Highlander Festival in Laya

The annual Highlander Festival took place from October 23rd to 24th in the village of Laya. The Highlander Festival is exceptional in the fact that it celebrates the unique culture of those who live in the mountains in northern Bhutan. Additionally, the festival aims to highlight the sustainable nature of the highlander’s economy and it works to demonstrate the novelty as well as the creativity exhibited in the Highlanders’ daily practices.

Written by Hannah Park, Photos by Namzay Kumutha

A village girl from Laya dressed in her traditional highlander attire

Highlanders of Bhutan and visitors congregated to this event in order to exchange knowledge, cultural values, and practical skills that they could implement in their native villages. The annual Highlander Festival is a component of an initiative launched by His Majesty known as Good to Great Gasa, with the intention of bettering the entirety of Bhutan. I was lucky enough to experience the mesmerizing and breathtaking beauty of the landscape, culture, and people from the Highlander region of Bhutan.

Gathering at the festival ground watching dances and other performances

Gaza is a dzongkhag located in the northern region of Bhutan, about a six to seven hour drive from Thimphu. Numerous treks and runs take place during the time of the Highlander Festival, the Snowman Run being one of the most rigorous hikes. This year, participants in the Snowman Run trekked from Sephu, Wangdue to their ending point of Gasa Tsachu, Gasa. A unique aspect of the Snowman Run is the fact that hikers will have the ability to experience the breathtaking beauty and stunning solitude of one of the most remote areas of Bhutan. The trail is 200 km and is completed in an average of 18 days. The run commenced on October 15th, with 20 contestants, half of which were Bhutanese and half of which were foreigners, embarking on this trail. Another popular run is the Gasa-Laya run, in which participants attempt to run the 25 km stretch from Gasa to Laya in order to reach the Highlander Festival. As my friends and I hiked along the trail stretching from these two villages, we observed many runners sprinting along the rather steep and oftentimes slippery path.

Possessing little athletic ability and meager hiking experience, I decided to simply hike the 25 km trail stretching from Gasa to Laya. On Monday, October 23rd, my cohort and I awoke at the crack of dawn and embarked from our farm-stay homes in Gasa in order to catch an early start on the trail. During the eight hour trek, I was constantly mesmerized and floored by the enormity and impeccable beauty of Bhutan’s mountainous landscape. I recall a friend jokingly labelled the formations around Thimphu and Paro as “hills”, and once I witnessed the plunging cliff-sides and mammoth waterfalls and caves embedded like gems within the mountainsides, I soon realized that these massive elevations, were, in fact, “mountains”.

The following day, we awoke early in order to hike the short trek to the festival which rests atop a plateau that overlooks the town. The numerous black tents each held an organization or exhibit that showcased the many practices and developments taking place in the region.  Organizations included the National Highland Research and Development Centre, the College of Natural Resources from the Royal University of Bhutan, Agriculture Research and Development Centre from Bajo, Wangdue, as well as exhibits showcasing traditional medicinal herbs and animal nutrition programs. Traditional dances and sporting events took place throughout the day (a particularly fascinating wrestling match between local men from the village proved to be extremely entertaining and memorable), as well as an appearance by His Majesty. A particularly unforgettable moment took place at the commencement of the festival, in which His Majesty took the time to greet several of the festival-goers. The remainder of the day was punctuated by a best-in-show animal competition as well as numerous opportunities to ride and take pictures with decorated yaks and horses.

Despite the bitter cold, the breathtaking views of adjacent, snow-capped mountains, fascinating displays, and entertaining events, proved that the Highlander Festival is an enthralling and awe-inspiring spectacle. By showcasing a unique culture within Bhutan, this event is truly exceptional, and it is well-worth the pilgrimage.

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