Jubilant crowds greet Bhutan's newly married king

The royal couple set off on foot from Punakha and had covered only a few kilometres by midday.

THIMPHU — Bhutan's newly-married king and his 21-year-old bride greeted huge crowds of well-wishers on Friday as they made their way on foot back to the capital along windy Himalayan roads.

The hugely popular 31-year-old king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, married and crowned Jetsun Pema, the commoner daughter of an airline pilot, on Thursday in a colourful Buddhist ceremony in the ancient capital of Punakha.

The staunchly royalist people of this remote Himalayan nation, which has resisted outside influences for centuries, are enjoying a three-day public holiday to mark the occasion.

The royal couple set off on foot from Punakha -- a two-and-half-hour drive from the capital along roads with stunning views over untouched mountains -- and had covered only a few kilometres (miles) by midday.

"There are people lined up along almost the entire stretch," royal spokesman Dorji Wangchuck told AFP by phone from the scene.

The king's habit of diving into crowds, greeting people and picking up babies is known to exasperate his security detail, but is a core part of his appeal to his 700,000 adoring subjects.

When he was crowned in 2008 in Punakha, he did much of the return journey to the capital Thimphu on foot.

This time the couple planned to cover parts of the route that go through less populated areas by car.
The main streets of Thimphu have been decorated with flashing lights and the official poster of the royal couple and the national flag adorn lampposts, building facades and roundabouts.

Lines of schoolchildren with the national orange-and-yellow flag had already started forming at midday, hours before the royal couple were due to arrive.

Amid clouds of incense and chanting monks, Pema was crowned queen at the end of a series of elaborate rituals in the 17th-century fortified monastery in Punakha that served as the headquarters of the country's ancient capital.

The "Dragon King", an Oxford graduate who came to power in 2008 at the start of democracy in Bhutan, said afterwards that he had waited to get married but was sure he had found "the right person".
"She is a wonderful human being," he told a small group of foreign reporters.

Bhutan banned foreign television until 1999 and is the only nation in the world whose government pursues "Gross National Happiness" for its people instead of economic growth.

Dasho Karma Ura from the Centre for Bhutan Studies, a think-tank, said the queen would bring a "new dimension of feminine leadership" to the country. The previous king had four wives, all sisters, who shunned the limelight.

"The Bhutanese youth are starting to look up to her, to dress up like her and trying to be an attractive personality like her," he told AFP in an interview.

Bhutan, which has never been colonised, remained in self-imposed isolation for centuries and is still wary of outside influence and the impact of globalisation.

The country had no roads or currency until the 1960s and continues to resist mass tourism to this day.

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