Tshechu festival mask

Bhutan’s best festivals

Jun 30, 2023
Reading time: 10 minutes

Every year over 150 festivals are held across Bhutan. These multiday, religious festivals are steeped in tradition and culture. Here's our pick of the nine best festivals in Bhutan to help you choose which to attend when you visit!

Festivals are a big deal in Bhutanese life. They're steeped in tradition and many last for a few days. They're annual, crowded, super colourful, and exciting affairs. And what's extra fabulous is that tourists are welcome to attend!

What can you expect at a festival?

Bhutan's festivals are generally vibrant, colourful and loud affairs. There are masks, dancing, singing, storytelling and more.

Dance of the Masters of the Cremation Grounds (Durdag), Bhutan festival

Dance of the Masters of the Cremation Grounds (Durdag)

Dances are performed by both the laity and monks. In the past, masked dances were solely the domain of the monks, but the third king of Bhutan changed this tradition, without compromising the holy nature of the ritual.

The festivals' dances often depict the life of Guru Padmasambhava, the Indian saint who brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the seventh century.

Dances are mostly performed in the courtyards of the country’s many fortress monasteries. Each dance tells a story. Guru Padmasambhava is the inspiration behind many of the dances. He's also known as Guru Rinpoche in Bhutan, or the Second Buddha.

Jakar Tshechu, Membartsho

A depiction of Guru Rinpoche

The Bhutanese believe that by simply observing the dances, they will be blessed, enlightened and purified.

Dances are accompanied by folk songs and other traditional music. Instruments commonly include cymbals, drums, flutes and yak-horns.

After days of dancing and music and fun, the festivals usually culminate with the unfolding of a giant thangkha (religious painting) during the wee hours of the morning on the final day. The unveiling of the thangka usually draws a large crowd of devotees hoping for a top-up of religious blessing.



Dress the part

The locals attending festivals do so in the belief that they will gain ‘merits’ or favour in their ascension towards Buddhist enlightenment. To mark the occasion, they wear their finest clothing. So when you visit as a tourist, please be respectful by not dressing too casually.

The lunar calendar decides festival dates

Most festivals are organised according to the Bhutanese lunar calendar. The Thimphu Tshechu, for instance, starts on the tenth day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar.

For the majority of visitors, lunar dates need some translating to mean anything. So in our descriptions below of our favourite festivals, we give you the date for each festival in 2023 (and 2024 where its available) to help you to plan your visit.

Masked dancers at a Bhutan tshechu (festival)

Masked dances are a highlight of Bhutanese festivals

Bhutan's best festivals ...

Right, let's get to the meat.

Here's our pick of the nine best festivals in Bhutan ...

1. Thimphu Tshechu

  • Where: Tashichho Dzong, city of Thimphu
  • Duration: 3 days
  • 2023 date: 24-26 September
  • 2024 date: 15-17 September
Tschechu Festival in Tashichho Dzong, Thimphu

Thimphu's tshechu takes place in the courtyard of Tashichho Dzong

This festival is great for those wanting to experience and enjoy the Buddhist culture of Bhutan.

The Thimphu Tshechu is a very popular and well-attended festival in Bhutan. And since most tourists spend time in Thimphu, the gathering is often especially large.

One of the most sacred dances performed at the festival is the cham. For this, some monks play traditional Tibetan instruments while others, dressed in ornate costumes, perform dances with titles like:

  • Dance of the Lords of Cremation Grounds’
  • Dance of the Terrifying Deities
  • Dance of the Noblemen and the Ladies
Thimphu Tshechu, Bhutan festival

The very popular Thimphu Tshechu

Dancers usually wear wooden masks that represent animals, fearsome deities, and various manifestations of Guru Rinpoche. They're quite ugly (by standards of pretty), and would probably make the average child tourist cry.

Not so for the locals though! This is a way of life – a respite from their daily toils and sins. The deities of the Tantric teaching are invoked during these dances and it's through their power and benediction that all misfortunes are annihilated so that peace and happiness can once again reign.

In between dances, the clowns (atsaras) joke with the crowd and liven up the festival with their witty behaviour and exaggerated movements. Atsaras wear red wooden masks with hawkish noses, naughty grins and big phalluses on top.

2. Jambay Lhakhang Drup

  • Where: Jambay Lhakhang Monastery, Bumthang District
  • 2023 date: 28-31 October
  • 2024 date: 28-31 October
Exterior woodwork of Jambay Lhakhang Temple, Bumhtang District, built C7th by King Songtsen Gampo of Tibet

Beautiful woodwork of Jambay Lhakhang Monastery

This festival is great for those who are up for a bit of fire and nakedness!

