If your backpacking trip to Southeast Asia coincides with a festival – you’re in luck! Festivals in this part of the world are like nothing that you’ve ever seen before. From the planet’s biggest water fight in Thailand (Songkran), to the gruesome piercings and self mutilations of the Hindu festival, Thaipusam, festivals in Southeast Asia are a cultural experience like no other. Have you got your camera at the ready?
Also see – Southeast Asian Events Calendar. (A month-by-month guide to festivals in Southeast Asia.)
Pick of the Best Festivals in Southeast Asia
1. Songkran – Thailand (April)
Can you imagine how exciting this festival would have been when you were a child? Well, it’s time to release your inner child as you prepare for to experience the world’s biggest water fight! Three whole days of wild and watery mayhem take place across the entire country during the middle of April in Thailand. Nobody (and we mean nobody!) is exempt from a drenching. People, young and old, take to the streets armed with water pistols, super soakers, buckets of ice-cold water and even industrial hoses!
The Songkran Festival actually celebrates the Buddhist New Year in Thailand and its roots lie in a rather gentler ritual. In fact, if you head to the temple in the morning of Songkran, or a few days before the festival, you may see this ritual still taking place as people splash water over each other and wash Buddhist statues in a symbolic ‘cleansing ritual’ to bring in the New Year.
As in many parts of the world, where people make New Year’s resolutions and start afresh in the New Year, the idea is to cleanse the sins of the previous years and start the new one with a fresh plate. So get out there and cleanse those sins!
Luckily, the festival takes place at the hottest time of year, so the water is a welcoming treat in Thailand’s scorching temperatures. Chiang Mai and Bangkok are some of the best places to experience Songkran, as tourists and locals take to the streets in colourful shirts and battle it out. Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar have similar festivals in accordance with the Buddhist New Year. Read more about Songkran here.
2. Loi Krathong – Thailand (November)
This is one of my favourite festivals in Southeast Asia and one of the most beautiful festivals I’ve ever been to in the world! On the night of the full moon in November (many festivals centre around the full moon in Asia), people gather in the streets to release paper lanterns into the sky. (Krathong is the word for lantern in Thai.)
The idea is to release their ‘durkha’, or suffering, sending their worries high into the sky. And, as well as lanterns, people also float boats on rivers and lakes all over the country. Some people place locks of hair, old photographs or notes onto the boats in a symbolic act of releasing a part of their past that they want to move on from, and set them to sail.
In Chiang Mai, the festival is also known as Yi Peng Lantern Festival. There’s also a huge lantern releasing event taking place at Mae Jo University a few days before the official start of Loi Krathong. For photographers, the event is a must attend!
3. Nyepi – Bali (March)
At this festival you won’t hear any music, nor cheers nor laughter from people on the street. In fact, at this unique festival in Bali, you actually won’t hear anything at all! Nyepi, which takes place every year on March 9th, is Bali’s annual Day of Silence. The festival is unique to the Hindu culture of Bali and commemorates the ‘Isakawarsa’ New Year.
For 24 hours, starting at 6am, you’ll find shops, restaurants, bars, and even Bali’s International Airport, closed as people spend the day in silence, fasting or meditating. Bali’s normally bustling streets are found empty apart from a few security men who make sure that people are adhering to the rules of the day.
The idea of the festival is to give time for self-reflection and if you’re a traveller in Bali at the time of Nyepi, you too are not exempt from the restrictions. No one is allowed on the beach or in the streets and are advised to say inside your hotel room. A boring day for some, but a very interesting day culturally. Why not take time for some self-reflection yourself? The day after Nyepi, known as Ngembak Geni, is the official Balinese New Year’s Day and people are back on the streets bringing them to life once more.
If you’re lucky, you’ll see many young unmarried people taking part in the ‘Kissing Ritual’, Omed Omedan, a ceremony dating back 100 years which is a kind of match-making ceremony for the young people of Bali. Read more about Bali here.
4. Tet – Vietnam (February)
Tet, or Vietnamese New Year is the biggest event in the Vietnamese Calendar. The longer name for the festival is Tet Nguyen Dan, which means ‘The Feast of the First Morning of the First Day’. The festival shares many similarities with the Chinese New Year, which happens at the same time. Many people will clean the house before Tet and cook special food such as bamboo soup and sticky rice. Children are given lucky red envelopes containing money and it’s also seen as a very auspicious time to pay off an old debt, settle an old feud, start something new or open a business.
