Planning your Bhutan holiday around its festivals
15th August 2019 | by Suzie
As the birthplace of ‘Gross National Happiness’, it’s no surprise that Bhutan loves a celebration. Bhutan’s year-round festivals showcase the unique culture of this enigmatic kingdom with vibrant displays of music, dance, traditional costumes and competitive sports, with Buddhist spirituality at the core. Whenever you visit Bhutan you’ll find a festival in full swing somewhere, so here are a few tips for planning your trip around the best of each season’s festival fever…
Spring (Mar - mid Apr)
Spring is one of the most romantic times to visit Bhutan. The soft hillsides become a rainbow of colour as the rhododendron and magnolia trees burst into bloom, and the air fills with the heady scent of wild daphne.
The Rhododendron Festival, which takes place every April or May in the Royal Botanical Park, Lampelri, puts these beautiful flowers at the front and centre of the celebrations. You can go on guided walks past dozens of wild rhododendron in every shade from deep red to hot fuschia, inky purple and opal white. Listen to local songs about these opulent flowers, get involved in conservation-focused activities and take lots of stunning photos. If you miss the festival itself, you can still see the beautiful blooms with a visit anytime during the season. Rhododendron Festival, Thimphu, provisional dates: 19-21st April 2020
If you’re planning to be in Bhutan a bit earlier in the spring, in late March or early April, you might want to schedule your trip around the big and bustling five day Paro Tshechu. The most popular of Bhutan’s Bhuddist festivals, it incorporates elaborate dance displays, traditional masks and vibrant costume, culminating in the grand annual post-sundown unveiling of the sacred thangkha - a hand-painted silk tableau of Bhuddist imagery. It might be busier than the smaller festivals, but the impressive spectacle is well worth it. Paro Tshechu, provisional dates: 4th -8th April 2020
Summer (late Apr - mid Sept)
The mild Bhutanese spring soon gives way to warmer, wetter summer weather, but rain doesn’t stop play. High-ground trekking is especially popular in summer, as it tends to stay drier and you have the bonus of utterly stunning views over mist-filled valleys below. The festival spirit, of course, goes on despite the drizzle.
One of the standout dates in the summer calendar is the Haa Summer Festival, which takes place in mid-July in the sheltered oasis of the Haa Valley. Though it’s getting a bigger profile these days, we’re talking ‘big’ for Bhutan, so is still pretty serene. Enjoy the valley’s unique culture and the warm welcome of a local homestay, and tuck into traditional hoentay dumplings as you watch the dance and music performances. Stay on after the festivities to explore this lesser-visited corner of Bhutan with hikes through the beautiful poppy fields and into the hills. Haa Summer Festival (date tbc, between 11th- 15th July 2020)
Late summer in Bhutan is prime mushroom season and a great time for a foodie visit. The Matsutake Mushroom Festival, in the Ura Valley, is dedicated to celebrating the many varieties of edible fungi found in the lush forests of Bumthang. Sample many different mushroom dishes and other local delicacies, and learn how to identify wild edible mushrooms on guided walks (though we don’t recommend you eat any mushrooms you’ve picked yourself without verification from an expert that they’re definitely OK!). Matsutake Festival, Ura, Bumthang, provisional dates: 23-24th Aug 2019
Autumn (late Sept - Nov)
Autumn in Bhutan provides a reflective counterpoint to spring’s abundant growth, and is a similarly perfect time to visit. The weather is mild, the hills are green after the summer rain, and festival season is in full flow.
From the traditional Wangdue Tshechu in late September, to the Black-Necked Crane Festival in Phobjikha Valley each November, you could spend almost two months hopping between festivities without stopping, though we might not recommend it! Instead, we’d suggest you choose a couple of festivals you’re keen to be at, and plan your trip around them.
If you’re in the capital in late September or early October, it’s well worth taking in the grand duo of Thimphu’s Tshechu and Drubchen for an overview of Bhutan’s enduring traditions. The tshechu offers a spectacular array of dancing, music, food and frivolity, with big crowds to match, and arriving a day early for the preceding drubchen, (or dromchoe) gives you the chance to see special masked folk dances and receive blessings. Being in the capital has the added bonus that, between the festivities, you’ll have some of the country’s best hotels on hand to retire to! Thimphu Tshechu: 8th - 10th Oct 2019; 26th - 28th Sept 2020
Winter (Dec - Feb)
At the highest altitudes, winter in Bhutan can be a harsh time, with thick snow and fierce winds making some remote areas completely inaccessible. However, if you keep to the central highlands and further south (and like your trekking a bit more bracing) there are advantages to visiting during these months. You’ll have your pick of the top hotels for a start! There may be fewer festivals in winter, but those few are all the more vibrant for casting a bright light against the darkness…
The Druk Wangyel Tshechu, held in Thimphu in mid-December, stands out for its meticulously choreographed dance displays performed by the Bhutanese Army, while the traditional Trongsa Tshechu takes place against the stunning backdrop of one of Bhutan’s most impressive buildings, the Trongsa Dzong. Druk Wangyel Tshechu, Thimphu: 13th Dec 2020
Just squeezing into the colder months, and heralding the first whispers of spring, are Punakha’s Drubchen and Tshechu celebrations in February or early March. There are very few festivals in January, so these could be said to open the festival season, and do so in flamboyant style with a reenactment of Bhutan’s most famous battle, three days of elaborate dances and displays, and plenty of delicious traditional food to warm you up. Punakha Drubchen, provisional dates: 2nd - 4th March 2020 ad Punakha Tshechu, provisional dates: 5th - 7th March 2020
To read more about the traditions and history of Bhutan’s festival culture, check out Gemma’s blog post, Festival Fever in Bhutan.