My caution and hesitation now seem premature and unfounded. When first asked to use Namseyling Palace, once home to the late mother of the 92-years-old Royal Grandmother of Bhutan, I had reservations and doubts, feeling underserving. “I hope you will like Namseyling,” Her Majesty told me several times. At first, I wondered if I had heard Her Majesty’s message correctly. After all, she always speaks with such a soft and tender voice. It is like whispering into one’s ears.
But this offer had been repeated multiple times whenever I had the occasion to meet Her Majesty at her palace. In between visits, Ashi Kesang, Her Majesty’s granddaughter, showed me Namseyling Palace twice when I visited Bhutan. It was like a small museum with many historic photos and artifacts, being home of Her Majesty’s late mother Rani Chuni Wangmo Dorji. Yet no one had lived there since the 1970s, or perhaps only briefly in the 1980s. Otherwise, only deities reside at Namseyling Palace. Ashi Kesang mentioned time and again that the invitation was genuine and real, not a casual impromptu offer.
I began to think seriously about how to take up such a royal invitation in a deserving way. My mother has always taught me, “if you cannot give back, do not take”. This had become a quiet motto I tried to live by. I interpreted that “giving back” as meaning not necessarily to the exact person I took from, but extended more generally to giving back to “others”. With that context, I had found an equitable balance between taking and giving, using CERS as a conduit.
I left Hong Kong August 29. After an overnight layover in Bangkok, I boarded a 7 am DrukAir flight onward to Bhutan. The figure 8 visual circuit pattern snaking through green mountains on the descent approach to Paro Airport was no longer a hair-raising surprise, but a much looked-forward-to joyride, as I admired the smooth and precision maneuver by captain of the airplane. Going through immigration was smooth and fast, though preceded by the much longer Covid swab test and form filling.
The capital Thimphu was about an hour’s drive away. A Palace car was assigned for my use during my two-week stay in the kingdom. Ugyen, my long-time friend, was on hand to escort me to the Zhiwa Ling, a boutique hotel hidden among pine forest over a hill above Thimphu.
The hotel had been closed since the pandemic began, and was reopened with me being the first guest in over two and a half years. However, the 5th and current King had occasionally used it as his self-quarantine abode, after touring different parts of his kingdom to encourage and inspire his subjects through most difficult and trying times. It was said that last year he was only able to spend 43 days at home.
The second day after my arrival, I was informed that the Royal Grandmother was inviting me to her palace for lunch on September 1. I had anticipated meeting Her Majesty, as I had come to Bhutan as her guest, with my visa issued as a Palace Guest. As such, I was also able to bypass the usual charge-per-day levied for visiting tourists while the country would not be reopen to tourists after my departure.
Her Majesty’s Palace was only five minutes from my hotel. We met inside her main sitting room and I saw that she was wearing a very colorful yak scarf I have given her in the past. It was imprinted with a photograph I had taken of some prayer flags at a high mountain pass in Tibet. When I mentioned to her about the scarf, she said it was most beautiful and that she values it a lot. Her Majesty seemed to have lost some weight in the three years since we had last met.
Similar to historic tributes by emissaries to the emperor of China during dynastic times, the few gifts I brought for Her Majesty were received with return of many more gifts from my royal and gracious friend. The gifts that Her Majesty presented to me were nicely wrapped with ribbon, and included huge volumes of books on the history of the kingdom, in particular books internally produced regarding her family. There were also bottled of home-made jams of different flavor, a thick woven blanket, an 18-year Bhutan whisky, a case of mooncakes and a mala (a Buddhist rosary with 108 beads) in golden amber color.
We had an intimate chat over tea about the time since we had last seen each other. It has been three years, due to the pandemic. Her Majesty is an avid reader, and had recommended my books and newsletters to the 4th King, whom she said also enjoyed reading about my adventures. “It is amazing there is still an explorer like you in this day and age, Dr. Wong,” Her Majesty often addressed me with this honorific while repeating this comment, which I had heard each time we met, and now once again. Apparently, she has a special interest in exploration, even at a very senior age of 92.
She often talked about explorers of old, many of whom had passed through her previous home in Kalimpong on the way in or out of Tibet. Such affinity for explorers was bestowed on me as well, though I am surprised the due respect a Royalty would give to an eclipsing and archaic “profession”.
The buffet lunch was sumptuous, with a variety of appetizers and multiple main dishes, followed by desserts. Sitting next to Her Majesty, we continued our chat as she explained to me some of the dishes I had chosen. “This rice is special, grown in Bhutan, you must try” she articulated. I admired her graceful table setting, with the placemat set imprinted with a pagoda and flowers designed by Her Majesty.
At one point, our conversation turned to the Black-necked Crane, a stately bird living on the Tibetan Plateau, with some flocks wintering in Bhutan. It was through a poem by the 6th Dalai Lama mentioning this crane that the 7th reincarnation of the Dalai Lama was found. I tried to play smart and used the Tibetan name for the bird, “Chong Chong”. Her Majesty corrected me right away. “It is Thrung Thrung, pronounced with a T,” she said.
In passing, Her Majesty said, “it is unfortunate today that so many people are concerned only about making money.” I quickly mentioned that it was not always the case, as there were certainly exceptions like the core supporters of CERS, many of whom were also successful businessmen, funding both our exploration and conservation efforts, including some in Bhutan.
As we walked back to the main sitting room after lunch, Her Majesty explained some of her relics and antiques on the wall or set in special places. It was traditional protocol that no photography be allowed inside the palace, but Her Majesty kept telling me to take pictures of those items she introduced to me, including thangkas of deities, and a set of carved statues of eleven sages presented to her family long ago by the 13th Dalai Lama. She also asked me to translate scroll paintings with Chinese script on them. One piece very special to her is a Tashi Gomang, a pagoda with many door openings hiding different deities. It is a gift presented to her by her son the 4th King, for her 90th birthday.
