The internet has been stormed with beautiful vignettes of the King of Bhutan chilling out in the stunning vistas of the Gasa district’s highlands— home to the Laya tribesmen. What a treat it has been to trawl through the series of pictures of the beloved king with his son at the Royal Highland Festival which has just ended. The 3-day fiesta, the 6th edition, held in Laya, was an initiative of His Majesty himself to give fresh impetus to the local economy through tourism— and to showcase the unique culture and traditions of some of Bhutan’s nomadic people.

Orange-robed monks playing traditional instruments, heralding His Majesty’s arrival, summoned the people to the vast open grounds surrounded by snow-streaked mountains.

 The great gathering thrilled to the traditionally attired tribesmen, arriving in in an endless stream, leading yaks and horses and mastiffs all gussied up for the show. Matrons, dressed in their Sunday best in traditional attire and beautiful silver and turquoise jewellery, young women giggling and laughing and trying to discipline irrepressible kids impatient for the festivities to begin… What a vibrant, pulsating vision of living culture it was for tourists from the very start.

Dances and singing, horse racing, wrestling, parades… pop-up stalls selling food and souvenirs. The carnival air was catching— bringing smiles to even the grumpiest visitor.The Royal Highland Festival provides an excellent opportunity to enjoy an inspirational, experiential journey amongst new surrounds, cultures and ethnic diversity. The event not only witnesses the ways of the Layaps, the local community, highlanders from 10 different districts (dzongkhags) also congregate here to enjoy and participate in the festivities.

What excited the gathering even more was that this time round His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck was accompanied by his son His Royal Highness Gyalsey Jigme Namgyel Wangchuck. This was the first visit of the child prince to Laya. We enjoyed wonderful vignettes of both royals participating in Marchang- the ceremony held to bless and sanctify the festival; together meeting and greeting the people of Laya and other highland communities, well as foreign visitors attending the event— straddling a yak and watching the unfolding of the different events planned for the 2-day fiesta.

Visitors get to enjoy truly immersive experiences at such lavish showcases of the ancestral heritage and lifestyle of the nomadic people in these remote highlands of Bhutan; these rarely find their way to visitor itineraries. While most tourists get to visit Gasa for the hot springs, they rarely find travel on to Laya, home of the nomadic highlanders in the Gasa district.

The Layap women stand out for their traditional attire which comprises cosy handwoven capes, plenty of jewellery and distinctive conical hats. The women of the Lingzhi highlands on the other hand can be dressed in bright furry beret-style hats and multi-coloured striped cloaks or shawls. Staying in a local farmhouse during the festival offers insights into the everyday world of the Layaps, with traditional meals cooked and eaten in the family kitchen and cosy Tshugtu blankets to keep one warm through the chilly nights. By special arrangement, one could even stay in a nomad’s traditional home, a tent made of woven yak hair.

The first Royal Highlander festival was launched on October 16, 2016, by royal command to commemorate the birth of HRH the Gyalsey, 400 years of Shabdrung Rimpoche, and Guru Rinpoche’s Rabjung (60-year cycle) birth year. Now in its sixth edition, it has proven to be a fantastic showcase of highland culture; simultaneously it has stayed true to its purpose of promoting the sustainable livelihood of highlanders, shedding the spotlight on the innovative spirit of this community and the highlands as a pride of Bhutan.

This is the festive season in Bhutan, and if you missed it for whatever reason, there are other fairs and festivals to look forward to for immersive experiences of Bhutan, in other regions as well. So, what are you waiting for? Hurry and catch that flight to the ‘Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon’ in the Himalayas for an experience of a lifetime.

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