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Livin’ It Up In Laya At The Royal Highlander Festival In Bhutan


by Arlina Lowder



Welcome to the magical world of Laya in Bhutan, where tradition, culture, and breathtaking natural beauty combine to create an unforgettable experience. Set against a backdrop of majestic mountains and pristine wilderness, the Royal Highlander Festival is a celebration of Bhutan’s rich arts and culture.


The festival offers visitors a rare opportunity to immerse themselves in Bhutanese traditions and witness the vibrant local culture come to life. From traditional Highland games to mesmerizing cultural performances, this event is a showcase of Bhutan’s unique heritage.


As you step into Laya, you will be transported to a bygone era, where traditional attire, ancient rituals, and the echoes of traditional music fill the air. The festival is a symbolic occasion that brings together locals and visitors alike to celebrate and honor the Highland communities of Bhutan.


The festival not only offers a glimpse into Bhutanese culture but also provides a platform for the local communities to showcase their skills and talents. It is a time for the people of Laya to come together, reconnect with their roots, and keep their cultural traditions alive.


Whether you are an adventure enthusiast, a cultural explorer, or simply seeking a unique and authentic experience, the Royal Highlander Festival promises to be an event like no other. So, get ready to be captivated by the beauty of Laya and immerse yourself in the vibrant atmosphere of the festival.


History and Significance of the Royal Highlander Festival

The Royal Highlander Festival holds a special place in the hearts of the people of Bhutan. This unique festival was first initiated in 2016 by the Royal Government of Bhutan in collaboration with the local highland communities. It was created to preserve and promote the rich cultural heritage and traditions of the highlands in Bhutan.


For centuries, the highland communities in Bhutan have lived a way of life deeply rooted in their nomadic traditions. The festival serves as a platform to showcase their unique lifestyle, customs, and skills to a wider audience.


With the objective of celebrating and recognizing the contributions of the highland communities, the Royal Highlander Festival offers an opportunity for locals and visitors to engage with and learn from the people who have sustained their livelihoods in these remote regions for generations.


Furthermore, the festival plays a crucial role in boosting the local economy by promoting tourism in the region. It attracts both domestic and international tourists who are drawn to the allure of traditional Bhutanese culture and the untouched natural beauty of Laya.


Additionally, the festival has a deeper significance in fostering a sense of pride and unity among the highland communities. It revitalizes their cultural identity and encourages the younger generation to appreciate and carry forward their traditions.


Moreover, the Royal Highlanders Festival holds great importance in the eyes of the Bhutanese monarchy. The festival is graced by the presence of members of the royal family, adding to its prestige and significance.


The festival has garnered immense popularity over the years, attracting both locals and tourists from all corners of the world. It has become a symbol of Bhutan’s commitment to preserving its cultural heritage and fostering an appreciation for its rural communities.


Overall, the Royal Highlander Festival stands as a testament to the deep-rooted traditions, cultural richness, and natural beauty of Bhutan’s highland communities. It provides a platform for the world to witness and celebrate the unique way of life that has been sustained for centuries in this pristine corner of the Himalayas.


Location and Dates

The Royal Highlander Festival takes place in the picturesque village of Laya, nestled in the remote highlands of Bhutan. Laya is located in the Gasa district of western Bhutan and is known for its stunning landscapes, pristine environment, and rich cultural heritage.


The festival is typically held during the autumn season, which is from late October to early November. This time of the year offers pleasant weather with mild temperatures and clear skies, allowing visitors to fully enjoy the festivities and the breathtaking scenery.


Laya, situated at an altitude of around 3,800 meters (12,500 feet), is accessible only by foot. The journey to Laya is an adventure in itself, as it involves a multi-day trek through the beautiful landscapes of Bhutan. The trek offers panoramic views of snow-capped mountains, lush valleys, and dense forests, making it a rewarding experience for nature enthusiasts and adventure seekers.


The exact dates of the festival may vary each year, so it is advisable to check with the Tourism Council of Bhutan or consult local tour operators for the most up-to-date information. As the festival gains popularity, it is recommended to make travel arrangements well in advance to secure accommodation and permits.


