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Bhutan’s Department of Tourism is delighted to announce the commencement of the country’s festive season, a period rich in cultural magnificence and spiritual celebration. From the mystical dances that bring to life Bhutan’s ancient myths to the melodic rhythms that have echoed through the kingdom’s mountains for centuries, these events provide an unparalleled window into the soul of Bhutan. Highlighting this season’s calendar are seven marquee festivals, including the Black Necked Crane Festival, Bhutan Bird Festival, Druk Wangyel Tshechu, Punakha Dromche Punakha Tshechu, Paro Tshechu, and the Rhododendron Festival. The festivals will take place between November 2023 and April 2024, showcasing the rich tapestry of Bhutan’s national identity and offering a warm Bhutanese welcome to all who wish to experience the country’s living traditions.

The annual Black-Necked Crane Festival will be held on November 11, 2023, in Gangtey valley (located less than four hours drive from Thimphu). The event celebrates the return of the magnificent black-necked cranes to Bhutan from parts of Tibet, China and Arunachal Pradesh, India. Attendees can look forward to witnessing mask dances such as Drametse Ngachham (mask dance of the drums from Drametse, eastern Bhutan), Pachham (Dance of the heroes), and Zhana Ngachham (Black hat drum dance). Furthermore, the festival also features various cultural performances by students, paying homage to the globally vulnerable Black-Necked cranes.

Gangtey Valley serves as one of the winter roosting grounds for the black-necked cranes, thus visitors also have the unique opportunity to observe these majestic birds up close. Beyond that, they can also explore Gangtey Goenpa (temple), hike towards the lower valley and gain insights into local ways of life.

Similarly, the annual Bhutan Bird Festival will be held from November 13-15, 2023 at Tingtibi in Zhemgang district, known as the eco-tourism capital of Bhutan, about a 6-hour drive from Thimphu. It is home to over 500 species of birds including Pallas’s Fish Eagle, Satyr Tragopan, Rufous-necked Hornbill, Spotted Elachura, Blue-capped Rock Thrush, Emerald Cuckoo, Nuthatch, and the critically endangered White-bellied Heron.

The three-day bird festival is a fascinating event, aimed to promote birding and upscale eco-tourism in the region and to enhance the local economy. The festival will feature cultural and entertainment programs by local bands, dancers and singers, mask dances and traditional Bhutanese music. There will be food stalls displaying signature local cuisines such as kharang (maize grits), smoked fish, bamboo shoots, pickles, fruits and cereals, and tongpa, alcoholic beverages made from wheat, served in bamboo containers, a favourite of locals and foreign visitors alike. Beautiful and creative objects woven from cane and bamboo such as household items, containers, quivers, plates and jewellery holders will be displayed at the festival. Visitors can also participate in drawing competitions and traditional games, and enjoy hiking along the beautiful bird-watching trails. Beyond the festival ground, visitors have the option to go for healing hot-spring baths and recreational fishing (catch and release) using local traps or fly-fishing equipment. They can also go for white water rafting in the Mangde Chhu and Drangme Chhu basins.

Following the bird festivals, the annual Druk Wangyel Tshechu will be held on December 13, 2023 at Dochula mountain pass, a short drive (45 minutes) away from the capital Thimphu. Against the breathtaking backdrop of the Himalayan mountain range, many sacred dances are performed at the festival retelling the bravery and sacrifices of the Royal Bhutan Army. The festival will feature various mask dances and traditional Bhutanese folk dances. Many unique dances are performed during the festival, making it different from other religious festivals nationwide. One of the most popular dances performed at the Druk Wangyel Festival is the dance of Gadpo and Ganmo-the dance of the old men and women, a dance of the heroes and the dance of guardian deities- which is performed in reverence of the main protector deities of dharma.

The other two most popular festivals in Punakha happen every year in the beautiful courtyard of the stunning fortress Punakha Dzong as the jacaranda flowers begin to bloom. Punakha Dromche will be held from February 16 to 18, 2024 and is a unique festival as it is the only festival in the country that dramatically reenacts a 17th-century battle against the Tibetan army.

