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Festive Bhutan

Join the festivities at Bhutan's annual Royal Highland Festival.


Photography by Bhutan Tourism

13 July 2023

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The two-day Royal Highland Festival to be held on 23 and 24 October 2023 celebrates the culture and traditions of the nomadic highlander people of Bhutan, and features animal displays, song and dance, medicinal herbs and more.

Bhutan’s Department of Tourism (DoT) has confirmed that the annual Royal Highland Festival will be held on 23 and 24 October 2023 at Laya in the Gasa district.

The festival, which is held at 4,000 metres above sea level, aims to celebrate, promote and preserve the life and culture of the nomadic highland people of Bhutan, support their economy, exhibit the beauty and wonders of the highlands, and laud their resilience.

Guests attending the two-day festival can enjoy the sights and sounds of the high Himalayas, as well as games, parades and competitions showcasing highland animals including yaks, horses and mastiff dogs. Some of the animals are dressed in expensive fabrics with coloured hair and adorned bells.

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In addition, a variety of cultural programs will be performed by the Layaps, the indigenous people inhabiting Laya, including traditional songs, dances, poetry recitations and gift offerings. Layaps refer to their homeland as Be-yul – the hidden land.

The festival will also feature stalls selling local produce as well as showcasing highland agriculture technology, medicinal herbs and plants, among other things. The festival attracts communities from all over Bhutan and many tribes come down from the High Himalayas to compete in races and showings of their animals. The festival will also feature textile and souvenir stalls, and food stalls displaying local cuisines such as dried yak cheese, butter and alcoholic beverages.

Located in the extreme northwest of Bhutan, Gasa district is home to some of the highest mountain peaks in the country. Over a hundred glacial lakes found at the foot of these mountains feed some of the biggest rivers in the country, including the Phochu and Mochu rivers.

With an elevation ranging between 1,500 to 4,500 metres above sea level, the whole district falls under the Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Park and is home to various species of birds and animals such as yak, musk deer, blue sheep, snow leopard, red pandas, snow pigeons, Himalayan black bear, and the national bird and animal of Bhutan, the raven and takin.

Gasa is home to some of the most beautiful high mountain trails in the country, from wide stretches of the famous Snowman trek to the high-altitude trails that take you close to the glacial lakes.

The alpine ecosystem in this region is rich in many species of medicinal plants and herbs used in traditional medicine, including the famous cordyceps. It also has abundant natural hot springs and menchu (medicinal water) that are famous for their healing and medicinal properties.

It’s an adventure to reach the festival ground in Laya; a six-hour drive from Thimphu to the Tongshida base camp followed by a four-hour hike up to Laya, alongside an aqua-green glacial river. Visitors also have the option of availing a helicopter service to reach the location, but these should be booked well in advance due to limited seats.

One of the highlights of the festival is the 25km Laya Run that begins from Ponjothang, the point where the motorable road ends. The participants run along the banks of Mochu river till the festival ground.

Visitors attending the highland festival have the excellent opportunity to stay at a farmstay with a Layap family; they can wear the Layap dress, eat authentic highlander food, and attend the festival with the family.

Visitors can also hike up the mountains surrounding the festival ground to see the stunning, untouched glacial lakes.

“The Royal Highland Festival is one of the most popular annual festivals in the country,” explained Dorji Dhradhul, the Director General of the Department of Tourism.

“Every year, hundreds of people from across the country as well as foreign visitors, trek the stunning trails among the Himalayan mountains to attend the festival.

“Two days of dancing, music, local arts and crafts, and animal parades, the festival celebrates the culture and lifestyle of people who live in the beautiful highlands of Bhutan.

“Our hope is to raise awareness of Bhutan’s commitment to conserve the glacial mountains, and for visitors to learn and experience the unique culture, traditions and daily lives of the highland people,” Dorji Dhradhul concluded.

 

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