Attending the Royal Highlander Festival not only provides an opportunity to embrace Bhutanese culture but also offers a chance to explore the breathtaking scenery and unique traditions of the highland communities in Laya. It is a celebration of Bhutan’s rich heritage in one of the most pristine and secluded corners of the country.


So, mark your calendars and get ready to embark on a memorable journey to Laya to witness the Royal Highlander Festival, where nature, culture, and traditions converge to create an unforgettable experience.


Festival Activities and Attractions

The Royal Highlander Festival offers a wide array of activities and attractions that showcase the vibrant culture and traditions of Bhutan’s highland communities. From traditional games to cultural performances, there is something for everyone to enjoy and experience.


One of the major highlights of the festival is the traditional Highland games. Participants dressed in their colorful traditional attire compete in a series of thrilling contests that test their physical strength, endurance, and agility. These games include archery, yak herding, horse racing, and stone throwing. It is a fascinating spectacle to witness the skills and talents of the highlanders as they participate in these age-old competitions.


Another captivating aspect of the festival is the cultural performances. Local artists and musicians mesmerize the audience with traditional songs, dances, and theatrical performances that depict the essence of Bhutanese culture. The vibrant costumes, rhythmic music, and graceful movements of the performers create a mesmerizing display of artistic expression.


The festival also features exhibitions and demonstrations of traditional crafts and arts. Visitors have the opportunity to witness first-hand the intricate processes involved in traditional weaving, pottery making, and blacksmithing. Local artisans proudly display their craftsmanship and provide insights into the deep-rooted artistic traditions of the highland communities.


Food stalls offering local cuisine are an integral part of the festival. Visitors can indulge in a variety of traditional Bhutanese dishes, such as Ema Datshi (spicy chili and cheese dish), red rice, and traditional dairy products. The aroma of freshly cooked delicacies fills the air, enticing visitors to sample the flavors of Bhutanese cuisine.


Furthermore, the festival features an arts and crafts market, where visitors can explore and purchase unique handmade products, such as traditional textiles, intricate wood carvings, and handwoven baskets. This provides an opportunity to support the local artisans and take home a piece of Bhutanese culture.


In addition to these activities, visitors can also participate in guided hikes and nature walks to explore the surrounding landscapes and witness the pristine beauty of Laya. The towering snow-capped peaks, alpine meadows, and tranquil lakes create a picturesque backdrop to the festival.


Overall, the Royal Highlander Festival offers an immersive experience into the vibrant culture, traditions, and natural beauty of Bhutan’s highland communities. It is a celebration of Bhutanese heritage that leaves visitors enchanted and inspired.


Traditional Highland Games

The Royal Highlander Festival is known for its exhilarating traditional Highland games that showcase the physical strength, skill, and endurance of the highland communities in Bhutan. These games have been a part of their culture for centuries and are a testament to their nomadic way of life.


Archery is one of the main highlights of the festival. Participants demonstrate their marksmanship with traditional bows and arrows. The intense competition and precise aim required make it a thrilling event to witness. The archers, dressed in their vibrant traditional attire, take aim at wooden targets set in the stunning backdrop of the highland landscapes.


Yak herding, a significant aspect of the highland communities’ livelihood, is also a part of the games. Participants engage in a series of challenges that involve herding yaks through a specific course. This event showcases their expertise in managing these majestic animals over rugged terrains.


Horse racing is another exciting event that draws attention at the festival. Trained jockeys navigate their horses through challenging courses, racing against each other to reach the finish line. The fast-paced races create an electrifying atmosphere, and the stamina and skills of both the horses and the jockeys are on full display.


Stone throwing, a traditional Highland game, tests the participants’ strength and accuracy. Competitors hurl massive stones, aiming to cover the greatest distance or hit a designated target. This event demonstrates the physical prowess and throwing techniques of the highlanders, as they showcase their skills to onlookers.


The Royal Highlander Festival offers an opportunity to not only witness these traditional Highland games but also to engage and participate. Visitors can learn firsthand from the highlanders, try their hand at some of the games, and experience the thrill of competing in these age-old traditions.