The festival features local militia men or ‘pazaps’ dressed in traditional battle regalia that is reminiscent of the time when in the absence of an armed force, eight great villages or ‘tshochen’ from Thimphu and Punakha came forward and expelled the invading Tibetan forces who had come to take away the sacred relic, Rangjung Kharsapani. The battle reenactment is then followed by a demonstration of ‘norbu chushani’ or immersion of relics in the Mo Chhu River. To hoodwink the Tibetan invaders, the 17th-century unifier of Bhutan, Zhabdrung Rinpoche is said to have dropped a decoy of the sacred relic into the Mo Chhu River. This demonstration by the river is watched by hundreds of people gathered in the Dzong. On the final day of Punakha Dromche a massive copper bowl inscribed with scriptures is dragged into the centre of the courtyard. The bowl is filled to the brim with alcohol which is then blessed and distributed to the people attending the festival.

Following the dromche is the three-day annual Punakha Tshechu, which will be held from February 19th to 21st, 2024, and is also held in the courtyard of Punakha Dzong. Punakha Tshechu, like all other tshechus, is held in reverence of Guru Rinpoche, the tantric Buddhist Vajra master, and is one of the most popular tshechus in the country. It is attended by locals and foreign visitors, as well as people from across the country. The tshechu will feature various mask dances or ‘cham’ and traditional Bhutanese folk dances. People dress in their best festival attire and families bring picnic lunches to come and watch the festival. Tshechus are one of the most significant and visible manifestations of the Bhutanese culture, art and traditions.

Similarly, the annual Paro Tshechu will be held on March 21-25, 2024 at the beautiful Rinpung Dzong in Paro, the district where the country’s first and only international airport is located. The festival will feature various mask dances and traditional Bhutanese folk dances performed by both monks as well as locals. The main highlight of the festival is the unfurling of the immense embroidery of Guru Rinpoche (Guru Throngdrel) on the final day depicting the eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche. The giant embroidery covers the entire three-story wall and many people queue up to view and get blessings from the throngdrel every year.

On April 13-14, 2024, the Rhododendron Festival will be held at the Royal Botanical Park in Lamperi, about 35km from the capital Thimphu. The two-day rhododendron festival is an exciting event that marks the beginning of the spring season. It will showcase an exhibition of several types of blooming rhododendron species found in the park, spanning an area of around 50 km2. The main objective of the Rhododendron Festival is to celebrate the rich flora, culture and food of Bhutan, and create awareness on climate change and conservation of the environment. Bhutan has currently identified and recorded 46 species of rhododendron, including four that are endemic to Bhutan: Rhododendron kesangiae, Rhododendron pogonophyllum, Rhododendron Bhutanese, and Rhododendron flinckii. The Royal Botanical Park in Lamperi houses about 29 of these species.

The festival will feature games, and cultural and entertainment programs, including mask dances, traditional Bhutanese music, and dances by the local communities and school children. There will be textiles and souvenir stalls, and food stalls including rhododendron-themed foods and drinks. The stalls are set up by the local communities with delicious Bhutanese cuisine, snacks and beverages. Nature-loving visitors looking for some opportunities to physically engage with nature can go forest-bathing along the Lungchutse hiking trail, about a 2-hour walk from the Dochula Pass. It’s a beautiful trail with canopies of trees, and around the time of the festival will have stunning rhododendron flowers in full bloom.

“We are thrilled to welcome visitors from around the world to partake in an extraordinary journey through the vibrant tapestry of Bhutanese festivities. Explore the wonderful palette of colours, laughter and unforgettable memories through numerous festivals that Bhutan hosts, be it religious festivals like Punakha Tshechu or modern festivals like the Bhutan Bird Festival. We invite you to immerse yourself in the joy and happiness that Bhutan has to offer,” concluded Dorji Dhradhul, the Director General of the Department of Tourism.