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Bhutan's annual Royal Highland Festival

Welcome to the enchanting world of the Royal Highland Festival.  Surrounded by the snow capped Himalayan Mountains of Laya, the festival weaves and showcases the culture, tradition, and natural beauty of Bhutan's highlander communities.


Experience the warmth and authenticity of the Highlander's way of life, as you witness age-old traditions and cultural performances that have withstood the test of time, while being surrounded by magical peaks. We invite you to this year's Royal Highland Festival, set for 23-24 October 2023. See you in Laya!

The annual Royal Highland Festival will be held from October 23-24, 2023 at Laya in the Gasa district. The festival, which is held at 4,000m 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 breathtaking sights and sounds of the high Himalaya, 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 colored hair and adorned bells.  In addition, a variety of cultural programmes 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 north-west 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 4,500m 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 and breath-taking 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 beautiful 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 6-hour drive from Thimphu till the Tongshida base camp followed by a 4-hour hike up to Laya, alongside an aqua green glacial river. Visitors also have an 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 25-km 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. 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,” concluded Dorji Dhradhul, the Director General of the Department of Tourism.

View the Royal Highland Festival's video at this link.

Royal Highland Festival Itinerary

Option One: 3 Nights / 4 Days

22nd Oct (Sun): Thimphu – Laya

23rd Oct (Mon): Laya – festival

24th Oct (Tues): Laya – festival

25th Oct (Wed): Laya – Thimphu

The Royal Highland festival (RHF) is a unique festival held 4000 metres above sea level in beautiful Laya. It’s a celebration of age-old culture and tradition of the highlanders, showcasing the beauty and wonders of Laya through their distinctive culture, language and attire. It provides the chance for remote communities to come together, to dance, to be happy and to celebrate.

Embark on a mesmerizing journey as you immerse yourself in the enchanting world of the highlanders. This trip could be adventurous and exciting at the same time as visitors get to experience the authenticity and simplicity of the life of the Highlanders which are often not widely seen or known outside their remote region. Step into a realm where time-honored traditions come alive, and the air is filled with a sense of awe and wonder.

Day 1 (22nd Oct, Sunday): Thimphu to Laya

Depart from Thimphu early in the morning after breakfast. Drive towards Gasa, which is approximately 132 kilometers (82 miles), 4 – 5 hours of drive, depending on road conditions and stops.

Enjoy a scenic drive through the countryside, passing by picturesque valleys, terraced fields, and charming villages. You can make stops along the way to admire the landscapes and take photographs.

Arrive at Gasa by lunch time and after lunch continue drive towards Tongchudra/Tongchuzampa which is approximately a distance of 20kms, around 2hours drive. Road to Tongchudra is not black topped and well maintained, so you will have to switch your vehicle to bolero camper (pickup truck) from Gasa.

From Tongchudra road end point, you start your hike to Laya, which is approximately 4 – 5 hours of walk at an average walking pace. For 2 – 3 hours, it will be a gradual climb and could get steeper as you near Laya.

By late evening you will reach Laya and check-in to your accommodation (homestay) and relax. It could be a long and tiring day.

Overnight stay in Laya.

Day 2 and Day 3 (23rd - 24th Oct, Monday - Tuesday): Royal Highland Festival

Wake up early and enjoy breakfast at your accommodation. Participate in the opening ceremony of the Laya festival, featuring traditional music, dance performances, animal parade and cultural shows.

Witness Buelwa, a traditional gift or offering given on special occasions and important ceremonies. It is a gesture of respect, gratitude, and good wishes. The offering typically consists of symbolic items such as grains, fruits, traditional food, religious artifacts, monetary donations, and sometimes livestock. Buelwa plays a significant role in religious ceremonies, festivals, weddings, births, and other important events in the community.

Witness Auley, a traditional epic poem/song recitation tradition originating from the time of Zhabdrung Rinpoche in Bhutan. It began during Zhabdrung Rinpoche's reign and continues in the community of Laya. Auley is a way for the community to show loyalty and respect to successive monarchs, expressing admiration for their dynamic and visionary leadership. The tradition involves reciting epic poems/songs that celebrate the qualities and achievements of the kings, highlighting their contributions to the nation. It signifies the deep bond between the people of Laya and the monarchy, emphasizing shared values and aspirations for a prosperous Bhutan.

Attend the sacred religious ceremonies and blessings performed by revered local monks and feel the spiritual energy.

Visit the household who first hosted Zhabdrung in 1616 when he came to Bhutan through Laya in self-imposed exile. The household proudly display gifts given by Zhabdrung (in form of pots, precious stones etc).

You also have an option of taking a leisure walk around the village and immerse yourself in the local atmosphere.

You can visit Tashi Lhakhang also known as Omchu Lhakhang, Jagchhey Lhakhang, Jangchubcholing Lhakhang and Zogchencholing Lhakhang, all with rich histories, cultural significance, own unique story, legends, and historical context.

 Overnight stay in Laya.

Day 4 (25th Oct, Wednesday): Return to Thimphu

After breakfast, check-out from your accommodation and hike back to Tongchudra and drive to Thimphu.