By participating in the games, visitors gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for the challenges faced by the highland communities in their daily lives. It is an immersive experience that allows for cross-cultural exchange and fosters a sense of camaraderie with the locals.


Overall, the Traditional Highland games are a true reflection of the highland communities’ physical prowess, cultural heritage, and resilient way of life. They serve as a powerful reminder of the deep connection between humans and nature, and the importance of preserving and celebrating unique traditions.


Cultural Performances and Exhibitions

The Royal Highlander Festival in Bhutan is not only a celebration of traditional Highland games but also a showcase of captivating cultural performances and exhibitions. These performances provide a glimpse into the rich artistic heritage of the highland communities and offer visitors a chance to immerse themselves in the vibrant Bhutanese culture.


The festival features a variety of cultural performances, including traditional songs, dances, and theatrical presentations. Local artists adorned in colorful costumes grace the stage, captivating the audience with their graceful movements and rhythmic melodies. The performances depict ancient folk tales, myths, and legends, highlighting the deep-rooted spiritual beliefs and cultural traditions of Bhutan.


Mask dances, known as cham, are an integral part of Bhutanese culture and are often performed during the festival. These intricate dance forms are accompanied by mesmerizing music and vibrant masks that represent various deities, creating a mystical ambiance. The dancers skillfully execute precise movements to tell stories of mythology and offer spiritual blessings to the audience.


Exhibitions of traditional crafts and arts are an important component of the Royal Highlander Festival. Local artisans and craftsmen proudly display their handcrafted items, including intricate textiles, pottery, wood carvings, and metalwork. Visitors can witness the skillful techniques used in creating these masterpieces and gain a deeper appreciation for the meticulous craftsmanship of the highland communities.


For those interested in learning more about Bhutanese traditions, the festival offers workshops and demonstrations that provide insights into traditional techniques such as weaving, painting, and sculpture. Visitors have the opportunity to engage with the artisans, learn about their creative processes, and even try their hand at creating their own artwork.


Furthermore, the festival hosts cultural exhibitions that showcase the unique traditions and customs of the highland communities. These exhibits allow visitors to delve into the daily lives of the locals, offering a deeper understanding and appreciation for their way of life. From traditional costumes and jewelry to household items and agricultural practices, these exhibitions provide a comprehensive view of the cultural heritage preserved by the highland communities.


Attending the cultural performances and exploring the exhibitions not only provides entertainment and enjoyment, but it also offers a chance to connect with the local communities. It is an opportunity to interact with the artists, learn about their stories and inspirations, and develop a deeper understanding of Bhutanese culture.


In summary, the Royal Highlander Festival in Bhutan is a vibrant celebration of cultural performances and exhibitions. It serves as a platform for the highland communities to showcase their artistic talents, preserve their cultural heritage, and bridge the gap between tradition and modernity. Immerse yourself in the magical world of Bhutanese culture, and let the performances and exhibitions leave a lasting impression on your heart.


Local Cuisine and Food Stalls

One of the highlights of attending the Royal Highlander Festival in Bhutan is the opportunity to indulge in the diverse and mouthwatering local cuisine. The festival features a range of food stalls offering traditional Bhutanese dishes, allowing visitors to embark on a culinary journey and explore the flavors of the highland communities.


At the festival, you can savor dishes that are unique to Bhutan, such as Ema Datshi. This spicy chili and cheese dish is a staple in Bhutanese cuisine and is sure to tantalize your taste buds. Made with a blend of local chili peppers and a rich cheese sauce, Ema Datshi is a favorite among locals and visitors alike.


Another must-try dish is the red rice, which is a staple in Bhutanese meals. Known for its nutty flavor and slightly chewy texture, red rice is often served alongside flavorful curries and stews. It is a delicious and nutritious addition to any Bhutanese meal.


As you stroll through the food stalls, you will also find a variety of traditional dairy products. Sample the locally made butter, cheese, and yogurt, which are produced using time-honored techniques passed down through generations. These dairy products offer a authentic taste of Bhutanese culture and are a true reflection of the highland communities’ way of life.


