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With a wedding, television in Bhutan comes of age

Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

His majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, 31 and Queen Jetsun Pema, 21, greet well wishers as they walk out after their marriage ceremony is completed on October 13, 2011 in Punakha, Bhutan.

By Ian Williams, NBC News Correspondent

THIMPU, Bhutan – Dasho Kinley was brutally honest.
 
“We’ve not really done this before,” said Bhutan’s secretary of the ministry of information and communications about the media arrangements for the royal wedding. “In fact, this is the biggest international media event we’ve ever had in Bhutan – ever.”

At the same time, Bhutan’s state broadcaster also was mounting its largest operation ever to bring the wedding to the country.

There are 160 international media people here. You’d get that in a routine press conference in cities across Asia. But that and the elaborate wedding coverage, is pretty impressive when you consider television wasn’t introduced here until 1999.

By the end of Thursday, I was pretty impressed with the patience and fortitude of our hosts.


The world comes to Bhutan
Our journalistic day started at 2:30 a.m. Thursday. That’s when we set out from our hillside hotel to the media center in downtown Thimpu to join a fleet of 11 mini-buses for the bumpy, windy drive under a full moon through the mountains to Punakha, the old capital.

Punakha sits in a steep valley, with the Dzong, the stunning monastic fortress, at one end beside a river. It is the most sacred site in the country, which is why it was chosen as the venue for the wedding.

Journalists had come from around the world. The biggest single group, and the most pushy, was from India, Bhutan’s giant neighbor (China is the other side of the sandwich to the north).

"Can we talk to the king?" asked one, which brought a wry smile to the face of Dasha Kinley, who replied that the king was a man of the people – but not us people.

“He might, but it is entirely up to him.”

He didn’t. But then kings rarely do.

Thailand was well represented, too, and far more restrained. Yet it was the Thai press that coined the name Prince Charming for Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk after a visit to Thailand in 2006, where he gained a legion of young female fans.

One young woman reportedly fainted in his presence back then and ever since he’s been known in the Thai media as a man who has women swooning at his feet.

It’s not a characterization Bhutan is particularly grateful for.

Ian Williams / NBC News

The royal wedding venue: the dzong at Punakha.

One young official at the media center told me they’d been worried about opening up to so many foreign journalists. Officials winced when a TV journalist from India mistakenly reported that the new queen is Indian.

Another journalist from an international agency asked impatiently what the big moment was.

“When are the nuptials exactly?” You know, the moment when they tie the knot.

Kinley took another deep breadth and said ancient Buddhist marriage ceremonies didn’t quite work that way.

Not on TV time
Many devotees of Bhutan’s principle of gross national happiness shake their heads at the explosion of satellite television in Bhutan – dozens of channels now available, largely from India. It’s just one giant assault on Bhutan's culture, as they see it.

And they raised another issue: Would the growth of the television business in Bhutan itself affect the way the king relates to the people?

King Jigme Kesar has cultivated an image as a man of the people, a king with the common touch, and to that end he undertakes epic journeys by foot (and sometimes mountain bike) to meet personally as many of his 700,000 people as possible.

It’s not unusual to hear of him inviting ordinary people round to his small palace for tea.

Friday the royal couple will wind their way back to Thimpu stopping to greet well-wishers along the way.

Ian Williams / NBC News

Well-wishers gather outside the dzong to catch a glimpse of Bhutan's royal wedding Thursday.

I asked the official what time he would reach Thimpu.

“Well,” he said, “It really depends on how long he lingers along the way.”

I found that rather endearing. Why should he be concerned with TV deadlines when he has the chance to meet real people face to face?

There are a lot of other challenges to Bhutan’s efforts to keep out what they see as some of the worst effects of modernization, but being in the television business makes this particularly intriguing to me.

One of the biggest challenges for the king and his new wife will be deciding how closely to embrace the 21st century, while maintaining Bhutan’s culture and traditions. I do hope he keeps up the house calls.

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