Different from other festivals, the Jambay Lhakhang Drup includes naked dancing, and fire dancing. But as with all festivals, the Jambay Lhakhang Drup also involves lots of traditional dances and music. Dances are performed to celebrate the foundation of the Jambay Lhakhang Monastery as well as to honour Guru Rinpoche.

The naked dance – known as the Tercham or ‘Dance of Treasure’ – takes place in the middle of the night. Monks dance naked, but wear traditional masks.

The fire ceremony usually attracts thousands – and features locals dancing under a flaming structure made of dry grass. It's a wonderful spectacle, especially for uninitiated foreigners!

3. Wangdue Phodrang Tshechu

  • Where: Tencholing Army Ground, Wangdue Phodrang Distric
  • 2023 date: 22-24 September
Dancer at Wangdue Phodrang Dzong for Wangdue Phodran Tshechu, Bhuntan festival

A twirling dancer at Wandgue Phodrang Festival

This festival is great for anyone wishing to receive a Buddhist blessing.

The region of Wangdue Phodrang in central Bhutan is famous for its ornamental speeches and songs known as lozeys. This annual festival was introduced after the completion of the Wangdue Phodrang Dzong (fortress) in 1639.

Much like other festivals, locals and tourists gather together to celebrate life and merriment. The ‘Dance of Ox’ is a major attraction, where people dance to ensure a peaceful afterlife.

Similarly to the Thimphu Tshechu, the celebrations are concluded with the unfurling of a gigantic scroll of various paintings, known as the Guru Tshengye Thongdrol. This is the moment when the Buddhist blessing is believed to be imparted and received.

4. Punakha Drubchen

  • Where: Punakha Dzong
  • Duration: 3 days
  • 2023 date: 24-28 February
Punakha Dzong, Bhutan travel guide

Punakha Dzong is Bhutan's second oldest and second biggest fortress

This festival is ideal for history buffs.

Of all the festivals in Bhutan, the Punakha Drubchen is the most unique. It focuses on recreating scenes from the 1656 to 1657 Tibetan War. Local Bhutanese military officials recreate battle scenes while dressed in full military gear (not forgetting the sword).

This festival commemorates the Bhutanese victory, and pays tribute to the villagers who came forward to drive the Tibetan army out of their country. It shows gratitude to these lay people, many of whom would've been untrained and unprepared.

Today, Bhutan is a very peaceful country. The Bhutanese strive for peace and neither seek to conquer nor destroy other countries.

5. Paro Tshechu

  • Where: Ringpung Dzong, Paro District
  • 2023 date: 17-21 March
  • 2024 date: 2-6 April
Masked dancer at Paro Tshechu, Bhutan festival

A masked dancer at Paro Tshechu

This festival is great for those who would love the chance to bump into royalty.

This festival is held each spring, from the 11th to the 15th day of the second month of the Bhutanese calendar (usually late March or April). It’s one of the largest and most popular festivals in the country and if you’re lucky, you may see the King in attendance!

Again, this festival is decked out in colour. Monks and laymen alike don multi-coloured costumes. Together, they mingle and dance while wearing masks that represent the deities.

Rinpung Dzong in Paro at night, Bhutan festival

Rinpung Dzong lit up at night

Instead of depicting war, dancers reenact scenes from legendary Bhutanese tales and historical anecdotes.

But the highlight of the festival is the moment when blessing-seekers get a much-awaited glimpse of the 350-year-old thangkha. It is one of the oldest Buddhist religious scrolls, and so is very sacred. The scroll contains important historical narratives, many of which celebrate the good deeds of Guru Rinpoche.

6. Haa Summer Festival

  • Where: Haa Valley, Haa District
  • 2023 date: 8-9 July
  • 2024 date: 13-14 July
Has Valley Bhutan travel guide

The beautiful Haa valley

This festival is great for those who like to participate in things instead of just observing.

The Haa Valley is nestled in the southwest of Paro District and is one of the most beautiful valleys of Bhutan (filled with paddy fields and the accompanying bugs that go with it).

The Haa Summer Festival is slightly different from other festivals in that attendees can participate in activities such as yak-riding, folk dancing, and food tasting. You can also try ara, a local alcoholic drink made from native barley, rice, maize, millet or wheat that's been fermented or distilled.