Additionally, the festival offers an opportunity to taste local delicacies and snacks, such as momo (dumplings), khuli (buckwheat pancakes), and nyamphe (fried bread). These treats are not only delicious but also provide insight into the culinary traditions and flavors of Bhutan.


It’s not just about the food itself, but also the atmosphere of the food stalls that adds to the overall experience. As you navigate through the stalls, you are greeted with the aroma of freshly cooked dishes and the sound of sizzling pans. The friendly vendors, dressed in their traditional attire, are more than happy to explain the ingredients and share stories behind the dishes.


Whether you are a food enthusiast or simply looking to indulge in new culinary experiences, the food stalls at the Royal Highlander Festival offer a diverse range of flavors and a chance to savor the authentic tastes of Bhutan. It’s an opportunity to immerse yourself in the local culture, connect with the highland communities, and discover the gastronomic delights that Bhutan has to offer.


So, be sure to come hungry and get ready to treat your senses to a delectable journey through the culinary traditions of Bhutan. The local cuisine and food stalls at the Royal Highlander Festival are sure to leave you craving for more.


Arts and Crafts Market

The Royal Highlander Festival in Bhutan is not only a celebration of cultural performances and traditional games but also a hub for arts and crafts enthusiasts. The festival features an arts and crafts market, where visitors can explore a wide array of unique handmade products that reflect the rich artistic heritage of the highland communities.


The market is a treasure trove of traditional textiles, exquisite wood carvings, intricate metalwork, and beautifully handwoven baskets. These handicrafts are meticulously crafted by skilled artisans who have inherited their craft from their ancestors. Each item tells a story of Bhutanese culture and bears the mark of the highland communities’ unique craftsmanship.


Textiles play a prominent role in Bhutanese culture, and the arts and crafts market is the perfect place to admire and purchase these intricate creations. Delve into the world of Bhutanese weaving, where you will find vibrant handwoven fabrics, intricately patterned rugs, and beautifully embroidered garments. These textiles reflect the artistic traditions and cultural symbolism of Bhutan.


Woodcarving is another traditional art form that you will find at the market. Wander through the stalls to discover intricately carved masks, statues, and furniture that showcase the highlanders’ craftsmanship and attention to detail. Each piece is a testament to the cultural heritage and spiritual beliefs of Bhutan.


Metalwork is also widely celebrated in Bhutanese crafts. At the arts and crafts market, visitors can find stunning metal sculptures and intricately designed jewelry. These pieces are often adorned with semiprecious gemstones and reflect the rich symbolism and cultural significance of Bhutanese art.


Additionally, the market offers a wealth of other handmade items such as pottery, bamboo crafts, and traditional paper products. Explore the stalls to find intricately painted pottery, unique bamboo baskets, and handmade paper that bear the mark of Bhutan’s rich artistic traditions.


Visiting the arts and crafts market is not just about purchasing souvenirs; it is an opportunity to connect with the artisans, learn about their creative processes, and gain a deeper appreciation for Bhutanese craftsmanship. The friendly artisans are often present at the stalls, eager to share their knowledge and stories behind their creations.


By supporting the local artisans and purchasing their handmade products, you are not only acquiring a unique piece of Bhutanese culture, but also contributing to the preservation of these traditional crafts. Your purchase helps sustain the livelihoods of these skilled craftsmen and ensures the continuation of Bhutan’s artistic heritage.


Make sure to allocate time to explore the arts and crafts market at the Royal Highlander Festival. It is a feast for the eyes and an opportunity to take home a piece of Bhutan’s artistic traditions, serving as a lasting reminder of your unforgettable journey into the highlands of Bhutan.


Accommodation Options

When attending the Royal Highlander Festival in Bhutan, you will have various accommodation options available to suit your preferences and budget. While Laya is a remote village, it offers a range of accommodations that cater to the needs of visitors seeking a comfortable and convenient stay.