If you’re travelling in Vietnam at this time, you’ll see the shops filled with red paper lanterns and selling moon cakes. On the night of the full moon people take to the streets and make as much noise as they possibly can, using drums, fireworks, fire crackers, gongs and any other noisy instrument they can find. As with Chinese New Year, you’ll see people dancing in masks and ‘muan lan’ or lion dancing. The idea is to ward off evil spirits which may be hanging around ready to invade the new year.
5. Thaipusam – Malaysia (January)
One of the most shocking of the festivals in Southeast Asia, Thaipusam taking place every January, is not for the feint-hearted. The festival is held in honour of the Hindu God of war, Lord Murugan, son of Shiva and Parvarti and is celebrated by Hindus all over the world.
One of the best places to witness the festival is in Malaysia’s multi-cultural capital, Kuala Lumpur, where an annual procession takes place from the city to the famous Batu Caves, on the outskirts. Millions of pilgrims make the walk, which starts at midnight, arriving at the caves in the early hours of the morning. Finally, they climb the 272 steps to the mouth of the caves, where a huge statue of Lord Murugan watches over them.
The most intense part of the festival is the ‘kavadi attam’, which translates as the ‘burden dance’. Devotees perform elaborate acts as a demonstration of their devotion to Lord Murugan, including piercing the skin or tongue with skewers, or dragging a heavy chariot by metal hooks pierced into the flesh. You will also see many people carrying a heavy ‘kavadi’ around their bodies as they walk up towards the caves. The atmosphere is intense and at times rather frightening as some of the devotees appear to be in a trance while they perform their rituals.
48 days before the day itself people begin to prepare for Thaipusam through prayer and fasting. During this time many people, especially new babies, have their heads shaved, and you’ll see many couples carrying their new-borns up the steps to say thank you to Lord Murugan for bestowing them with a child the year before.
6. Boun Bang Fai (Rocket Festival) – Laos (April)
Celebrated by Laotian people along with people from Isaan (north eastern Thailand, which historically used to be a part of Laos), Boun Bang Fai Rocket is one of the craziest festivals in Southeast Asia!
The festival takes place over three days featuring all the usual floats, music and dance performances. However, the third day is when the fun really starts. On this day, the locals get to show off the homemade rockets that they’ve been building and there’s a competition held to see who can fire their rocket highest in the sky!
There’s a healthy atmosphere of competition and you won’t believe some of the elaborate creations on show – watch out NASA! The idea of the festival derives from an ancient belief in provoking the Rain God into make water fall from the sky onto the crops following the dry season in this region. The festival is a must attend for anyone travelling around the villages of Laos and rural Thailand. Read more about Laos here.
7. Naga Fire Ball Festival – Nong Khai, Thailand (November)
Definitely one of the most mysterious festivals in Southeast Asia, the Naga Fireball Festival centres around a rather strange phenomenon, occurring every November along the Mekong River that separates Laos from Thailand. Glowing red and orange balls of fire are said to rise from the river hundreds of metres into the air.
The balls are believed to be created by the ‘Phaya Naga’, a serpent like deity derived from Buddhist and Hindu mythology, who allegedly dwells in the depths of the Mekong River. Statues of the Naga can be found in several places around the town of Nong Khai and across Thailand.
Thousands of people claim to have witnessed the great balls of fire, whilst many claim it is just a clever hoax. Some have suggested that the effect is created by soldiers firing tracer rounds into the air on the other side of the border. Others have suggested that it is caused as the result of a natural flammable substance in the water. Elaborate trick or unexplained mystery? You’ll have to visit to make your own mind up! Read more about things to do in Nong Khai here. Check out more festivals in Southeast Asia (November)
8. Phuket Vegetarian Festival – Thailand (October)
The name of this festival is somewhat misleading. It seems to suggest a gathering of vegetarians tucking into some fresh, healthy fruit and vegetables. Yes, the attendants of this festival do eat (solely) vegetarian food in order to prepare for this festival. However, the main event is rather a different affair!
The origins of the festival lie in Taoist beliefs and the festival is observed by Chinese communities all over Southeast Asia, but nowhere is it more fervently celebrated than in Phuket, South Thailand, where about 35% of the population is Thai Chinese, ancestors of tin mine workers.
