The Royal Highland Festival In Bhutan

Fresh off my first shower in 2 weeks and revived from a night in a warm dry bed I repacked by bag and climbed into a truck to drive back up the trail that I walked off of the previous day. The first Snowman Race had been successful and a while many of the international athletes were flying home a group of us were invited to attend the Royal Highland Festival in Laya. I had no plans after Bhutan so I wasn’t going to miss another few days hiking in the Himalaya!

We spent one night in a guesthouse in Gasa and the next morning drove to the trailhead. When Luis and I started our recon trek in August the trailhead was a quiet riverbank with a single herders hut. Now for the Royal Highland Festival it was a bustling metropolis with blue tarpaulin roofed buildings housing restaurants, hotels, and convenience stores with crowds of people and pack animals milling around.

Snowman crew members ready to hike to the Royal Highland Festival in Bhutan.
Snowman Race Crew

We donned our packs and joined the line of hikers snaking their way up into the mountains. After a few hours of hiking we made it to the village of Laya and wandered the winding pathways across the hillside to our homestay for the event, a large cozy stone and wood house. We unpacked in a room full of blankets and bedrolls which was good considering the forecasted low temps at night.

Fleece blankets stacked in the homestay.
Fleece Blankets Everywhere

In the morning we woke to a stunning view of the sun rising over the valley. Our hosts made butter tea and breakfast and we joined the procession of people walking from the village up the hillside to the festival grounds.

The sun coming up over Laya, Bhutan.
Sunrise Over Laya

The Royal Highland Festival is a multi-day event showcasing the traditions and cultures of the highland communities across the region. That morning the King of Bhutan arrived and made his rounds, talking with community members and dignitaries, and even stopped to talk with us about the success of the Snowman Race. We were invited to sit in a special tent near the King’s tent and watched as highlanders put on parades in traditional dress with herds of yaks, horses, and more.

Royal Highland Festival parade.
Highland Parade

While talking with the King Luis mentioned that if possible, he’d like to ride a yak. In no time we were being ushered up the hillside and onto yaks for a once in a lifetime experience.

Chris riding on a yak.
Riding A Yak

Over the next two days we watched as communities competed in various challenges including a horse race, a cross country running race, three-legged race, tug of war, slingshot, a strongwoman competition and more. Between events we were treated to musical and theatrical performances and when we needed a break we wandered the festival checking out crafts and vendors tents or sitting down for food and drinks.

The Royal Highland Festival 2022 Film

The best part of attending the Royal Highland Festival was the people. In addition to talking with the King and other dignitaries I ran into friends from the Night Halt 2 Crew, including Chencho, our representative from the Bhutan Amateur Atheltic Federation.

Chris with Chencho Dorji at the Highland Festival.
Chencho At The Highland Festival

Additionally, one of my favorite pack animal handlers from Night Halt 2 told me, through a translator, that he lived in Laya and wanted me to visit his home when I came back for the festival. Sharing no language, and having no idea how street addresses work in the highlands, I figured the prospects of a reunion were low.

Pack animal handler in Bhutan.
Pack Animal Handler And The Doctor – Night Halt 2 Crew

Then incredibly, on the second night we were walking down to the festival bonfire, turned a corner on a narrow path, and there he was! He grabbed my hand and invited me to visit his house so I followed while the rest of the group headed to the bonfire.

We sat on the floor of his simple kitchen while he made tea and offered me a few Druk lagers. His wife and mother sat with us, and since no one spoke English but me they talked and I smiled. Eventually he got up and went outside and after a very very very long time I began to realize that he wasn’t coming back. Not exactly sure what to do next I politely finished my Druk, thanked the ladies over and over, and made my way outside.

Kitchen in a herder's hut.
Pack Animal Handler’s Kitchen

Slightly buzzed, and with absolutely no idea where I was and no headlamp, I started wandering the labyrinth of crisscrossing paths down the pitch black mountainside. Eventually I spotted the bonfire below and made a b-line to it, crossing fields, jumping fences, sloshing through puddles and horse poop, and when when I finally arrived I found Luis sitting in the VIP tent. I pulled up a chair next to him and enjoyed the jovial program.

Eventually I was called up to the microphone by the MC, a local comedian, to help draw lottery tickets for prizes. As we picked numbers and I read them aloud he translated a bit of his monologue for me, saying that he was trying to find me a wife but if I didn’t shave my beard then I’d probably end up with a grandmother. It was quite an experience going from the near silence of the herder’s hut to the limelight of the festival stage.

Festival bonfire.
Royal Highland Festival Bonfire

When the bonfire party shut down somehow me and Luis found ourselves in a local “bar” having drinks with new Bhutanese friends sitting on wood benches under a blue tarpaulin roof. We stayed up way too late but it was one of the most incredible nights of my life.

That night, as if on cue, the snow started to fall. In the morning we sipped hot tea, layered up, and began the trek back down to Gasa making fresh tracks on the trails. We joined the hoards of hikers walking out of the highlands, reached the road, found our rigs, and drove back to Thimphu.

Snowy trail in Laya, Bhutan.
Snowy Trail Home

The next morning we packed our bags, said goodbye to our hosts, and made our way to the Paro airport and our flights back to Bangkok. I was ready for my next adventures in Asia, but also completely humbled and thankful for the incredible opportunities and experiences with the Bhutanese people and the group from the Snowman Race. Together with the race crew, the Bhutanese Military, doctors, guides, animal handlers and more, we made the inaugural Snowman Race a success, and had a great time doing it!

The Snowman Team at the Royal Highland Festival.
Snowman Race 2022 Team

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