One option is to stay in a traditional Bhutanese farmhouse or guesthouse. These accommodations provide an immersive experience, allowing you to stay in a traditional setting and connect with the local culture. You will have the opportunity to interact with the friendly hosts, savor homemade Bhutanese meals, and enjoy the hospitality of Bhutanese hospitality.


For those seeking a bit more luxury, there are also hotels and lodges in and around Laya. These establishments offer comfortable rooms, modern amenities, and stunning views of the surrounding mountain landscapes. They are designed to provide a comfortable retreat after a day of exploration and festival activities.


It is important to note that accommodation options in Laya may be limited, especially during the festival season. Therefore, it is advisable to make your bookings well in advance to secure your preferred accommodation.


Another alternative is to opt for camping. Camping provides a unique experience, allowing you to immerse yourself in nature and enjoy the serene surroundings of Laya. There are organized camping facilities available that provide comfortable tents, essential amenities, and campfire facilities. It is a great option for adventure enthusiasts and nature lovers who want to truly connect with the outdoor environment.


When considering accommodations, keep in mind that Laya is a high-altitude destination. Therefore, it is important to choose accommodations that are equipped with proper heating and insulation, especially during the cooler months of the festival season.


Regardless of the accommodation option you choose, staying in Laya provides an opportunity to disconnect from the hustle and bustle of modern life, immerse yourself in Bhutanese culture, and experience the unique lifestyle of the highland communities.


As you plan your trip to attend the Royal Highlander Festival, take the time to research and book your accommodations in advance. Consider your preferences, budget, and the availability of facilities to ensure a comfortable and enjoyable stay during this unforgettable festival experience.


Transportation and Getting There

Getting to Laya, the location of the Royal Highlander Festival, requires careful planning and consideration due to its remote location in the highlands of Bhutan. Here are some transportation options to help you reach this captivating destination:


By Air: The nearest airport to Laya is Paro International Airport. Several international airlines operate flights to Paro from major cities in Asia, including Delhi, Bangkok, Kathmandu, and Singapore. From Paro, you can take a domestic flight to the regional airport at Bumthang, followed by a combination of road travel and trekking to reach Laya.


By Road: If you prefer a scenic road trip, you can enter Bhutan from neighboring countries such as India. There are border crossings at Phuentsholing, Samdrup Jongkhar, and Gelephu. From the border, you will need to hire a private vehicle and driver or join a guided tour to travel to Laya. Keep in mind that road travel in Bhutan can be challenging due to the mountainous terrain and winding roads.


By Trekking: The most adventurous and popular way to reach Laya is by trekking. The journey to Laya typically starts from the village of Gasa, which can be reached by road or by trekking from different trailheads. The trek to Laya takes several days and offers breathtaking views of the Himalayas, lush landscapes, and remote villages. It is recommended to join a guided trekking tour to ensure safety, navigation, and support along the way.


It is important to note that permits are required to visit Bhutan, and all tourists must travel with a licensed tour operator. The tour operator will assist you in obtaining the necessary permits, arranging transportation, and planning the logistics of your trip.


Once you have reached Laya, it is essential to be prepared for limited transportation options within the village. Laya is primarily a pedestrian-only village, and most of the festival venues and attractions are within walking distance. Comfortable and sturdy footwear is recommended to navigate the hilly terrain.


When planning your trip, it is advisable to check the availability of transportation options in advance, especially during the festival season. Consult with your tour operator or travel agent to arrange transportation and make necessary arrangements for your journey to Laya.


Embarking on the journey to attend the Royal Highlander Festival in Laya is an adventure in itself. Whether you choose to fly, drive, or trek, the journey will offer breathtaking views and an authentic experience of Bhutan’s rugged beauty. It is a journey that will leave you with memories that last a lifetime.


Tips for Attending the Royal Highlander Festival

Attending the Royal Highlander Festival in Bhutan is an exciting and enriching experience. To make the most of your visit, here are some helpful tips to keep in mind:


1. Plan in Advance: The festival dates may vary each year, so it is essential to check the dates and make your travel arrangements well in advance. This includes booking accommodations, organizing transportation, and obtaining necessary permits to enter Bhutan.