At the sitting room, we sat next to each other under the portrait of Her Majesty’s root guru, the Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, and two other portraits of HM’s mother and grandmother. As our conversation continued, she found out that I did not have a booklet she had reprinted from a 1950s publication in China regarding the pilgrim monk Fa-Hsien of the 4th Century. She started recounting the story of the monk’s journey to Sri Lanka seeking original sutras and included even minute details of some horrific encounters Fa-Hsien had when returning to China by the sea route. Quickly, she asked her attendant to bring over a copy as a gift to me.
While seated, Her Majesty held my hand with an old mala in her other hand. “This will be for you to keep,” she said while passing the mala to me. She had saved it for me, having used it often for her morning and evening prayers. I had bought this mala from a monk at a sacred mountain in the Tibetan region and had offered it to Her Majesty previously. Now she was returning it to me, after using it for a while. I would leave it in the shrine room of Namseyling Palace.
Leaving Her Majesty’s Palace, I head straight for Namseyling, with a small entourage of Palace Bodyguards as my concierge. An army truck is dispatched bringing many supplies and even firewood to the small palace, as I will be staying there for the rest of my time in Thimphu. I have loads of luggage, as after Bhutan I will head for Myanmar and then Sabah in Malaysia. They have to be moved up very steep traditional ladder-like stairs to the upper main floor.
Upon entering the main floor, I am surprised that my bed is set up in the most sacred room of the palace, inside the shrine room, with a Buddha statue in the middle and an altar with a lit butter lamp and seven offering cups. I can only think in a most humble way that I am supposed to make my daily prayers in taking up such a special place.
The antechamber room has three day-bed seats covered with leopard pelts, with traditional windows looking out to the distant hills and the garden below. Here is where I make my work station during my stay. This small room has many thangka paintings on the wall, and is filled with carpets and three takin rugs on the floor, reminding me of the “Sheep with the Golden Fleece”. Takin being Bhutan’s national animal.
On the counters and end tables are framed photographs of the Royal Family. Among them, one is of the young 4th King warmly wrapping his arm around Rani Chuni Wangmo Dorji, his grandmother and the mother of the Royal Grandmother. There is also an old photo of a somewhat dilapidated Namseyling, taken before it was restored to become the home of Rani Chuni Wangmo Dorji. Perhaps the most valuable frame is one hung on the wall, a sketching of a Goddess deity, drawn by the Royal Grandmother in 1946 when she was a princess of 16, before marrying to the Third King in 1951. 1946 was also when the young Princess Kesang Dorji, as the signature depicts, joined her mother Rani and sister Ashi Tashi on a 17-day horseback journey to Lhasa.
The full name of the palace is Namseyling Phuntshok Gaki Choling Palace, a name given by the Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. It means Dharma Palace of Wish Fulfilling Auspicious Happiness, and Rani Chuni Wangmo Dorji lived here until her old age. The place was decorated by her and remains the same to this day. There are many huge ox horns with engraved ornaments, ancient metal shields, old weapons including swords, a twin-barrel rifle, twin-legged gun rest, ammunition bag made from spotted leopard, even a flint lock gun. Rani must like rattan and bamboo crafts, as there are many such items. Of the many quaint hats hanging, my eyes are caught by a bamboo fisherman’s hat common in Hong Kong, something that I still use occasionally.
Outside the house, a huge garden is filled with apple orchards and even a few persimmon and peach trees. Rani Chuni Wangmo Dorji planted many fruit trees and flowers in the garden herself. Prior to her time, Bhutan does not grow apple, so she & her husband Gongzim Sonam Tobgye Dorji brought them from overseas and introduced the fruit to the kingdom. Now apple can be found everywhere in the market, and they are just now ripe in the garden.
Soon after I settle in, Her Majesty sends over dinner cooked at her Royal Palace. From now on, my breakfast and dinner will be prepared by the Palace. With these specially prepared dishes are more gifts, this time in the form of two bottles of Vitamins, two bottles of eyedrops for my eyes, and several sheets of tablets. With each, Her Majesty had written by hand the dosage that I should follow and take. Such attention to details provides me with a warm feeling beyond description, something that money cannot buy.
In the evening, the Palace Guards in attention start a big log fire in the side of the palace. They were heating special stones to red hot, then putting them in a special partition inside a wooden tub filled with mountain spring water piped from the garden. I bathe myself in this most wonderful Bhutan Hot Stone Bath that I had only read of and dreamed about before. I recall earlier seeing two soldiers carrying the tub across the garden and thinking it looked like a coffin. Now that coffin is providing a most exquisite experience for my entire body.
Soaking my body and mind, I begin to revisit something I had read a long time ago. It is Mark Twain’s famous fiction, “The Prince and the Pauper.” With such a showering of gifts and invitations to stay at this Namseyling Palace, should I consider myself an honored guest or a squatter? That question can never be answered. As with my mother’s teaching, “no taking if no giving.” I would need to make a long list to deserve and fulfill what I have now taken.
Momentarily, I recalled an episode which has eclipsed my mind for fifty years. Since high school, I have engaged myself in drama, be they Cantonese opera, Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, and Chinese plays. While at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls in the early 1970s, I once acted as a beggar in the Threepenny Opera. Later on, I acted in a children’s play with the Drama Department. Land of the Dragon was written by Madge Miller, sister of Agatha Christie, regarding a Chinese tale. I had the lead role of a child prince and a little dragon was following me around. The fairy tale seems appropriately reenacting itself, in land of the Druk, albeit the Dragon Kingdom.
As with Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH), Tashi Delek!
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