we were too far away from him, maybe 50 – 100 metres away from him, at least. Secondly, we all spoke almost simultaneously.
After that, he went into his royal tent. The ceremony started. It was a long ceremony but we patiently waited. I think we stood there for nearly an hour (it felt like it anyway). Despite the wait and the crowd, we remained very quiet.
After the ceremony ended, he walked out of the tent, bowed to the government officials, and then even before he talked to his people, he walked towards us, the tourists.
By then, the two Thai girls on my right had already left so I was really the first in line.
He walked briskly towards us. I was very nervous but at the same time very excited. He walked towards me, stopped, stood right in front of me (one foot, not 50 – 100 metres, away from me this time), lowered his head (I am shorter than he is apparently) and asked, ‘where are you from?’ He had an accent. It wasn’t Bhutanese. Maybe English? And he spoke slowly. I was trying to remember his voice too.
He looked a bit perplexed as if he needed some time to digest the name of the city I mentioned.
Just before he spoke again or asked any further question, the American tourists standing next to me said, ‘California’, ‘Connecticut’. Those four Americans were elderly. They looked very kind too. When the King heard ‘Connecticut’, he turned to them and said, ‘oh, I have lived there for a few years’ and then walked towards them. Then a long conversation started. I mean long. Very long. So long that my mind started to wander (I have that Mr. Bean image in my mind now).
What did he say?
Well, here’s part of our conversation. Not word for word though. I am glad that I wrote it down on that very night when my memory was still fresh.
King: Oh, I have lived in Connecticut.
Tourists: Oh, wow
King: Yes, I have lived there (for a while). My siblings are in the US. Some of them went to Stanford University.
Tourists: Oh, Stanford University, good school.
King: Yes. I didn’t want to be close to my siblings so I decided to move to England where I stayed for 5 years.
Ah! That explained his accent.
I wanted to say ‘Yes, me too. My siblings and I were (still are) scattered in different parts of the world. I chose not to stick with them too.’ but I refrained. I remembered the things that the tour guide told me.
Tourists: Oh, England. Oh, 5 years.
King: I hope you enjoy your stay here.
(No, that’s not the end of the conversation.)
Tourists: Yes, we do.
Tourists: We’ve been here for 3 weeks.
Wow! That’s really something.
King: There was a fire in this town at the end of October. We had been planning to shift the town to another place (pointing at a direction) but the fire occurred. We will build temporary buildings here and then shift the town to that place. The people in this town worked very closely together to rebuild their homes. They showed great teamwork. I told them I am very proud of them. (…) I will leave this town soon as I have a conference tomorrow in (…). I am going back to Thimphu for my father’s birthday on 11th November. He’ll be 55 years old.
Wait, you are telling us your itinerary? Well, I guess everyone knew so there should be no security concern.
Tourists: Wow, that’s young.
King: Yes. I became a King when I was 28. Some people become a king after their father dies. I am glad that my father is alive. I can get guidance from him.
The conversation was much longer than this but due to my poor memory even though I tried to document everything afterwards that night, I forgot some. When he was still talking to the Americans, I thought to myself, well, since you don’t allow us to take pictures with you, I will take this opportunity to study your face and remember it. It’s a once in a life time experience. I honestly don’t know if I will have another chance to have such a close encounter with a King or a Queen. There aren’t too many of them in this world anyway.
So I started to study his face – his black eyes, his long, dense, and black eyelashes, his jet black hair with gel on it, his long sideburns, his slightly round nose and his smooth and fair skin. He looked as if he hadn’t shaved for a day or half a day.
Basically, he just looked the same as what you can see in photos you can find on the internet.
King: Is the weather ok for you? Not too cold?
Tourist: No. We are wearing this. (showing his thermal jacket)
King: Yes, thermal keeps you warm and am sure you are fine with the weather. Connecticut is quite cold (…). In the past, the snow in Thimphu used to be 2 feet high but now it’s 1 inch high only.
I think we then started talking about climate change.
