Colours of Celebration: Photo essay from Bhutan’s Punakha Festival

Bhutan’s Punakha Festival, or Punakha Tshechu, stands as a cherished annual celebration in Bhutan usually held around the end of February or early March.

Bhutan's Punakha Festival

Bhutan’s Punakha Festival, or Punakha Tshechu, stands as a cherished annual celebration in Bhutan usually held around the end of February or early March. Held in the mighty Punakha Dzong, a majestic fortress monastery nestled in the beautiful Punakha Valley, the festival is a vibrant showcase of traditional dances, intricate rituals, and spiritual devotion. Performers adorned in colourful attire, masked dancers known as cham performers take centre stage, portraying mythological beings and historical figures, while sacred ceremonies and prayers fill the air with music and songs. Beyond its religious significance, the Punakha Festival serves as a joyous occasion for community bonding, as locals and visitors alike come together to revel in the festivities.

Photo essay on Bhutan’s Punakha Festival by Kav Dadfar
Bhutan's Punakha Festival

Above: Punakha Dzong at night. The Punakha Tshechu takes place in the courtyard of this Dzong.

Above: Around the Dzong, markets come to life, offering fairground-style games that draw crowds of eager participants. Archery, gambling, and other games of luck and skill provide an avenue for enjoyment and friendly competition.

Clockwise from top: Two Bhutanese women (mother and daughter) who had travelled over 80 miles to attend the festival; Even the younger attendees dress in their finest clothes to attend; The festival typically includes colourful masked dances as well as religious rituals, prayers, and social gatherings.

From the top: The crowd sit on the ground in the courtyard of the Dzong waiting for the celebration to start; As well as the public, many monks attend from various monasteries from far and wide.

Above: Masked dancers play a central role with their elaborate costumes and intricately designed masks at Bhutan’s Punakha Festival. These dancers, known as cham dancers, represent various deities, demons, and historical figures from Bhutanese mythology and folklore. Each mask is meticulously crafted to embody the character being portrayed, and the dances are accompanied by traditional music and chanting.

Above: With everyone in the main courtyard of the Dzong, the other areas are eerily.

Need to know

Getting there:

Most travellers arrive by air, flying into Paro International Airport, which is the only international airport in the country. However, there are no direct flights to Bhutan from most countries. Visitors typically transit through major cities such as Bangkok, Delhi, Kathmandu, or Singapore before connecting to Paro. Another option is to enter Bhutan overland from India, although this is less common due to the challenging terrain and border restrictions.

Bhutan’s Punakha Festival is held in Punakha Dzong which is around 112km (3-hour drive) from Paro International Airport.

Best time to go:

The most popular times to visit are during the spring and autumn seasons, from March to May and September to November, respectively.

Spring brings mild temperatures, blooming rhododendrons, and clear skies, making it ideal for trekking and enjoying Bhutan’s stunning natural beauty.

Autumn offers similar weather conditions, with crisp air and beautiful landscapes as the foliage changes colour. These seasons also coincide with many of Bhutan’s festivals, providing an opportunity to see and photograph the country’s rich cultural heritage.

While the summer monsoon season from June to August can bring heavy rainfall, it also offers lush greenery and fewer tourists.

Winter, from December to February, sees colder temperatures and snowfall which can mean road closures, but it’s a great time for experiencing Bhutan’s traditional culture and festivals without the crowds.

Where to stay:

Visitors can choose to stay in traditional Bhutanese farmhouses converted into comfortable guesthouses, providing an authentic glimpse into rural life.

Alternatively, boutique hotels and lodges offer modern amenities while incorporating Bhutanese architectural elements and design.

For those seeking ultimate luxury, high-end resorts nestled amidst pristine landscapes offer unparalleled comfort and breathtaking views.

Must-pack items:

First and foremost, sturdy hiking boots are a must, as Bhutan offers numerous trekking opportunities through rugged mountain trails.

Layered clothing is also crucial, as temperatures can vary greatly between regions and altitudes. Lightweight, moisture-wicking clothing for warmer days, along with insulated jackets and thermals for cooler evenings, will ensure comfort throughout your journey.

Additionally, don’t forget to pack sunscreen, sunglasses, and a wide-brimmed hat to protect against the strong Himalayan sun.

How to do it:

To travel around Bhutan beyond Paro and Thimphu valleys you must have a guide, driver and private vehicle throughout your journey.

At the time of writing all travellers to Bhutan are also required to pay a daily visa fee of US$250. For up-to-date information visit Bhutan Tourism.

Anything else:

Bhutan’s altitude varies significantly across the country, with elevations ranging from around 200 meters above sea level to towering mountain peaks exceeding 7,000 meters.

Visitors should be mindful of the potential effects of high altitude, particularly when venturing into mountainous regions. To minimize the risk, it’s advisable to acclimatize gradually by ascending slowly and allowing time for adjustment.

Also consider medications such as acetazolamide to prevent AMS, though consulting with a healthcare professional before travel is recommended.

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