Side thought: instead of hurrying back to wherever it is that you came from, consider spending the night with a local family by way of a homestay. This will really help you to immerse yourself in the culture and get to know some locals.

Dance of the 16 Drum Beaters at Haa Festival, Bhutan

Dance of the 16 Drum Beaters at Haa Tshechu

If you really want go big, you could also attend the Haa Tshechu that happens just before the summer festival – usually about a week before.

7. Matsutake Mushroom Festival

  • Where: Genekha in Thimphu and Ura valley in Bumthang
  • Thimphu 2023 date: 20-21 August
  • Bumthang 2023 date: 15-17 August
Matsutake mushrooms, Matsutake Festival, Bhutan

Matsutake mushrooms are at the heart of this festival

This festival is great for anyone who enjoys nature – and mushrooms! 🍄

Unlike the other festivals, the Matsutake Festival actually takes place in two different locations:

  1. The village of Genekha in Thimphu District – lasts two days
  2. Ura valley in Bumthang District (the 'Switzerland of the East') – lasts three days

This festival is one of the most famous harvest festivals in Bhutan. It aims to create awareness around the sustainable harvesting of the local matsutake mushroom. It also lets attendees taste and enjoy the organic flavours of nature.

Each celebration is hosted by the locals during their mushroom season. During The Matsutake Festival, visitors go on mushroom-picking excursions in the forested hills and are taught how to identify and pick the mushrooms.

Locals then cook delicious dishes using the mushrooms, and visitors get to taste. The mushrooms are sometimes cooked with chilli and local cheese, but these days they're more commonly added to a simple soup of boiled mushrooms, salt and a little butter.

8. Jomolhari Mountain Festival

  • Where: Base of Jomolhari Mountain
  • Duration: 2 days
  • 2023 date: 14-15 October
  • 2024 date: 14-15 October
Pur. Mt Chomolhari, Jhomolhari, Jomolhari, Bhutan

The sacred Mt Jomolhari (or Chomolhari)

This is the festival for you if you also want to go trekking in the Himalayas!

The Jomolhari Mountain festival takes place – surprise, surprise – at the base of Mt Jomolhari (7,326 m). Magnificent themes mark the event, and there's even a snow leopard show (which aims at spreading awareness of the declining number of snow leopards in Bhutan).

Snow leopard trekking in Nepal

A snow leopard

It's also very special to celebrate a festival in the company of semi-nomadic yak herders, and eat meals seasoned with the deliciousness of hard exercise and mountain air. So if you aim to arrive in Bhutan by the eighth of October, that will give you time to hike the Jomolhari Trek and attend the festival!

During the festival there's plenty of singing and dancing. The dances are beautiful, and the performers wear brightly coloured costumes – usually a yellow-orange colour, which is symbolic of the power of the king.

9. The Black-necked Crane Festival

  • Where: Gangtey Goemba, Phobjikha Valley
  • Duration: 1 day
  • 2023 date: 11 November
  • 2024 date: 11 November
Two black-necked cranes on Tibetan plateau

The black-necked crane is an endangered species

This festival is perfect for conservationists and the eco-minded traveller.

Every autumn, endangered black-necked cranes fly south for several hundreds of kilometres from their summer breeding grounds on the Tibetan Plateau. The migration path takes the birds over the Himalayas – in fact, they fly at a height of over 6,000 m to make the journey!

The cranes like to settle in paddies and wetlands across Bhutan, including in the beautiful Phobjikha Valley.

Overlooking this valley and high on the mountain is the Gangtey Goemba (one of the oldest and largest Nyingmapa monasteries in Bhutan). Nyingma means 'old school'.

Gangtey Goemba, Bhutan

Gangtey Goemba | Photo by R. GLOD

And it's in the courtyard of this monastery that this one-day festival is celebrated with masked folk dances and songs in an attempt to raise awareness surrounding conservation issues of this sacred and beloved bird. In fact, dancers dress up as black-necked cranes!

Meanwhile the cranes themselves, none the wiser, would be feeding on dwarf bamboo plants far below – in the valley’s wetlands.

Again, all this ties into the Bhutanese philosophy of Gross National Happiness, which emphasises a harmonious and sustainable balance between economic growth and the all- important non-material aspects of human and animal well-being.

If you'd like to know more about black-necked cranes, visit the Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN) while in Phobjikha, as it has informative displays about the bird as well as as spotting scopes. You can also visit Crane Karma, an injured black-necked crane who lives in an enclosure.

So go on – pick a festival and include it in your itinerary to add some true cultural immersion and community involvement in your Bhutan trip!