Imagine this. You’re surrounded by snow capped mountains. You walk into a unique festival with dome shaped tents made of yak hair. There a traditional yak parades and performances only seen in this part of Bhutan. Welcome to the Royal Highland Festival conducted every October in the beautiful highlands of Laya, Gasa.
The Royal Highland Festival is celebrated in Laya under Gasa District. It was founded under the Command of His Majesty the King of Bhutan. The festival was created to highlight and celebrate the culture, people and lifestyle of the Highlanders of Bhutan. A region in Bhutan that hasn’t received enough attention due to its difficult terrain and access. The festival has brought tourists and many local visitors to enjoy the performances and festivities of the event. There are events such as horse racing, traditional Layap dances, Yak parades and traditional Bhutanese wrestling matches.
As highland communities are often considered to be uneventful due to its far flung locations, the event is geared towards bringing more attention to the Highland communities of Bhutan.
The Highland Run
The festival also opened the exclusive 25 kilometer difficult terrain cross-country marathon. The run is considered to be one of the most difficult cross-country running competitions in Bhutan. As runners have to battle an uphill climb at an altitude of around 3,800 meters. Inspired by the runners, the festival also organized a short run for the visitors and locals. You’ll never guess the music they played for the warm-up session.
Traditional Layap Attire
One of the highlights of the festival is catching sight of the local highlanders in their traditional attire. The Layap women wear a thick dark jacket known as the ‘Thukkhanja’ and a woolen wrap with an apron-like colorful cloth piece in the front. But what completes the look is their traditional bamboo hat that they say is woven in Punakha valley. You can request your homestay host to arrange an attire for you to try during your visit.
Festivities at the Festival
The Highland Festival also has a range of unique stalls that showcase different items and services. Every year there are different stalls for health check-ups, etc. There is also unique booth set up by the volunteers of the film Association of Bhutan for highlanders. Local film stars in Bhutan have had quite an impact on rural Bhutan.
After two years, the Royal Highland Festival set its return in its full glory this October 23rd to 24th in 2022. I was fortunate to attend the festival and visit the highland community back in 2018.
I personally don’t enjoy the usual stall set up in most national festivals, but the Highlander Festival sets itself apart with its traditional tent set up woven with yak hair known as Bja. The Yak parade by the proud Layap men will get you rethinking the normal size of a mountain yak in Bhutan. The women wear their traditional attire with pride. Their entire ensemble is quite the head turner and a visual treat indeed.
But don’t just go for the festivities of the event. Enjoy your time at a local Layap homestay, mingle with the locals or experience the melancholic landscape on a walk alone. You’ll love the cold mountain air seeping through the wooden window planks as you warm yourself near the Bukhari. The host’s occasional cup of Ara is good too.
So are you going?