Trying to plan where to be when? Check out these festivals in Southeast Asia in May!
(Featured image: Borobodur, Indonesia)
Waisak – Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Held on the night of the full moon in May, Waisak is a sacred festival which commemorates the birth of Buddha, his enlightenment and his death. It is celebrated by Buddhist communities throughout Java, with the most prominent taking place at the spectacular 9th Century Buddhist monument, Borobodur in Yogykarta.
Ceremonial offerings are made such as fruit and flowers and thousands of candles, representing Buddha’s enlightenment are lit in the darkness. Processions are also held throughout the city. The festival is also known as ‘Tri Suci Waisak’ or ‘Three Holy Events,’ signifying the three celebrations; the birth of Siddartha Guatama (the Buddha), the acceptance of divine revelation under the Bodhi tree and the journey of the Buddha to heaven.
Boun Bang Fai Rocket Festival, Laos and North Eastern Thailand
Taking place over two days, with plenty of eating, drinking and dancing thrown in, the Boun Bang Fai Rocket Festival is one of the most enjoyable (and noisiest!) events in Laos. Villages all across the country gather to create huge rockets made out of bamboo, decorate and paint them bright colours and stuff them with large quantities of gunpowder ready for the big launch!
As the rockets are launched into the skies, onlookers watch to see which rocket reaches the greatest height. The owner of the highest fired rocket receives prestige and status amongst the group and woe betide those who fire a dud! The festival is held at the beginning of May, in conjunction with the beginning of the rainy season in Laos. Since ancient times it has been performed by all those working on the land to request rain from the ‘Phaya Thaen’ or the ‘Rain God’ to pray for plentiful rice production for that year.
Chanthaburi and Rayong Fruit Festival – Chanthaburi, Thailand
Succulent, thirst-quenching mangosteen or rich, creamy durian? Tangy langsat or sweet, pulpy jack fruit? Visitors to the Chanthaburi or Rayong Fruit Festival can indulge their taste buds with a delicious assortment of exotic Thai fruits. Fruit buffets offer ‘all you can eat’ including dragon fruit, papaya, coconut, rambutan, sapodilla and lots more. Held once a year, during the best season for ripeness and flavour, this unique even is a great opportunity to fill up on those vitamins whilst having a great day out.
Koh Samui Regatta – Koh Samui, Thailand
The annual Koh Samui Regatta is a huge sailing event which attracts over 200 participating teams and thousands of boat lovers from all over the world. Over five days, there are a variety of races taking place around the island including long distance racing, short sprint racing and cruising displays. Expect a fun filled event, with plenty of partying on dry land too, as those sailing types really know how to enjoy themselves.
Cheung Chau Buddhist Bun festival – Cheung Chau, Hong Kong
Climbing a 20m-high rocket-shaped tower for a chance to grab hold of some Buddhists’ buns sounds like exactly the right way to get yourself into a lot of trouble in Hong Kong. In fact, that’s exactly what competitors of the Cheung Chau Buddhist Bun Festival will be doing at midnight on the Buddha’s birthday public holiday in front of Pak Tai Temple.
After three days of maintaining a strict vegetarian diet, the residents of the island attend a procession featuring floats, stilt-walkers and ‘floating children’ (cleverly suspended by wire concealed beneath their clothes). This culminates in a frantic climb, in which hundreds of men scramble as high as they can up the bun-covered towers, snatching and spreading the sacred rolls to the frenzied crowd as they go.
Thrissur Pooram – Thrissur, Kerala, India
Arguably the most famous of all of Kerala’s festivals, this mammoth-sized celebration brings together Hindus, Muslims and Christians to celebrate music, dance, fire and, ultimately, elephants. Thrissur Pooram’s main parade takes place in May (occasionally June) each year on the grounds of Vadakkumnatha Temple, providing a suitably breathtaking backdrop. Thirty ornately decorated elephants make their way across the grounds, showing off their colours in a kind of pachyderm pageant. At the same time, men mounted atop the animals engage in their own colourful and highly-skilled competition, the kudamattom, involving the exchanging of bejewelled parasols to the rhythm of the temple orchestra. Music continues into the night before a giant pyrotechnic display ends the two-day celebrations with a bang.
Usaba Sambah – Tenganan, Bali, Indonesia
If you’re seeking traditional music, performance, comedy, romance or downright brutal combat Usaba Sambah has it all. The festival, also known as ‘Bali’s Fighting Festival’ is held during the fifth month of the Balinese calendar, usually May, in the walled Tenganan Dauh Tukad village in Bali. As one of the island’s most ancient villages, Tenganan hosts some of Bali’s oldest ceremonies and rites, which are just as important to the culture today as when they originated.
Usaba Sambah is comprised of a number of highly entertaining events packed into one month, including Mekare-Kare: a battle-dance hybrid, in which men wallop each other with thorny Pandanus leaves in a surprisingly graceful fashion, followed by a kind of ‘sorry’ feast to heal any bad feelings generated. And what are the (unmarried) girls doing all the while? Adorned in their finest garments, they enjoy the battles below while perched safely out of harm’s way on giant wooden ferris wheels – foot-powered by a single young man at a time.
Naghol Land Diving Festival – Pentecost Island, Vanuatu
Think bungee jumping is child’s play? How about doing it old-school – no harnesses, no safety equipment, just two vines attached to the ankles and a 20-30m jump from a man-made rickety wooden tower. Oh, and your hair must touch the soil or you haven’t done it right. No, you haven’t experienced real bungee jumping until you’ve witnessed Vanuatu’s Naghol vine diving, which takes place annually on Pentecost Island every Saturday from late April through to early June.
Each week, men in the southern part of the island take part in this ritual to ensure fertility of the land, good yam harvest and acceptance into manhood. As it is part of an important traditional rite, only young males native to the island can take part in this event (real bummer…) but day trips can be arranged to take visitors to and from the hair-raising ceremony, after which you can kick back and celebrate with the locals in a ceremony of music, dance and a feast of home-cooked island food.
Pulilan Carabao Festival – Pulilan, Philippines
Those who have visited the Philippines may have noticed the extent to which families and communities rely on the local water buffalo, which provide everything from field labour to milk, meat and hide. The services provided by these majestic beasts certainly doesn’t go unnoticed amongst the residents of Pulilan, who take two days out of the year on May 14 and 15 to repay them for their hard work in the best way we humans know how – through some serious pampering, of course!
After a day of cleaning, shaving and grooming, the buffalo are treated with massages (complete with aromatic oil!) and adorned with crowns of sweetly perfumed frangipani and hibiscus. The buffalo are then brightly painted and paraded through the streets in an impressive procession of floats decorated with a kaleidoscope of flowers, fruit and vegetables. Upon reaching the church square, the buffalo genuflect before a priest, who blesses them for the year to come.
Korean Lantern Festival – Seoul, South Korea
The Lotus Lantern Festival is held annually in Seoul in honour of Buddha’s birthday, which usually falls between late April and early May each year and lasts around two weeks. Lantern lighting (Yeondeung) is an important ritual in Buddhism that pays respect to Buddha. According to Buddhist beliefs, lanterns symbolise wisdom and the bringing of light into the world. The two major rituals within the Lantern Festival, the lotus lantern service and lantern parade, have helped preserve the lantern lighting ritual in Korea, which dates back to the first and second centuries.
Today, the festival entertains thousands of onlookers every year with a variety of additional displays and interactive events, including a traditional lantern exhibition, the Buddhist cheer rally (a very effective means of spreading the excitement of the city), tea and bowing ceremonies, walk-in Zen meditation, temple food sampling, lantern-making and more.