“Welcome to Laya,” he said to me.
“Not many foreigners have come here; you are one of very few.”
“I hope you enjoy your time here,” he added before making his way down the line of eager patrons awaiting his shake or smile.
He is the fifth King of Bhutan.
I was one of maybe two dozen non-Bhutanese people at the 2017 Royal Highlander Festival in Laya. Considering it took me two days of hiking through the Himalayas and the support of an entire tour group to get there, it’s no surprise that not many Westerners make it to this spot – and they are missing out.
My journey to Bhutan started in Bangkok.
As noted in my primer on travel to Bhutan, unless you carry an Indian, Bangladeshi, or Maldivian passport, you cannot enter the country without going through an accredited tour company. In my case, that requirement was met by joining as a guest of new company Gray Langur’s inaugural trip, the Kingdom of the Clouds group tour (see full disclosure statement here).
After a night in Bangkok, we flew into Paro, home to Bhutan’s only international airport, where we met the Bhutanese tour guides who would accompany us for the rest of the trip. From there, we were shuttled to the capital city, Thimphu.
The next morning, we left Thimphu and began our multi-day journey to Laya, to attend the Royal Highlander Festival.
The festival was created by the aforementioned King, His Royal Highness Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, to bring together and showcase Bhutan’s highlander peoples and their cultures.
Only in its second year, the annual event takes place on a plain ringed by the tips of Himalayan mountains, roughly 4,000 metres (14,000 feet) above sea level.
Travelling from Thimphu to Gasa, we got an introduction to Bhutan’s roads — twisting, narrowing paths that get more twisted and narrow as you shift from urban to rural landscapes. Luckily, we were being chauffeured by a skilled driver, someone who not only knew their way along the country’s often unmarked routes (infamously dotted with hilarious anti-speeding and DUI-prevention signs), but was also adept at making fifteen-point turns in a 20-seater bus at the very edge of a guardrail-free ledge 2,000 metres above the ground.
Quick tip: If you tend to get car sick, you may want to take something to help with nausea, and ride at the front of the vehicle, because the drive will get you green at the gills.
From Gasa, where we spent one night camping, we began our two-day journey to the village of Laya, Bhutan’s highest settlement and one of the highest settlements in the world at about 3,850 metres (~13,000 feet).
We started our trek at, I believe, 2,800 metres, and our first stop, at the army base, would bring us to 3,800 metres. One thousand metres in a day. We were told it would take us about six to eight hours to complete, with a rest stop for lunch.
Now, a word about these numbers: Please note that Bhutanese are not as rigid or exact with their measures of time and distance as Westerners (this is something I have experienced in other Asian countries as well, including my own). This means that when you ask someone, “How far is it to Laya?” you can get responses that differ by not minutes, but hours.
The reality is, that a trek like this is hard to measure accurately, because it’s dependent on so many factors: weather, season, your fitness level.
Case in point: our tour group’s time to completion for the first leg of this hike ranged from six hours to twelve, meaning the last people to make it to camp literally took twice as long as the fastest group.
So what was it like, this six-hour trek into and up the Himalayas? Visually, it was stunning.
We followed one of the many crystal blue rivers that bisect Bhutan’s mountain ranges, carefully hiking along well-worn footpaths and trails. Bhutan has a very, very high treeline, meaning the mountains are covered in evergreens almost to their peaks, only interrupted by strings of colourful, fluttering prayer flags that send their good vibes with the wind.
Though picturesque, this trek is not at all easy – and not just because it can be long.
The terrain was uneven, in every respect: rocks and stones dotted the dirt path, the width of the trail varied from narrow to narrower. Our overall hike was an ascent, but the trek undulated significantly, going down before climbing back up several times.
The route we walked is also one of the only routes into Laya, and was as such used for the only transportation option in the Himalayas: donkeys and horses. When you’d hear a call of “Donkey! Horses!” your only option was to scramble to the side of the path, lest you be butted or booted over the edge.
And there was the ever-present minefield of droppings to avoid (“Mud or poop?” became our slogan). Add to that the quick changes in altitude (1000 metres in one day!), and you have a hike that is definitely not a walk in the park.
Another factor at play during a trek is daylight availability.
Hiking along the ledge of a mountain is neither easy nor totally safe in full sun, let alone in twilight, and arriving at a new campsite after dark is both disorienting and difficult. Not wanting to experience either, I made some inquiries at our lunch stop – a beautiful clearing next to a riverbank of sparkling white stones – as to the remaining distance and time to the army base. This, of course, offered me no concrete assurances (see note above about numbers), and so I made a new resolve: walk as fast as you safely can to outrun the sunset.
As expected in a large group, we naturally divided into clusters based on speed.
At the front with me were Lost With Purpose’s Alex and Sebaastian, and the three of us huffed it as hard as we could. There were points along the way where we literally had to cling to the mountain’s rockface to avoid slipping on mud (and toppling downhill), others where we were able to pick up the pace and make good time, and a moment or two (that was all we allowed ourselves) where we stopped to take in the view and a deep breath.
Not knowing where you are has a way of motivating you to get to where you need to be – even if you don’t know where that is.
