It was a tough act for the young son to follow, but he has more than lived up to the task, observers say. Where the father is reserved and austere, the son is warm, natural and engaging. While the elder king’s subjects would not dream of looking him in the eye, they find themselves laughing and joking with the son.
To the constant exasperation of his security detail, the young king never misses the chance to mix with people at public events, playing barefoot soccer with schoolchildren or hugging and comforting an old woman so overcome at seeing him that she burst into tears.
His looks once earned him the nickname “Prince Charming” when mobbed by female admirers on a trip to Thailand. His personality has earned him the more lasting title of the “People’s King.”
His new wife looks to have some of the same charm, signing autographs for children after the ceremony, smiling and greeting reporters before saying she had “to be with my husband now.” Wangchuck said he was very proud of how she had handled herself Thursday.
The king’s youthfulness and worldly experience have also made him a bridge between Bhutan’s tightly guarded ancient traditions and the country’s rapidly expanding younger generation. He has become a symbol of unity and stability in a country grappling with momentous changes, and that is why the royal wedding has assumed such symbolic importance here.
“It is a very important assertion of continuity, because a wedding implies a new generation, and for a hereditary monarchy that is very important,” said Michael Rutland, who first came to Bhutan from Britain in 1970 to tutor the teenage boy who became the fourth king. Since then, Rutland has spent most of his life here.
Sangay Khandu, at 33 a youthful member of the country’s upper house of parliament, said the wedding “gives us comfort when we are really vulnerable.”
Wangchuck’s father had four wives — four sisters he married in a mass ceremony — in a country where polygamy was not unusual. Although the fourth king’s wives always walked a step or two behind him, the younger Wangchuck holds his fiancee’s hand everywhere they go and has scandalized traditionalists by kissing her on the cheek in public.
“The fourth king was another world, another time, but this is another generation, another country,” said Francoise Pommaret, an ethnologist, historian, author and expert on Bhutan.
The royal secretariat likes to portray Pema as a commoner. In one version of events, the two met at a picnic when she was 7 and he was 17; she reportedly came up to him and gave him a hug.