You need to fly below the radar of Bhutan’s many trumpeted festivals to enjoy a unique experience of a lesser-known event in the highlands of Gasa District. It was instituted by no less a personage than His Majesty the King of Bhutan for the highlanders.
Steep yourself in Bhutan’s deep cultural roots and the magical wonders of its natural beauty at the Royal Highlander Festival, first launched in October 2016 celebrate the birth of His Royal Highness the Gyalsey, the 400th anniversary of Shabdrung Rimpoche, and the Rabjung (60-year cycle) birth year of Guru Rimpoche.
Each year the festivities, held at Langothang in Laya village, in Gasa District, provide a great platform for showcasing nature, history and centuries-old traditions and culture of the Gasa Dzongkhag. What is remarkable is that the festivities offer you an authentic experience of the simple pleasures of Bhutan’s highland life as epitomised by Gasa’s vision of “Good to Great Gasa”. Immerse yourself in the charming showcase of Bhutan’s highland communities from 10 different dzongkhags, each of which have their own distinctive dress, fiercely held customs and products.
To be held from October 23 to October 24, 2023 at Laya, Gasa District, the festival is a unique opportunity for guests to share the charms of the highland village of Laya and its friendly indigenous community, the Layaps. You will be introduced to Buelwa, a traditional ceremonial gift offering, along with Auley, which is a native epic poem/song recitation tradition which goes back to the times of Zhabdrung Rinpoche, the enlightened Ngawang Namgyal, who was a religious master of the Drukpa school. It’s the Laya way of showing loyalty and respect for the visionary leadership of the successive monarchs.
Photops present themselves in plenty, given the picturesque setting of the event. A defining moment is the grand animal parade, with visitors enjoying the vibrantly decorated yaks and horses and massive dogs being led to the venue by beautifully costumed highlanders. The selection of cultural programmes, an intrinsic part of the festival offers many selfie/insta moments.
Discover at close quarters this world of animals such as horses, yaks and mastiffs who play an important role in the lifestyle of these highlanders. An unmissable part of the event is the Laya Run, a sports race which flags off from Ponjothang (motor road end) to Langothang in Laya, covering a distance of about 25 kms. Both men and women participate in the event as do some foreigners.
Other highlights include competitions including a tug-of- war, horse race, cattle show, strongwoman competition, wrestling, dog show, yak riding etc. Visitors also get to enjoy a variety of traditional songs and dances of the Layaps, organized for the entertainment of the throngs of locals, visitors and stakeholders invited to attend the event.
The festival is not only a showcase of the highlander culture, it’s also important for boosting the local economy through international and domestic tourism. You will love interacting with apple-cheeked kids wandering around the venue and the jolly vendors at the line-up of stalls selling produce sourced from their yaks, medicinal herbs and plants the highland honey and honey-wine and various agri products.
Visitors have the option of a unique homestay in a highland tent made of woven yak hair, and enjoying the star-filled night sky. You might get lucky catching a meteor shower or a shooting star lighting up the black velvet night. In the day the luxurious line-up of lofty peaks blows you away as a stunning backdrop to the simple village life unfolding around you.
With time in still in hand this is rare opportunity for exploring Bhutan’s lesser-known highland culture and communities.