Christmas in Asia: What’s A Homesick Backpacker To Do?


Turkey, stuffing, Christmas crackers and a questionable present from your gran — this is what Christmas is all about, right? Wrong. Being away from home for the holidays can be tough for a backpacker on the road; some might even say it’s the hardest part about travelling. so here’s a guide to “Badaa Din” and how to sprinkle some backpacker Christmas spirit, no matter where in the world you are!

“Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree”

It’s big, it’s traditionally green and no, it’s not the Grinch. What is Christmas if not decorating the totally inconvenient malting tree? The substitute here is not simple as you can’t cut down a palm tree, nor can you import one from home, but India’s smallest state, Goa, decorates its banana trees and the large Westernised malls in places such as Singapore and Hong Kong will always be awash with the secular event — even if it’s just a chance to cash in on the holiday spirit.

Alternatively, you can buy an artificial tree from most local stores and put it up on the beach, granted, it is not going to be the same pinnacle of light dressed in tacky tinsel and plastic baubles, or maybe it is! Alternatively, draw one and stick it on the wall of your hostel!

Enormous Christmas Trees in Pavilion Shopping Mall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - in November!
Enormous Christmas Trees in Pavilion Shopping Mall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – in November!

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas … ”

… in the Philippines! No one does the holidays like the Filipinos. Winning the crown of celebrating the longest Christmas season in the world, festivities begin on the first of September until the first Sunday of the new year.

A predominantly Roman Catholic country, the secular event sees families adorning their houses in festive decor and carolling two months prior to the main event. Parols — paper lanterns — light up the schools and offices and wishes are granted if the nine days of mass are completed at the crack of dawn, also known as Simbang Gabi or Misa de Gallo.

Simbang Gabi or Misa de Gallo - Christmas Mass in the Philippines.
Simbang Gabi or Misa de Gallo – Christmas Mass in the Philippines.

After midnight mass on the eve of Christmas, a huge family dinner of Filipino treats such as queso de bola, lechon and sweet treats are enjoyed by all. Once you’ve had a Filipino Christmas, you’ll never go back.

“On the eighth day of Christmas, my baby gave to me… a fake pair of Ray-Bans off the Khao San Road”

The gift-giving etiquette around Asia varies from country to country depending on traditions, superstition and sometimes numerology. For most countries, a “no gift giving” face is put on, but always show up to households with some gift or other and politely insist they accept — who doesn’t accept gifts whatever the day?

However, specific to the Chinese and Japanese cultures, avoid clocks, towels and sharp objects as these can often remind people of sad goodbyes and funerals, and as useful as it might seem at the time, an umbrella can mean symbolic of ending a friendship!

Approved gifts include books, liquor, tea, nice pens and useful kitchen items; wrap the gift in gold ribbon indicating fortune and wealth, and actual red paper packaging is the best outer colour for most occasions. However, don’t write in red ink as it is seen as bad luck. It might seem a bit excessive, and a far cry from silly gift exchanges at work for secret Santa, but a bonus to this is that locals often feel the need to one-up your gift, so expect something larger and more expensive in return — but remember to play hard to get.

There'll be no gifts under the tree this year!
There’ll be no gifts under the tree this year!

“Say hello to friends you know, and everyone you know”

Another little compromise here. We can encourage you to create life-sized cutouts of your friends and family, stand them up around your dorm and sing Christmas carols together, but in the digital age, we have a little thing called FaceTime.

A Christmas Tree in the Maldives!
You don’t need to be lonely this Christmas…

No one is ever far from home, and this is your new semi-permanent home-ish. Digital nomad hubs are springing up all over the continent with Chiang Mai, Thailand and Ubud, Bali the most obvious choices for the smatterings of holiday spirit among foreigners (yes, that’s you), but Korea’s Seoul and Kuching in Malaysia are the more underground hubs. Family over friends because real friends are family. Embrace the people around you; you’re all in the same boat.

“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire; Jack Frost nipping at your nose”

Although you most likely won’t be chilly this Christmas, I bet you a dollar you could roast some chestnuts if you tried hard enough! But more importantly, what are the substitute options for Christmas dinner?

Duck is pretty popular on this side of the world, and if you roll up some glutinous rice it could make for some potatoes and your gravy could be a dipping sauce of some sort of curry? Okay so traditions are a little different out here, and most of that is due to what grows in this region. A lot of western foods are available at a pricier sum, and it is very rare to find a house with an oven, so honestly, go for a chicken curry, gorge on your favourite 7/11 snacks and find some good wine if you can!

Massaman curry - Trichada Thai Cookery School
Massaman Curry – a cross between your turkey dinner and mulled wine? (Maybe)

“It’ll be lonely this Christmas…”

If you’re travelling alone, Christmas will be one of those times that you’ll undoubtedly want to be around other people. Book yourself into a lively hostel for the festive season and see how quickly you make friends, who knows you might even pull a cracker! (Sorry). If you’re panicking about spending it alone, why not book yourself on a day trip, go trekking in the jungles of Pai, or try this one-day rock climbing course in Krabi which runs on Christmas Day! Making your Christmas day into an adventure will ensure that it’s one you will never forget!

So there it is folks, your guide to a backpacker’s Christmas! Enjoy your holidays and gorge until you can’t gorge anymore. In the words of Michael Buble (at least our favourite version): have yourself a merry little Christmas!

About the writer: Creative writer, freelance journalist, intrepid explorer currently staying at the Content Castle in Koh Samui. Upon graduating with a journalism degree in London, Savannah Liu decided to take on Southeast Asia as a digital nomad, writing about travel and fashion, to digital currencies and creating online marketing plans. A former bodybuilding champion, she still enjoys hitting the weights outside of work as well as exploring her ever-changing location.

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