 

Option Two: 4 Nights / 5 Days

21st Oct (Sat): Thimphu – Gasa

22nd Oct (Sun): Gasa - Laya

23rd Oct (Mon): Laya – festival

24th Oct (Tue): Laya – Festival

25th Oct (Wed): Laya - Thimphu

The Royal Highland festival (RHF) is a unique festival held 4000 metres above sea level in beautiful Laya. It’s a celebration of age-old culture and tradition of the highlanders, showcasing the beauty and wonders of Laya through their distinctive culture, language and attire. It provides the chance for remote communities to come together, to dance, to be happy and to celebrate.

Embark on a mesmerizing journey as you immerse yourself in the enchanting world of the highlanders. This trip could be adventurous and exciting at the same time as visitors get to experience the authenticity and simplicity of the life of the Highlanders which are often not widely seen or known outside their remote region. Step into a realm where time-honored traditions come alive, and the air is filled with a sense of awe and wonder.

Day 1 (21st Oct, Saturday): Thimphu to Gasa:

Depart from Thimphu early in the morning after breakfast. Drive towards Gasa, which is approximately 132 kilometers (82 miles), 4 – 5 hours of drive, depending on road conditions and stops.

Enjoy a scenic drive through the countryside, passing by picturesque valleys, terraced fields, and charming villages. You can make stops along the way to admire the landscapes and take photographs.

Arrive at Gasa by lunch time and check-in to your accommodation (homestay/guest house). There are plenty of things to do in Gasa. You can either visit the household who hosted Zhabdrung when he came to Gasa as the household proudly display gifts given by Zhabdrung in form of his footwear and other relics and visit Gasa Dzong which is said to be built by Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyal in 1640s above the cave meditated by a Tibetan saint Terkhungpa.

You can go for Gasa Tshachu/hotspring which is situated near the bank of the Mo Chu at an elevation of 2100 metres. It is considered by many as one of the most beautiful hotspring in the country. According to visitors, the hot spring provides excellent healing properties from many diseases.

Or you can also go for Bjagay menchu/mineral springs. It is believed that Gasa is blessed with 108 menchus.

Bjagay Menchu is only about 15-20 -minutes’ walk from Gasa Tshachu. Bjagay Menchu is believed to cure arthritis and joint pain. Its history is similar to that of Bjagay Menchu in Paro. It is believed that a vulture, having erroneously swallowed a metal piece placed in the torma (ritual cake), was suffering from severe choking. It was healed after it was soaked in the water of Bjagay Menchu for a few days. The Menchu was thereafter named Bjagay Menchu.

 Overnight stay in Gasa.

Day 2 (22nd Oct, Sunday): Gasa - Laya

After breakfast continue drive towards Tongchudra/Tongchuzampa which is approximately a distance of 20kms, around 2hours drive. Road to Tongchudra is not black topped and well maintained, so you will have to switch your vehicle to bolero camper (pickup truck) from Gasa.

From Tongchudra road end point, you start your hike to Laya, which is approximately 4 – 5 hours of walk at an average walking pace. For 2 – 3 hours, it will be a gradual climb and could get steeper as you near Laya.

By late afternoon you will reach Laya and check-in to your accommodation (homestay) and relax.

 Overnight stay in Laya.

Day 3 & Day 4 (23rd & 24th Oct, Monday & Tuesday): Laya

Wake up early and enjoy breakfast at your accommodation. Participate in the opening ceremony of the Laya festival, featuring traditional music, dance performances, animal parade and cultural shows.

Witness Buelwa, a traditional gift or offering given on special occasions and important ceremonies. It is a gesture of respect, gratitude, and good wishes. The offering typically consists of symbolic items such as grains, fruits, traditional food, religious artifacts, monetary donations, and sometimes livestock. Buelwa plays a significant role in religious ceremonies, festivals, weddings, births, and other important events in the community.

Witness Auley, a traditional epic poem/song recitation tradition originating from the time of Zhabdrung Rinpoche in Bhutan. It began during Zhabdrung Rinpoche's reign and continues in the community of Laya. Auley is a way for the community to show loyalty and respect to successive monarchs, expressing admiration for their dynamic and visionary leadership. The tradition involves reciting epic poems/songs that celebrate the qualities and achievements of the kings, highlighting their contributions to the nation. It signifies the deep bond between the people of Laya and the monarchy, emphasizing shared values and aspirations for a prosperous Bhutan.

Attend the sacred religious ceremonies and blessings performed by revered local monks and feel the spiritual energy.

Visit the household who first hosted Zhabdrung in 1616 when he came to Bhutan through Laya in self-imposed exile. The household proudly display gifts given by Zhabdrung (in form of pots, precious stones etc).

You also have an option of taking a leisure walk around the village and immerse yourself in the local atmosphere.

You can visit Tashi Lhakhang also known as Omchu Lhakhang, Jagchhey Lhakhang, Jangchubcholing Lhakhang and Zogchencholing Lhakhang, all with rich histories, cultural significance, own unique story, legends, and historical context.

 Overnight stay in Laya.

Day 5 (25th Oct, Wednesday): Laya - Thimphu

After breakfast, check-out from your accommodation and hike back to Tongchudra and drive to Gasa, then continue your drive to Thimphu.

For personalized itineraries, contact Khandu at +97517767638 or book.rhf@gmail.com OR your preferred Bhutanese Tour Operator.

Note: Itineraries can be tailored to your group's interests, size, and time availability.

Activities in Laya:

Yak Riding

Horse Riding

Photoshoot in Laya dress

Scavenger Hunt

Visit the house that hosted Zhabdrung when he first visited Bhutan. The family still has relics of Zhabdrung that they received as gifts

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