2. Dress Appropriately: Bhutan has a dress code, particularly for visiting religious and cultural sites. During the festival, it is recommended to wear comfortable and modest clothing that covers your shoulders and knees. You may also consider bringing traditional attire to fully immerse yourself in the cultural experience.


3. Prepare for Weather Conditions: Laya is situated at a high altitude, so the weather can be unpredictable. It is advisable to pack layers of clothing to accommodate changes in temperature during the day. Don’t forget essentials such as sunscreen, a hat, and a raincoat or umbrella.


4. Stay Hydrated and Rested: Laya’s high altitude may require some adjustment. It is essential to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water and limiting alcohol consumption. Allow yourself time to rest and acclimatize to the altitude to avoid altitude sickness.


5. Respect Local Customs: Bhutanese culture is deeply rooted in tradition and respect. Be mindful of local customs and traditions, such as removing your shoes when entering temples or homes. Respect the privacy of locals and seek permission before taking photographs.


6. Engage with the Locals: The festival is a wonderful opportunity to engage with the highland communities and learn about their way of life. Take the time to interact with locals, ask questions, and immerse yourself in their culture. You may also consider learning a few basic phrases in Dzongkha, the national language of Bhutan, to communicate with the locals.


7. Be Open to New Experiences: The Royal Highlander Festival offers a unique cultural experience. Embrace new tastes, sounds, and activities. Try the local cuisine, participate in traditional games, and enjoy the cultural performances. Be open to immersing yourself in the festivities and embracing the spirit of Bhutanese culture.


8. Capture Memories Respectfully: Photography is allowed at the festival, but be considerate when taking pictures. Seek permission before photographing individuals, especially during cultural performances. Respect the privacy and religious significance of certain areas where photography may be restricted.


9. Pack Essential Items: In addition to clothing, make sure to bring essentials such as a reusable water bottle, comfortable walking shoes, insect repellent, and a small backpack to carry your belongings during the festival.


10. Practice Responsible Tourism: Respect the environment and local customs by practicing responsible tourism. Minimize your impact on the environment, dispose of waste properly, and support local businesses and artisans by purchasing their handmade products.


By keeping these tips in mind, you can enhance your experience at the Royal Highlander Festival and fully appreciate the rich cultural heritage of Bhutan’s highland communities. It is an opportunity to immerse yourself in a unique cultural celebration and create memories that will last a lifetime.



The Royal Highlander Festival in Laya, Bhutan, offers a remarkable opportunity to immerse yourself in the rich arts and culture of the highland communities. With its breathtaking landscapes, vibrant festivities, traditional Highland games, cultural performances, and mouthwatering cuisine, this festival is a true celebration of Bhutan’s unique cultural heritage.


By attending the festival, you will gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for the highland communities’ way of life, as well as the intricate traditions passed down through generations. The festival serves as a platform for the locals to showcase their skills, talents, and cultural identity, while also providing visitors with an immersive experience of Bhutan’s vibrant arts and culture.


From witnessing traditional archery competitions to being mesmerized by mask dances and exploring the arts and crafts market, every aspect of the festival invites you to engage with Bhutanese culture on a profound level. The warm hospitality of the highland communities, combined with the stunning natural beauty, create an unforgettable experience that is both enriching and captivating.


As you take part in the Royal Highlander Festival, ensure you respect the local customs, support the local economy, and immerse yourself in the festival’s spirit of community and celebration. Come with an open heart and an eagerness to learn about Bhutanese culture, and you will be rewarded with memories that will last a lifetime.


Whether you are an adventure seeker, a culture enthusiast, or simply someone looking to experience something out of the ordinary, the Royal Highlander Festival is an event that should not be missed. It is a vibrant showcase of Bhutan’s cultural richness and a testament to the resilience, generosity, and deep-rooted traditions of its highland communities.


So, pack your bags, prepare for an unforgettable journey into the highlands of Bhutan, and get ready to be captivated by the magic of the Royal Highlander Festival. Let this experience transport you to an enchanting world where traditions come alive, nature nurtures the spirit, and the vibrant culture of Bhutan takes center stage.