The highlanders and ethnic minorities in Bhutan


Some ethnic groups are undergoing rapid changes and their distinctiveness is gradually eroding with the deluge of modernization and globalization.

The alpine zone in Bhutan starts at a much higher altitude of some 4000m compared to just about 1500m on the Alps. Thus, trees in Bhutan grow at much higher altitudes than in Europe. The subalpine vegetation of stunted fir, spruce, and junipers gradually gives way to dwarf rhododendrons and other shrubs, flowering plants, and herbs in alpine meadows. It is in this terrain that many medicinal herbs, including the expensive caterpillar fungus, Cordyceps Sinensis, grow.

The alpine meadows make up the wide pastures for grazing highland animals such as yaks and sheeps. The meadows extend as far as snow lines leading to mountains perennially covered in snow. The main wild animals in the alpine region are pikas, marmots, blue sheep, musk deer, takins (Bhutan's national animals), and snow leopards. The nebulous, mysterious Yeti and the Michung are said to roam mostly in the alpine and subalpine regions of a big mountain in Bhutan.

The people living close to the alpine grasslands are mainly pastoralists as the land and climate turn less conducive for cultivation. However, wheat, barley, and buckwheat are cultivated by many highland communities. Radishes and turnips are also grown, the leaves of which are dried and used as vegetables in the winter.


Many highland communities have distinct sociolinguistic and cultural features, which differ from those of the midlands. To the north of western Bhutan are three highland communities of Laya, Lingshi, and Lunana. 

They herd yaks, which feed on grass and dwarf bamboo, and their main source of livelihood is dairy products which they use to barter for other items such as rice, salt, clothes, and cooking utensils. During the summer, they graze their cattle in the mountain pastures, and during autumn before the snow closes their trade routes, they journey to the lowlands to sell their products. 

These highlanders speak the local dialects which are not easily intelligible to an ordinary Dzongkha speaker. They have a very distinct culture of dressing and lifestyle making them more similar to Tibetan pastoral communities than to mainstream Bhutanese.


If you think that wearing dresses made out of sheep wools or yak hairs is unique, you'll be fascinated to learn that even their homes, large black tents are made out of yak hairs.

The women’s dress is a black skirt with brown vertical stripes, black jacket, a distinctive conical bamboo hat perched on top of the head, and adorned with silver jewelries including spoons hanging at back.

Men wear something similar, minus the jewelry, and have shorter skirts. Sadly, these cultural distinctions are fast disappearing as more people are getting influenced by the mainstream Bhutanese culture.



The two ethnic minorities of Laya-Lingshi and Merak-Sakteng are geographically and figuratively the crown of the Bhutan ethnic landscape. They share the commonalities of yak and sheep-based pastoral economy. They are both well known for their wealth of dairy products.

Both of these exotic communities' cultures origins can be traced back to Tibet. If the Laya-Lingshi people were cast away, the Merak-Sakteng lots were a runaway group, according to the stories of their origins. Their similarities may have a lot to tell us about cultural transmission just as their differences make us reflect on evolving nature of human perceptions, behaviors, and practices. Red, for instance, is the standard color of the Merak-Sakteng dress while black dominates the Laya-Lingshi dress culture.

In the meantime, the two groups, along with the Lhopas of the southwest and the Monpas of the south-central, make up the most archaic and exotic ethnic components of Bhutan. Their cultures are undergoing rapid changes and their distinctiveness is gradually eroding with the deluge of modernization and globalization. Hopefully, their unique cultures can continue to be preserved for generations to come. 

Related Posts

Bhutan revises its tourism policy to redefine High Value Low...

Visitors to Bhutan will now have to pay more than triple the previous Sustainable Development Fees (SDF).

Jul 20, 2022 21:44

Join #mybhutanmemories campaign now to win FREE flight tickets to...

All you have to do is to share your fond memories of Bhutan.

Jun 19, 2022 21:52

Trace the footsteps of the Divine Madman on this hiking trail

There is no better way to connect spiritually with Drukpa Kuenley, the “Divine Madman”. The trail will take you downhill...

Apr 28, 2022 22:30

Been to Bhutan before? Stand a chance to win FREE flight tickets...

If you’ve been to Bhutan before, we want to hear your story.

Apr 15, 2022 19:49

Bhutanese can now enter Singapore quarantine-free from Apr 1

Looking forward to taking a break from Bhutan? Here's some good news for you.

Mar 24, 2022 15:49

Bhutan is reopening a sacred ancient route for tourism after 60...

Following 2 years of extensive restoration, Bhutan is set to open its sacred Trans Bhutan Trail to travellers and...

Jan 26, 2022 14:50



CNN lists Tergo-La trek among 23 of the world's best hiking trails

CNN travel recently published a list of “23 of the world’s best hiking trails” for their “Monthly Ticket” travel series.

Jul 28, 2022 19:25

Bhutan revised entrance fees for historical monuments and sacred sites

Aside from the Tiger's Nest Monastery, tourists are now required to pay Nu. 1000 entrance fees to various sacred sites in the kingdom.

Jul 18, 2022 18:51


A French's connection and deep love for Bhutan

We talked to Dr Francoise Pommaret about French Friends of Bhutan and the France-Bhutan relationship.

Jul 12, 2022 20:36

7 interesting facts about the roads in Bhutan

Did you know that there are no traffic lights in the Kingdom?

Jun 15, 2022 21:52


The enormous role of hydropower in Bhutan

Bhutan uses hydropower to conserve the environment, produce electricity, and achieve economic self-reliance.

Jan 25, 2022 11:43

Online businesses are becoming more and more popular in Bhutan

Even though the Internet was developed in the 1960s, the tiny Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan was only introduced to it in June 1999.

Jan 20, 2022 12:41


More Bhutanese youths are engaged in football

Sitting at the 186th position in the FIFA rankings, Bhutan looks to improve its rankings in the years to come.

Aug 03, 2022 20:19

BOB Bhutan Premier League is coming back soon with a bang

There’s an atmosphere of excitement and anticipation growing in the valleys of Bhutan as football fans in the country await what appears to...

Jul 24, 2022 14:47


Bhutan revises its tourism policy to redefine High Value Low Volume tourism

Visitors to Bhutan will now have to pay more than triple the previous Sustainable Development Fees (SDF).

Jul 20, 2022 21:44

Join #mybhutanmemories campaign now to win FREE flight tickets to Bhutan!

All you have to do is to share your fond memories of Bhutan.

Jun 19, 2022 21:52


Chillies, a spicy affair in Bhutan

The Bhutanese love it hot.

Jun 07, 2022 23:55

Bhutan is traditionally a matriarchal society

Women are the decision-makers at home, but something is keeping them from public life.

May 27, 2022 22:14


A detailed summary of Bhutan's COVID-19 management and plans moving forward

With offices and all businesses open, movement of vehicles allowed and critical services resumed from 21st March 2022, Bhutan braces for a...

Mar 22, 2022 11:23

Vaccinated tourists to undergo 5-day quarantine in Bhutan from April 25

What you need to know about entering Bhutan from April 25.

Mar 14, 2022 14:21

Subscribe to our newsletter

Never miss out on new happenings and news stories!

Download Daily Bhutan Mobile App

Connecting with us just got easier!