Lasting for nine days, the festival, which is also known as the ‘Nine Emperor Gods Festival’, sees participants of the festival take to the streets to perform acts of self-mutilation, impaling their body with all sorts of metal items, from swords to beach umbrellas, as well as partial skinning, bloodletting and other gory operations! The acts are carried out (always without anaesthetic), in a trance-like state and the scene is a gruesome one which attracts many travellers and photographers each year. The acts are believed to be a demonstration of devotion to ancestors and Gods. The festival is believed to have started when a troupe of Chinese opera singers visited the town.
During this time, Phuket was hit by a fatal epidemic and many people fell ill and died. One of the opera singers realised that they had forgotten to pay homage to the Nine Emperor Gods. They immediately set to this task by sending a member of the troupe to China to invite the Gods to enter the town whilst the rest of the troupe refrained from eating meat, drinking alcohol and engaging in any bodily pleasures. The illness allegedly disappeared, and so the inhabitants of Phuket continue the homage every year with this elaborate festival. Read more about Phuket’s Old Quarter here.
Also see – The best hostels in Phuket.
9. Sinulog – Philippines (January)
The Philippines has many festivals throughout the year, it’s hard to pick just one out as the best. However, we had the pleasure of attending the Sinulog Festival in Cebu a few years back and had such a jolly old time that we had to choose this one to highlight!
The Sinulog-Santo Niño Festival is an annual Catholic festival held on the third Sunday of January in Cebu city which attracts around a million people each year, from all over the Philippines and worldwide. The main event is the grand street parade which lasts around 12 hours! As you push through the crowds you’ll see all sorts of costumes from fairies to grim reapers, as well as a few token Filipino celebrities (if you recognise them that is). Huge elaborately decorated floats, drummers, trumpeters and dancers pass through the streets and later on, the parade turns into one big street party, reminiscent of those during Carnival in South America.
The festival is held in honour of Santo Niño, or the Child Jesus and you will see his image paraded in frames throughout the day. (An image of the Child Jesus is said to be the first gift that Ferdinand Magellan gave to the Queen of Zebu (Cebu) in 1521, which is now housed in the city’s Basilica). The word Sinulog actually means ‘like water current movement’, which describes the forward-backwards motion of the Sinulog dance which you’ll see performed on the day. Check out our guide to Cebu here.
10. Bon Om Tuk (Khmer Water Festival) – Cambodia (November)
Held at the end of the rainy season, on the night of the full moon in November, the Cambodia Water Festival takes place over three days, with the major attraction being the large-scale Dragon Boat Races that take place on the Tonle Sap River in Phnom Penh. Celebrations can be found on a smaller scale all over Cambodia, but the largest celebrations are found in the capital of Phnom Penh where parades, fireworks and lots of street food accompany the big day.
The festival not only celebrates the beginning of the dry season in Cambodia, but also the unusual natural occurrence of the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River. From November to May, the river flows into the mighty Mekong just like any other river, however, when the monsoon rains arrive, the build-up of water forces the river to change direction and flow the other way. After a tragic stampede in 2010 in Phnom Penh, where 347 people were killed, the Cambodia Water Festival was cancelled for three years. It returned in 2014, but was again cancelled in 2015 due to low water levels in the Tonle Sap river, however many suspected that it was for other political reasons. In 2016 the carnival and good-humoured atmosphere of the festival was back to normal and we’re hoping that continues for years to come. Read more about Phnom Penh here.
11. Holi – India – (March)
Although not strictly in Southeast Asia, we felt we had to mention the most colourful festival on the planet, which is now celebrated by Indian communities all over the world. The idea of Holi is to welcome the start of spring with as many bright colours as possible!
Celebrated all over India, most fervently in the north of India, people of all ages take to the streets to throw coloured powder over each other, known as ‘gulal’. It’s absolute chaos and as a foreign traveller in India, you’ll be particularly targeted! Celebrations also take place in nearby Nepal, and also in Indian communities in Malaysia, particularly in Kuala Lumpur.
Which Asian festivals have you seen in your lifetime? If you’re currently planning a backpacking trip and wondering which festivals will coincide with your trip, be sure to check out our calendar of festivals and events in Southeast Asia here!