Nepal’s king has had to flee his palace in Katmandu, with its Graceland-meets-the-Himalayas décor. His only son, the hard-living former crown prince, has moved to Singapore. And now, in a crowning indignity, tourists are traipsing through what was once a private world sealed off by soldiers and tall brick walls.
Just three years ago he was King Gyanendra, ruling this mountain nation with absolute power as the living embodiment of the Hindu god Vishnu. Today he is simply Mr. Gyanendra Shah, a 61-year-old businessman with interests in hotels and tea plantations who clings to the royal title only by tradition. He lives in a small house in the Katmandu hills with his wife, and doesn’t give interviews.
And his Narayanhiti Palace? Tickets cost about $1.50, payable at the window out front.
Every day, hundreds of foreign and Nepalese visitors arrive here to look into the last couple of decades of Nepal’s troubled history, with its royal intrigue, family bloodshed and its isolated and deeply unpopular monarch who didn’t realize until things were beyond his control that history wasn’t with him anymore.
Inside, tourists wander through room after room of vinyl furniture, gold carpets and decades-old silver-framed photographs (the Shah of Iran, Bobby Kennedy, various popes).
The palace, a pink concrete hulk built in the late 1960s, stretches across 52 rooms and nearly 41,000 square feet.
A year after the monarchy was abolished, following 2006 protests that brought back parliamentary democracy, Nepal remains battered by troubles that belie its reputation as a Shangri-La.
Democracy has not been the curative that Nepalese had hoped for. Nearly 70 percent of the country lives on less than $2 a day. Katmandu is better off than the countryside, but the city was enveloped years ago by traffic and smog and its infrastructure is on the verge of collapse. Power outages often last more than 18 hours.
Then there is the political scene, which is dominated by corrupt, squabbling parties and former Maoist guerrillas whose 10-year war left 13,000 people dead before the rebels entered mainstream politics.
So if most Nepalese seem happy to have left the monarchy behind, it’s also not hard to find people who miss the king — even if they are surprised to hear themselves admit it.
“After seeing all this, now I do feel sorry for him,” said shop owner Durga Shrestha.