Royal Flight

On this US Thanksgiving holiday, here is a reprise of a story I filed after a flight out of Bangkok a few years back, destination, the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon. We traveled in august company.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

•••••

Thimpu, capital of the Kingdom of Bhutan

Royal Flight

“Your Royal Highness, Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome aboard,” the captain says.

Protocol, apparently, seats Her Royal Highness in seat 1A. I am seated in 2A, so here is the story of my flight behind a member of the Royal Bhutanese House of Wangchuk.

We’re on a flight via Druk Air, the Bhutanese national airline, from Bangkok through Bagdogra, India, to Paro, Bhutan’s gateway airport. The check-in clerk asks if we’d prefer row one or two. She checks her screen and says whoops, I’ll need to put you in row two because row one is reserved for the royal family.

The royal family apparently gets to stay in a more exclusive airport lounge than we do, because when we arrive at the plane (via bus, about eight miles out on the tarmac) Her Royal Highness (HRH) and her escort are already seated. Her Royal Hair is jet black, held up in a gauzy clip, and from my seat directly behind her I see that it takes a while for her to get comfortable. She fiddles with the royal blue (what else?) pillow, resting it behind Her Royal Neck then putting it on her armrest and just resting Her Royal Head on the back of the seat. In the process of making this adjustment I see that Her Royal Fingers bear a number of rings.

HRP (Her Royal Perfume) is overbearing, I fear. I can’t be 100% sure it’s hers but she’s in 1A, her escort in 1B is male, then there’s Mirja and me in 2A & B and there’s a little boy behind me in row 3, there’s a guy across the aisle in 1D and nobody in 2D. I’m afraid she’s the prime suspect. HRP is cloying, sweet and heavy.

HRE (Her Royal Escort) may or may not be much younger than me, hard to tell, but I can report that he prefers today’s Bangkok Post and Nation to yesterday’s Kuensel, the Bhutan paper. Maybe he’s already read yesterday’s Keunsel. I can also report that HRE doesn’t have any facial hair, wears a dazzling diamond ring on his right hand and a high thread count blue and white pin-striped short sleeved shirt. He also has a fine silver watch. It appears he has declined breakfast service. He’s gone to sleep, courteously not reclining his seat back into Mirja’s lap.

HRH has chosen tomato juice and will join us in the breakfast service. She has ordered coffee, served with cream. It looks like HRE will skip breakfast, as he continues to nap. The two flight attendants, young women both, keep stealing glances at 1A & B from behind the curtain in the galley and as they roll the carts up and down the aisle.

In Bhutanese culture it is customary to cover the mouth and say meshu meshu, demurring once or twice before accepting when offered food. It appears to be protocol, or at least respectful, to cover ones mouth when addressing HRH, too. The crew does so while serving the food and does a little kowtow.

HRH goes vegetarian this morning so I decide to eat like a queen and have the same: We start with standard plastic-wrapped assorted fruit on a banana leaf, coffee & cream, a wrapped Matterhorn Suisse cheese, bread from a basket with a pat of “Allowrie” butter. The main dish HRH and I enjoy is a fiery hot tofu, fungus, rice and Chinese cabbage. She gets extra chilli sauce from a silver cup, we get it in a tiny plastic pre-dispensed tub. The service concludes with four Imperial brand “Rosy” crackers, panna cotta and two chocolates.

After the food service HRH dives into the duty free magazine, first and not surprisingly stopping in the perfume section, then checking out the sunglasses. HRE continues sleeping as we fly up over Burmese ridges, or Bangladeshi, I don’t know, all of them barren of human development.

This Airbus A 319 must be old. The seat back pockets snap on and off. Not a modern look. One side of the seat back pocket behind HRH and in front of me just hangs there, unsnapped.

Coffee and tea are served in Drukair china and the napkins are linen, with the Drukair logo.

HRH buys a duty free bottle of Lancome perfume and a Bulgari perfume suspected to be Omnia Amethyste EDT from the Burgari Women Collection, and pays in cash in crisp, new Thai Baht. HRE has to wake up for all this reaching across, which is complicated by the crew having to fold their hands over their mouths while bagging up and delivering the goods.

During this period we learn HRH has a deep, raspy, smoker’s voice. In all the commotion HRE makes for the air vent above his head and apparently thinks he might have a go at some duty free himself, opening up the magazine. Finally he declines but now that he’s awake, he elects to have breakfast, making straight for the panna cotta. As time goes on HRE presents as an engaged and expressive fellow in a tight mustache.

Alas, and after all this, I learn that HRH is not a queen, or queen mother (or, in the case of Bhutan, where four sisters were married to the previous king, a queen mother’s sister). I inquire up in the galley.

Is HRH a wife of the fourth king?

No, the cabin crew tell me, she’s an Auntie of the 4th king.

(The reigning, fifth king, is Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. His father, the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated in favor of his son in 2006.)

Auntie has a big black handbag with two gold handles and tons of rings on her fingers. HRE still sleeps as after the breakfast service HRH’s little standard issue airline pillow falls between her armrest and the wall and onto my camera bag. Unsure of the protocol surrounding Royal Pillows, I decide I’d better not shove it back up there, so I keep the royal pillow next to my own.

After a time HRH starts rooting around looking for it so I gingerly offer it up and get a smile, nod and Royal Thank You.

I’ve done all I can here. My day is done.

