Inside the magical mountain kingdom of Bhutan

By Miriam Foley

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are "thrilled" to be visiting Bhutan, the "magical" mountain kingdom that puts Gross National Happiness above Gross National Product and finds itself nestled away from the rest of the world between India and China.

Few are immune to the country's enchantment, and for William and Kate, their visit has an added draw – the chance to get to know Bhutan's charismatic young King and Queen. The two royal couples will have plenty to talk about when they meet, first for a traditional Bhutanese welcome ceremony at the stunning Thimphu Dzong monastery; then privately for dinner at their hosts' Lingkana Palace.

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Prince William alongside wife Kate Middleton
Prince William and Kate will tour Bhutan from the 14 April

Dubbed "the William and Kate of the Himalayas", King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and his beautiful bride wed in a fairytale three-day ceremony in the ancient capital of Punakha just six months after William and Kate's own wedding in 2011, which Jigme had attended as a guest.

Since he was crowned in 2008, two years after his father's abdication, the King and his wife, Jetsun, have firmly established themselves as the people's King and Queen. The young Bhutanese royals are seen as the modern face of the kingdom, which had no paved roads until the 1960s, banned foreign tourism until 1974 and only introduced TV in 1999.

King Jigme and wife Jetsun
The King and his wife, Jetsun, will welcome the royal couple

In a nation where polygamy is practised, and his father, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, himself has four wives, who are all sisters, the King’s choice of a monogamous marriage was a significant move.

THE WILLIAM AND KATE OF THE HIMALAYAS

Like William and Kate, Jigme and his Jetsun are a picture of royal romance. The monarch, a 36-year-old Oxford graduate with film star looks known as the Dragon King, openly adores his 25-year-old wife, often taking her hand in public, in a country where traditionally, public displays of affection were rare. The royal lovebirds have now sparked a trend for couples to hold hands.

When the King and Queen became parents last February, they reinforced their modern credentials further by releasing the first official photo of their baby on their social media pages.

Jigme and Jetsun with their baby
The royal couple have recently welcomed their first son

William and Kate were among the first to congratulate the couple on the birth of their little Gyalsey (Prince), as they awaited the birth of their own second child, Princess Charlotte.

While the royal couples are sure to compare notes on parenthood, they have other interests in common, too. Keen conservationist William will be intrigued by Bhutan's pristine forests and snow-capped peaks –home to some of the world’s most endangered species, including the Bengal tiger, snow leopard and pangolin – and impressed by the tiny nation’s role as a key player in the conservation world.

When the baby Prince was born, his future subjects gathered to plant exactly 108,000 trees in his honour. In Bhutan's religion, Buddhism, a tree is the provider of all life, while 108 is a holy number, which represents enlightenment and purity.

MOUNTAINS AND MONASTERIES

Kate and William will get a striking glimpse of the country's spiritual heritage on their trip to the iconic Tiger's Nest monastery, as part of their scheduled six-hour mountain trek.

Tiger's Nest monastery
The iconic Tiger's Nest monastery

Clinging to granite clifftops 3,120m above sea level, and overlooking an emerald green valley, the temple complex of Paro Taktsang, which dates back to 1692, is near the cave where Guru Padmasambhava – who is credited with introducing Buddhism to Bhutan – is said to have meditated for three years, three months, three weeks and three days back in the 8th Century.

Sports-loving Kate and William are looking forward to the trek to the monastery as a highlight of their visit. A Kensington Palace spokesman explains: "It will allow them to get a real sense of the natural and spiritual beauty of the country."

Bhutan valley
A terraced farmland in a valley Bhutan

It is certainly the ideal place to understand Bhutan's much-quoted concept, Gross National Happiness, which balances economic growth with environmental conservation and the wellbeing of its people. This fundamental belief – coined by the fourth King Singye, the current king's father, in 1972, when he was just 16 – is key when it comes to tourism.

Damcho Rinzin, head of marketing of the Tourism Council of Bhutan, tells HELLO!: "Bhutan's tourism industry is strictly committed to its principle of sustainable tourism development and its policy of 'high value-low impact' tourism."

Bhutan children boy and girl
Children wearing gho and kira, national Bhutan dress for men and women

Damcho says that, while visitors are welcome, the country "focuses on reducing the negative impact on its pristine natural environment and its unique culture and traditions." That means, for example, that an all-inclusive daily package fee of US$200 per day is required to visit the country. It also means that Kate and William are about to join what is rather a small group of lucky people who've experienced the magic of Bhutan.

Among those people are their fellow royals King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima of The Netherlands, who visited back in 2007. The stylish Maxima thrilled royal-watchers by donning beautiful traditional Bhutanese dress, leaving us wondering if Kate may follow suit. The brightly coloured and gorgeously embroidered garments have evolved over thousands of years, to become yet another feature that sets Bhutan apart from the rest of the world. Men wear the gho, a knee-length robe resembling a kimono that is tied at the waist by a traditional belt known as a kera. Women, meanwhile, wear a kira, an ankle-length dress accompanied by a light outer jacket known as a tego, with an inner layer known as a wonju.

King Jigme with King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima
King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima visited Bhutan in 2007

Whether Kate – and even William – will dress in these remains to be seen. What they are sure to try is Bhutan's cuisine. The Bhutanese are big fans of spice, with chilli a firm favourite. The royal couple will certainly try ema datshi, the national dish, which is a spicy mix of chilli and the local cheese, momos – Tibetan-style steamed dumplings traditionally eaten during celebrations – and red rice, which, when cooked, is pale pink. A dish, in fact, as distinctive as everything else in this intriguing country, which once experienced, can't be forgotten.

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