Royal Wedding Fever Hits Bhutan

PHOTO: Bhutanese workers place a picture showing King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck and future Queen Jetsun Pema at an intersection in the capital of Thimphu, Bhutan on Oct. 11, 2011.
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This small country famous for keeping track of happiness is even happier this week as it prepares for the wedding of its popular King, the world's youngest reigning monarch.

King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, 31, will marry 21-year-old Jetsun Perma October 13 in Bhutan's 17th century Punakha Dzong. The ceremony will be broadcast live in a country were television and the Internet were not introduced until 1999.

This landlocked country between India and China, no larger than Vermont and New Hampshire combined, began opening its doors to the outside world, when King Jigme's father ascended to the throne at just 17 years old.

Before the 1960s, Bhutan had no major roads and no national currency. Following the death of his father in 1972, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck began modernizing his country and introduced it to the concept of Gross National Happiness. Instead of judging the country's wealth on monetary factors, GHN takes into account people's happiness and well-being.

Bhutan's current King was crowned in 2008 after his father stepped aside to allow a transition to democracy. Many Bhutanese were shocked by the former King's decision, begging him not to leave the throne.

The current King Wangchuck has since become just as popular as his father. Known for his Elvis-style hair and love of basketball and mountain biking, Wangchuck was educated at Boston University and Oxford. His 21-year-old fiancee is a commoner and is currently studying at Regents College in London.

Bhutan's only airport, located in Paro, was built until 1978. Even today it only accepts flights from Druk Air, Bhutan's national airline. The airline, which typically operates only a couple of arrivals per day, added 28 flights this month to accommodate outside guests traveling for the royal wedding.

While the ceremony takes place October 13, Bhutan will mark a national holiday until October 15.

In Paro, an eastern Bhutanese man named "Khitu" stopped for a glass of Bhutanese whiskey at one of the town's many bars. The 71-year old nomad says it took him one month to travel to Paro, so that he could join in the public celebrations. On Bhutan's television network, the Bhutan Broadcasting Service, the government is airing announcements, asking people across Bhutan with vehicles to donate their services to help transport others to the ceremonies.

For tourists who have traveled to Bhutan, commemorative plates featuring the royal couple are for sale in Paro for 3,500 ngultrum or $70 U.S. dollars. The souvenirs are too pricey for the average Bhutanese, considering the minimum monthly wage here is 4,000 NU.

Tourism has become a major industry in Bhutan, where outsiders are charged a daily fee of $250 to visit. There are more than 220 registered tour operators in Bhutan, while there are only three dentists for a country with less than 700,000 people.

At a dress shop in Paro, weavers are busy threading material that will make "kiras," the elegant national dress for women. The silk outfits take months to finish and can cost as much as $3,000 U.S. dollars.

On the streets of Thimphu, the world's only capital city without a traffic light, workers are busy erecting large gates and banners for the public celebration.

In Punakha, where the actual ceremonies will take place, every hotel room is booked. Tents have been pitched outside the historic Dzong to accommodate the extra people.

No heads of state or other royal families have been invited, though thousands of members of the public will attend, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Royal couple.

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