It is difficult to describe the sense of jubilation we experienced when we finally reached the army base camp, heightened especially because we didn’t know we’d made it until we crested a hill and saw tiny tents dotting a grassy field.
It was still light out. We treated ourselves to momos and milk tea from the lone tent-cum-bar outside the barracks while we waited for our tents to be set up and the rest of the group to arrive.
Slowly, they trickled in, and with them, news of mishaps along the trail: someone was still hours and hours behind, another had been injured by a rogue mule and was literally limping her way over (shout out here to the two medics who expertly bandaged, assessed, and assured us along the way). We unpacked our gear as the sun disappeared, fumbling in the dark alongside our equally exhausted guides who, despite everything, made every effort to placate their patrons.
The second day of hiking was much like the first: as steep as it was beautiful.
The higher you go, the more scenic the views, right? We arrived in Laya with a misty rain that is so characteristic of mountains, seeking refuge at the woodstove of a small cabin next to our not-quite-ready campsite.
The mist that accompanied us into Laya gave way to a persistent rain, punctuated by downpours that jailed us in our communal meal tent. Anyone who doesn’t understand pathetic fallacy has never been in the mountains. The peculiar microclimates have a way of punctuating your emotional experiences, and this drizzly day would usher in what was the most difficult day of the trip.
We spent most of it huddled together, trying to stay dry.
The weather and a few other mishaps meant some of our gear did not arrive with us, and a few souls (your writer included) went to bed without sleeping bags (Gray Langur did somehow procure a number of thick wool blankets for us instead; no small feat when you’re in a tiny village). That night, the temperature dropped to below freezing. We were, in short, cold, wet, bored, and left with no recourse – it’s not like you can hail a cab and get to a hotel.
Thankfully, we woke to a brighter morning and were finally able to walk up to Royal Highlander Festival.
From our campsite, we followed the thin dirt trails that ran up to the fairgrounds, joining the crowds (and their animals). The short, steep hike led us to a huge clearing, framed on either side by yak hair tents, colourful flags, and the beginnings of a sizeable crowd.
The festival was, without a doubt, the absolute highlight of the trip.
It is truly a festival for Bhutanese by Bhutanese, with traditional games, food, performances, and handicrafts.
The festival is special because it focuses on the country’s highlander peoples, distinct groups of semi-nomadic folk who are preserving their traditional ways of living. They reside in various parts of Bhutan, but always in the mountains (ie. the highlands).
Apparently, some hiked for nearly a week to reach Laya and the festival, and thus it is not common for all of these different groups to be in the same place at once. For a visitor, this was an incredible way to experience Bhutan’s diverse cultural landscape, in a way that just wouldn’t happen in the big cities.
As I write this, I am reflecting on just how special and exciting this experience was.
I spent most of it casually ogling all the gorgeous, regionally distinct outfits. Let it be known that while the few foreigners present were clad in shapeless hiking pants and black windbreakers, the highlanders were decked out in embroidered robes, rows upon rows of bangles and necklaces, gravity-defying headpieces, and delicate rings (Alex has some amazing photos of this in her Royal Highlander Festival write up). More than one woman was seen hiking up the muddy paths in high heels.
This was a celebration in its truest form, an occasion worth the effort.
And though I didn’t (couldn’t) look nearly as fly, it was obvious, in those moments, that my efforts (and discomforts) were worth it, too.
I met the King and interviewed a princess. I ate stewed chillies with my hands side-by-side with highlanders from across the country. I bought a tray of handmade yak sausage and shared it with my tour mates while we watched tiny children perform their traditional dances. So what if I had to spend a night cold and wet?*
The reality is, the Himalayas don’t care about your itinerary, or how much you paid for a trip, or how long you’ve been hiking.
Having a guide is a necessity, but not a guarantee, as your tour company has only so much control over the your experience. Mountain climates are temperamental, fickle, challenging – and that’s what makes them, and the people who live at their heights, unique.
My word of advice for anyone wanting to trek from Gasa to Laya is to be honest about your trekking experience, physical capacities, and tolerance for inclement weather.
Like any adventure trip, you should do your research, pack the right gear (think layers, headlamps, and more layers!), and be prepared for change. Like most things in life, it’s about managing your expectations; do that successfully, and the pleasures and panoramas of Bhutan’s peaks will reward you in spades.
On our final night in Laya, I was invited to a gathering in a small house near our campsite. Even before we reached the door, I was greeted by the sounds of raucous singing and the scent of simmering yak meat. Inside, people were seated around a wood stove at the centre of the room, singing popular songs in English, Hindi, and Bhutanese. I was invited to sit with them and obviously joined in with the singing (as an aside, Bryan Adams is very popular in Bhutan).
“What did you think of our little festival?” a gentleman asked me.
“It’s awesome. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. And I met the King,” I answered.
He nodded. “Ah, yes. Not many tourists can say they have done that!”
“So I have heard,” I said. And now I understand why.
*Let the record show that I was pouty and annoying during this period of cold wetness. For brevity’s sake, details of this episode have been left out.