A photo essay about an adventure to the 2017 Royal Highlander Festival in Bhutan, a celebration of nomadic culture in Bhutan’s highest settlement.
It’s not every day you get to chat with the King of Bhutan, dive out of the way of yaks in outfits, and sip hot tea among a sea of traditional headdresses, all at a festival situated at more than 4,000 meters above sea level.
Surreal as it sounds, that’s exactly what went down when we visited the second Royal Highlander Festival in Bhutan.
What is the Royal Highlander Festival?
For those not in the know—which is most of the world at this point in time—the two-day Royal Highlander Festival is an annual celebration of nomadic highlander traditions in Laya, Bhutan.
The festival began as the brainchild of the fifth king of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. Before the advent of the Royal Highlander Festival, the mountainous northern areas of Bhutan lacked representation on the country’s festival calendar; most Bhutanese festivals occur in more “accessible” regions of the country.
To resolve this issue, His Majesty initiated the Royal Highlander Festival to bring some light and love to the hardy highlander people thriving in the Himalayas of northern Bhutan.
Despite 2017 being only the second year of the Royal Highlander Festival’s existence, it drew quite the crowd. From local Layaps in pointed beaded headdresses, to groups of Monpas in dreaded yak hair hats, highlanders of all ethnicities congregated in Laya to share their culture with the rest of Bhutan. Royalty, volunteers, and visitors from all over Bhutan completed the crowd, coming together to ensure the festival’s success. There were some foreigners present—our Gray Langur tour group included—but we were by far the minority. No tourist traps at this festival!
The road (or lack thereof) to Laya
The fact that any outsiders showed up at all is impressive in itself, as traveling to Laya, even for a native, is a multi-day endeavor.
Laya is one of the most remote settlements in Bhutan, and the highest in the country at more than 3,800 meters (12,500 feet) above sea level. There’s no road to Laya, so the only ways to reach the festival are to trek or to hire a private helicopter. Bhutan’s few helicopters were rather preoccupied serving some of the dignitaries attending the festival—but most people, including the King of Bhutan, opted to trek to the festival—so trek we did!
Over the span of two days, our Gray Langur tour group and guides trekked from the village of Gasa to the village of Laya. Though we were plagued by some unlucky injuries and seemingly incessant cold and rain, the scenery more than made up for any struggle.
The 2017 Royal Highlander Festival in photos
And so began the second Royal Highlander Festival in Laya.
Over the course of two days, men wrestled, horses raced, and children danced. Tireless runners scaled mountains while clueless cows won prizes.
Though Bhutanese custom dictates we couldn’t take photos, we had a chat with the King of Bhutan (who totally looked like Tom Cruise from Top Gun in his aviators). He spotted us while strolling through the festival to greet and speak with local people, and warmly welcomed us to Bhutan and asked how our trip was going so far. We also had tea with the humble yet elegant Princess Namzey, who was volunteering at the festival in a bright orange jumpsuit.
In between casually hanging out with royalty, we ogled vibrant textiles and jewelry adorning the local visitors, watched adorable animals on parade, and devoured hot yak sausages to keep up our energy. (Protip: Do eat. Tastes like hot dogs.)
The Royal Highlander Festival in Bhutan was a visual treat—and a photographer’s dream—so rather than tell you how it was, I’ll let the photos do the talking.
Tip: Bhutanese people always bring a cup (and, ideally, a bowl) to festivals to capitalize on the free refreshments. Do follow their example!
How to travel to the next Royal Highlander Festival in Bhutan via the Gasa – Laya trek
If you have eyeballs, we assume you’re now convinced you need to attend the 2018 Royal Highlander Festival. (We know we are.)
To help you plan your trip, here’s what you need to know about traveling to the Royal Highlander Festival in Bhutan:
Unless you’re from India, Bangladesh, or the Maldives, you’re required to visit Bhutan through a tour company. Gray Langur Tours sponsored our trip to Bhutan, and they’re one of very few tour companies who knew about and brought tourists to the 2017 Royal Highlander Festival (to the impressed surprise of many locals). We had a great time traveling with them, and can highly recommend their services. Make sure to book ahead of time, as tours during the high season (October) book up fast!
There are opportunities for both camping and basic guesthouses/homestays in Laya. Tour companies can arrange accommodation based on your preferences.
Once you’ve committed to a tour company, make sure to set the date in your calendar! The next festival will occur sometime around the 23rd of October 2018, though dates can always change. Count on the festival lasting two days, and give yourself several days before and after for acclimating to the altitude and trekking up to the festival grounds. And a few more days to explore the rest of Bhutan because duh.
The first and second Royal Highlander Festivals were held in Laya, though there are rumors that future festivals will be held in other highland settlements. Stay tuned—we’ll update when we know more.
If the festival is held in Laya, you must to trek to the festival grounds via the Gasa – Laya trek. Unless you want to shell out for a helicopter, that is. Most locals trek to the festival. Even the King of Bhutan trekked up in 2017!
The Gasa – Laya trek is a high-altitude trek of moderate difficulty on very uneven terrain at times, and involves around 1,500 – 2,000 meters of vertical ascent. Horses are available for carrying luggage along the route. Our trekking route began from a starting point outside Gasa, and took two days for our group of generally fit, though not overly athletic people. Keep in mind that weather can be quite unpredictable in the mountains, and inclement weather can slow things down significantly. These are the Himalayas we’re talking about!
Fit as you may be, if planning on doing any part of the Gasa – Laya trek, be sure to get a bit of exercise in before leaving home! Medical professionals recommend doing practice treks with a backpack on, or taking up cycling for a time. Also, walking sticks are your friends.
For more information on future Royal Highlander Festivals, check out these websites:
Yay, transparency! All the costs of our trip were covered by Gray Langur Tours, and this Royal Highlander adventure was part of their first official tour in Bhutan. Though a young company, they’ve proven to us that they’re capable of bringing tourists to this festival, and ensuring everyone has a blast. We recommend using them to visit the Royal Highlander Festival (and the rest of Bhutan). Just remember that everyone’s experience is different, and book at your own discretion.