- Gregson has met three generations of Bhutanese kings and queens
- Flying into Paro is spectacular- you pass the world’s tallest mountains
- Kate and William could meet the Bhutanese royals at Tashicchodzong
It’s a kingdom whose own young royals are dubbed the Wills and Kate of the Orient – so what can the real Duke and Duchess of Cambridge expect when they visit magical Bhutan later this month?
I’ve been fortunate enough to have met three generations of Bhutanese kings and queens, travelled the breadth of this Himalayan wonderland as a guest of the royals, gone hiking with regional governors and taken tea with incarnate lamas. All because I was at school with the previous king.
I met his son, the 35-year-old King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and his glamorous wife Jetsun Pema, shortly after their marriage.
Just flying into Paro, Bhutan’s only international airport, is spectacular. You pass the world’s tallest mountains, Everest and Kanchenjunga. Pictured is Tiger’s Nest monastery, so called because the Buddhist saint Padmasambhava is said to have flown on a tigress’s back to reach so inaccessible a spot
Himalayan Dynasty: The King and Queen with baby son are dubbed the Wills and Kate of the Orient
Like Kate, the queen has become a style icon, her outfits combining modern design with radiantly coloured Bhutanese silks and embroidery.
And there has just been an addition to the family. Their first child, the son and heir, was born on February 5 amid nationwide rejoicing. The celebrations underlined Bhutan’s reputation as probably the most royal- friendly country in the world – for most Bhutanese, monarchy is deeply woven into their sense of national identity and wellbeing.
Just flying into Paro, Bhutan’s only international airport, is spectacular. You pass the world’s tallest mountains, Everest and Kanchenjunga. Then the plane drops fast into the narrow Paro valley, where the pilot loops around a mountainside for the final approach.
As you step off the aircraft, one of the first sights is Buddhist prayer flags fluttering in the breeze beyond the airport perimeter. Then the visitor notices, towering above the valley, Paro Dzong – part fortress and royal residence, part monastery – and beyond this pine-covered slopes and cliffs dotted with smaller monasteries and hermitages.
The most sacred of these is the Tiger’s Nest, so called because the Buddhist saint Padmasambhava is said to have flown on a tigress’s back to reach so inaccessible a spot. Prince Charles has been to the Tiger’s Nest and William and Kate are scheduled to visit too.
The Royal couple will probably be whisked off from the airport to the capital, Thimphu. More than an hour’s drive to the east of Paro, it has grown hugely since I first visited it 30 years ago. But even new buildings follow traditional style, with brightly painted, intricately carved windows.
Most people will turn out to greet the Duke and Duchess in Bhutanese national dress. For men, this is the gho, a wrap-around gown of striped cotton or woollen check, while women wear a long, apron-like dress of striped, embroidered material, called a kira, over a cotton or silk blouse. The crowd will be a sea of colour.
A Cham dancer (left) and old friends Jonathan Gregson and the Elder King (right)
Kate and William could meet the Bhutanese royals informally at Lingkana Palace, though formal audiences normally take place at Tashicchodzong, a fortress – or dzong – that is both monastery and traditional seat of government. The royal audience chamber is reached by a wooden stairway resembling a ladder. I once climbed it for my own audience. At almost 8,000ft the air is thin, so I felt quite breathless even before being ushered into the royal presence. My old school friend, now the Elder King, greeted me with a bear hug.
William and Kate are likely to be treated to Cham dances, usually performed in the dzong’s central courtyard. The first European visitors called them ‘devil dances’, but to the Bhutanese the monk-dancers represent benevolent guardians whose ferocious appearance scares away evil spirits.
Hopefully there will be time for the Duke and Duchess to visit Punakha, formerly the winter capital. Its magnificent dzong is where coronations and royal marriages are held.
Further east lie Trongsa, whose commanding fortress formed the power-base of the Wangchuck dynasty; Bumthang with its lovely orchards and houses covered in phallic symbols; and Tashigang with its 600-year-old chain suspension bridge.
Bhutan is a small country, but the terrain is so mountainous that it took me four days to drive from west to east. There’s just one lateral road, which climbs through fields and forest up to high passes offering views of the entire eastern Himalayas before winding down again.
Along the way I talked with farmers, teachers and lamas. I discovered that this is a country where Western-educated technocrats have no problem in accepting the miraculous, where astrology still determines ‘auspicious days’ for anything from the date of a royal wedding to when is best to travel, and where traditional healing complements modern medicine.
Bhutan is a magical kingdom. And something of that is sure to rub off on its visitors, even Royal ones.
Mountain Kingdoms (mountainkingdoms.com) offers a range of holidays to Bhutan with prices starting at £2,770 per person for a 12-day tour including return flights, transfers, meals, sightseeing and Bhutanese visa.
Courtesy: Daily Mail Online