Tourists: (…) is that why you developed hydroelectricity (…)?
King: Yes (looked quite impressed)
Tourists: The US needs to do something like it (laughed).
King: (…) welcome and enjoy your trip (…)
The King then shouted to the tourists standing behind me, ‘Where are you from?’
He then walked back to where his government officials were and talked to them for some time.
The whole conversation lasted for around probably 10 minutes (or longer?). I couldn’t believe that. Amazing!
Tourists: (whispering among themselves after the King had gone to talk to his officials) Gracious, very gracious.
Yes, indeed. He was very very friendly too.
We were still standing there in line. The American tourists and I started talking about some other things, like my job, economic crisis, etc.
After the King finished talking with his government officials, he went into his car.
He was leaving.
When his car went past us, he greeted us in the Bhutanese way again and when the government officials left, they waved to us in their cars too.
Bhutanese people are very fortunate to have such a benevolent King.
You can easily find quotes from his speeches on posters and calendars which are hung almost everywhere in Bhutan. From them, you can tell he is a King with a vision and is determined to make Bhutan a good place to live for his people. I google the progress of Bhutan as I write this blog. The country has progressed quite a lot since I last visited. With the help of technology, start-ups were founded. Some of them pitched in some events in Silicon Valley. The country is still maintaining a strong tie with India and is still selling its hydroelectricity to its neighbouring country. It also closed its border very promptly after COVID-19 started its journey to the world. (No traveller can beat COVID-19 in terms of footprints and mileage on Earth so far). Bhutan has less than 1,000 COVID-19 cases and 1 death as of the time I write this. Bhutanese are also receiving vaccines now.
Flashback to 2010 after the King left: as I had promised to donate some money to the local people so my tour guide took me to see the government officials. One government official received me politely. He said he needed ‘to take something first. Why don’t you come into the tent and wait for me there?’ The tent? The royal tent where the King was? Wow!! I was thrilled! I couldn’t believe my ears!
I followed him. I asked my tour guide if I could take a few pictures inside the tent. I was even allowed to!!
The government official came back. ‘We need to give you a receipt so I went to take it. Would you like some tea?’
I was so surprised. I was just planning to donate some money and then leave. I really didn’t expect that. I looked at my tour guide, he said, ‘Yes, please.’
So I accepted.
They even offered me some Bhutanese rice that I needed to eat with my hands.
I felt so guilty cos I only donated a small amount of money to them but they treated me so kindly as if I were a VIP (another time when I felt like a VIP was when I was travelling in Iran. Check it out here.)
After that, we had a chat.
After all that excitement, I continued with my journey and visited the town. I literally couldn’t calm myself, still. It was such an experience!
On my itinerary, it says ‘visit temples in this area: Jambay Lhakhang, Kurjey Lhakhang, Tamshing Lhakhang and Khachudra monastic school.’ I actually don’t remember which one is which now.
That night, as I was having dinner by myself (as usual), I saw a big group of Deutsch tourists. They were having a good time and a Bhutanese guest in his Bhutanese Gor joined them. He was one of the guests in the hotel as well. After I finished my dinner, I asked if I could join them. We started chatting and laughing and I shared my story about the King. They were all very excited. One of the girls said, ‘when I go back home, I can tell my friends that I met a girl who talked to the King of Bhutan!’ LOL!
It turned out the Bhutanese guest was the Secretary of the government. I showed him the receipt with the signature of the government official, he said, ‘oh, I know him. He is the chamberlain of the King. He receives guests on behalf of the King.’
Wow! I was received by the King’s chamberlain!
How fortunate I was!
It was such a memorable experience!
The next time I saw a king was when I was in Cambodia. I only saw him in the car but we were allowed to take photos this time. I didn’t get to talk to him though. You can find the video taken by my buddy here.
P.S. The coronation happened in 2008, two years before I visited.
P.S. The King got married in 2011, the year after I visited. Now he has two sons.
8 – 9 November 2010
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