Friday Photo #15 and a Story from Bhutan

FridayPhotoBhutan

To me, this one somehow has an almost biblical feel. It’s a man selling chickens in a meat shop in the tiny Bhutanese capital of Thimpu. Click to enlarge it (and for comparison, here is the original, non-Photoshopped version). And see 115 more photos from the Himalayan Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon in the Bhutan Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

One of the chapters in my book Common Sense and Whiskey tells of our time in Bhutan. You can read that chapter in full for free, right here.

Have a look at the rest of the Friday Photos. And a good weekend to everybody.

Royal Flight

“Your Royal Highness, Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome aboard,” the captain says.

Protocol, apparently, seats Her Royal Highness in seat 1A. I am seated in 2A, so here is the story of my flight behind a member of the Royal Bhutanese House of Wangchuk.

We’re on a flight via Druk Air, the Bhutanese national airline, from Bangkok through Bagdogra, India, to Paro, Bhutan’s gateway airport. The check-in clerk asks if we’d prefer row one or two. She checks her screen and says whoops, I’ll need to put you in row two because row one is reserved for the royal family.

The royal family apparently gets to stay in a more exclusive airport lounge than we do, because when we arrive at the plane (via bus, about eight miles out on the tarmac) Her Royal Highness (HRH) and her escort are already seated. Her Royal Hair is jet black, held up in a gauzy clip, and from my seat directly behind her I see that it takes a while for her to get comfortable. She fiddles with the royal blue (what else?) pillow, resting it behind Her Royal Neck then putting it on her armrest and just resting Her Royal Head on the back of the seat. In the process of making this adjustment I see that Her Royal Fingers bear a number of rings.

HRP (Her Royal Perfume) is overbearing, I fear. I can’t be 100% sure it’s hers but she’s in 1A, her escort in 1B is male, then there’s Mirja and me in 2A & B and there’s a little boy behind me in row 3,  there’s a guy across the aisle in 1D and nobody in 2D. I’m afraid she’s the prime suspect. HRP is cloying, sweet and heavy.

HRE (Her Royal Escort) may or may not be much younger than me, hard to tell, but I can report that he prefers today’s Bangkok Post and Nation to yesterday’s Kuensel, the Bhutan paper. Maybe he’s already read yesterday’s Keunsel. I can also report that HRE doesn’t have any facial hair, wears a dazzling diamond ring on his right hand and a high thread count blue and white pin-striped short sleeved shirt. He also has a fine silver watch. It appears he has declined breakfast service. He’s gone to sleep, courteously not reclining his seat back into Mirja’s lap.

HRH has chosen tomato juice and will join us in the breakfast service. She has ordered coffee, served with cream. It looks like HRE will skip breakfast, as he continues to nap. The two flight attendants, young women both, keep stealing glances at 1A & B from behind the curtain in the galley and as they roll the carts up and down the aisle. Continue reading

Dalliance with Royalty

TheRoyslHairClasp

“Your Royal Highness, Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome aboard,” captain Sen Gupta said. Clearly, this was to be a special flight.

Protocol, it appears, places Her Royal Highness in seat 1A.

Fate and a business class fare put me in seat 2A and so I shall share the story of my flight behind a member of the Royal Bhutanese House of Wangchuk. But not before we fly home from Saigon, a transit through Toyko that begins in a few hours.

For now, may I present you with the Royal Hair Clasp, as seen from 2A.

Arrival in Bhutan

 When time came to drop through the clouds into Bhutan, the pilot announced, “We will maneuver the aircraft in the valley. This is a little different from large commercial aircraft. It is standard procedure. You will see the houses and trees a little closer than you are used to. The scenery is beautiful. Please enjoy the ride.”

He just picked a hole in the clouds and dove through. He did a 180 into the Paro valley. The automatic sensors called out, “too low,” and for the record he kept repeating, “acknowledge, override,” into the cockpit recorder.

This was George, bluff, barrel-chested, a real dude with a wide gray mustache, and one of just fourteen people ever to fly for Royal Bhutan Airlines, aka Druk Air.

– From the Bhutan Chapter of Common Sense and Whiskey, the book (Amazon) (Kindle) (BN).

Here, see it for yourself. Here's video of an actual landing at Paro airport, Bhutan. Kind of exciting:

Jigme Gets Hitched

Punakhabhutan

Congratulations to the Bhutanese people. Looks like they're having a huge party around today's royal wedding.

Have you noticed? Most of the time the tone of news articles about Bhutan is a little bemused, treating the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon as kind of quaint and not quite of this world. Writers always try to mention that "gross national happiness" thing, which started "as a casual, offhand remark" by the previous King. I admit to having treated Bhutan the same way in my book, quoting a man named Phruba about a  

"Ceremony day after (He meant tomorrow) for weather making. It is big this year because this year we have two Junes." He paused. "Sometimes we have no August."

Excuse me?

He knew he had us and he warmed to the subject. "Oh yes. Today is the ninth. Maybe sometimes we have two ninths and maybe no eleventh. This is decided by the monks and they always agree."

It’s published in Kuensel (the newspaper) every Saturday, so you have to check.

"This is why you cannot know when are the festivals."

•••••

BootsThat quote comes from the Bhutan chapter of Common Sense and Whiskey, the book. You can read the entire chapter online.

The photo at the top is from Punakha, the site of the royal wedding. It's at the confluence of the Mo and Pho rivers. See over a hundred photos in the Bhutan Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

And if you ever hear anything, please let me know where I can pick up a pair of these Royal boots.