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Royal wedding fever grips mysterious nation

Ian Williams / NBC News

A group of school children practice a dance they will perform to celebrate Bhutan's royal wedding on Thursday.

 By Ian Williams, NBC News Correspondent

THIMPU, Bhutan – From a distance, across the Thim River, they resembled a field of bobbing sunflowers.

We approached by way of an old carved wooden bridge, festooned with sacred Buddhist flags, to find the flowers were a field of yellow and orange umbrellas, unfurled and spun by dozens of dancing schoolchildren, practicing beside the river for Thursday’s royal wedding celebrations.

All along the valley road into downtown Thimpu, preparations are in full swing.

Flags are being hoisted together with portraits of the royal couple. In the main parade ground, hundreds of performers – many of them schoolchildren – have been going through their paces. Young children danced as they gracefully wielded huge bunches of flowers. A group of former government officials were practicing a song prayer for long life and happiness, as the country's home minister shouted encouragement from the sidelines.

A group of monks twisted and scowled as they banged drums and performed the dance of the black hats, used to ward off evil.
"It's all a bit last minute, but we'll get there," one official said. "Everybody's very excited."

Bhutan is in the grip of wedding fever. Everybody is in national dress. And there seems to be only one thing on their minds.

“I think they are the most perfect couple in the world,” said one young student of the royal couple.

Three young schoolgirls giggled about their future queen. “She’s so beautiful, kind and simple,” one of them said. While another schoolboy had a rather less subtle response: “She’s hot!” he told me.

‘A peoples’ king’
Bhutan’s 31-year-old king, the Oxford-educated Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk is marrying 21-year-old student Jetsum Pema, a commoner, educated in India and London, where she studied international relations.

Ian Williams / NBC News

A group of school children practice an umbrella dance on Wednesday that they will perform as part of Bhutan's royal wedding celebrations.

The organizers have tried to discourage any comparison with the extravagant British royal wedding, insisting the king wants a simple and traditional event. No foreign royals or heads of state or other celebrities have been invited.

“He has de-emphasized the whole event to make it low key,” said Dasho Karma Ura, who runs the Center for Bhutan Studies here. But in Bhutan, where the king is revered, that’s easier said than done.

“You can’t also block the mood of the people to celebrate you know,” Karma Ura conceded.

“Dasho” is the Bhutanese equivalent of a knighthood, and Karma Ura is close to the royal family. He helped develop an index to measure Gross National Happiness, which is Bhutan’s way of trying to achieve a balance between the spiritual and the material. It is used to measure development and takes account of some 250 variables from material well-being to culture and the environment.

“He is truly a peoples’ king,” Karma Ura told me, pointing out that he lives in a four-room cottage beside Thimpu's dzong, the monastic fortress that is the seat of government (and the office of the king).

One of his hallmarks, apart from the Gross National Happiness index, has been epic journeys by foot – and sometimes mountain bicycle – across Bhutan, trying to meet in person as many of the country's 700,000 people as he can.

The wedding ceremony is taking place at a stunning monastery in the former capital, Punakha, about three hours from Thimpu, the current capital.

The king has said he wants it to be a wedding for the people, and rather than retiring with grandees behind closed doors, he’ll be winding his way back to Thimpu trying to meet as many as he can.

Challenge: Preserve culture, but let in change
King Jigme Khesar was crowned in 2008, when his father (the fourth king) abdicated, which also marked the start of democracy in the country, with a new elected parliament. Until them it had been an absolute monarchy, albeit a benign one.

Many Bhutanese at the time were alarmed at the prospect.

The tiny Himalayan nation, sandwiched between the giants of India and China, remains one of the most isolated and insular places on the planet. It had no roads or currency until the 1960s, and television was only introduced 12 years ago.

Ian Williams / NBC News

Hanging a portrait of the royal couple at a school in Thimpu, Bhutan on Wednesday.

It still restricts mass tourism, limiting access to small groups, who must pay hefty fees. That said change is all around in Thimpu, where a building frenzy is under way, and some officials fret about the rising rates of unemployment among the young – some 60 percent of Bhutanese are under 25.

That is the challenge facing the new king and his young wife, trying to preserve Bhutan’s rich culture and environment, but also satisfy the growing material demands of a young and growing population.

For now though, he's got a wedding on his mind.

Thursday’s ceremony will be followed by three days of colorful celebrations across Bhutan. And from the evidence this week, as they prepare for the big day, it has already given a boost to that Gross National Happiness index.

Tune in to the Today Show Thursday morning for coverage of the royal nuptials.

Related link:
Powerwall: The world's most expensive royal weddings

BBC: Bhutan in pictures