Updated April 16th, 2018.
Festivals in South East Asia are a cultural experience not to be missed! From the world’s biggest water fight in Thailand to the dragons and street performances of Chinese New Year, you’ll want to be aware of the best festivals happening across the region every month!
In the predominantly Buddhist countries of Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia, you’ll come across many festivals centred around the temple. In Hindu regions of Asia, festivals take on a whole new level with some elaborate displays of devotion in the form of skin piercings.
Then, there’s an increasing number of globally recognised music festivals gaining momentum in South East Asia… The Question is – When Are You Travelling to Southeast Asia?
Monthly Guide to the Best Festivals in Southeast Asia!
Thaipusam Festival: Malaysia, in particular – Kuala Lumpur
Thaipusam is one of the largest and most extravagant Hindu Festivals in Asia that is celebrated by millions of followers worldwide. The festival is held in honour of Lord Murugan, also known as Lord Subramaniam every January. Kuala Lumpur and Penang are two of the most colourful places to observe the festivities, in particular at the Batu Caves on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.
It’s a truly incredible spectacle to witness as participants perform incredible feats of devotion as they offer thanks to the Lord for good fortune during the year. Feats including the piercing the body and face with skewers, dragging chariots with hooks attached to the skin and the carrying of huge metal frames (kavadis) attached to the body.
Some devotees become entranced, entering meditative states during the procession, believed to cleanse them of their sins. Read more about Thaipusam here and for a taster see our video below!
Aguman Sanduk: Manila, Philippines, 1st January
Manila’s men have a very interesting way of bringing in the New Year. A walk through the city on the 1st of January will have you wondering what on earth’s come over the usually macho Manilan chaps as you see them sporting ladies dresses and prancing around in a huge cross-dressing parade!
It’s a fun event with an exuberant atmosphere and a lot of laughs from the delighted crown of sisters, mothers and daughters. The festival dates back to 1934 when a group of playful blokes fuelled by copious amounts of alcohol pulled the stunt, which quickly became a novel and popular way of welcoming in the New Year! You’ll find even the most respectable of townsfolk casting off their inhibitions and getting involved in the frolics.
International New Year
Chances are that as you backpack around South East Asia, you’ll find yourself at more than one New Year’s celebration! The lunar calendar (January), the Chinese calendar (February), the Buddhist new year (April)… it’s party none stop! However, this, the international new year, on the 31st December is a big event everywhere in this part of the world.
Wherever you’ve chosen to spend the night, rest assured you’ll have a ball! Fireworks in the cities, carnivals in the towns, house parties in the villages.
Beach destinations cram with backpackers revved up for a night they plan to remember (but will most likely not after the first bucket!). If you’re looking for a wild time head to the annual New Year’s Eve Full Moon Party in Koh Phangan, Thailand!
Alternatives include the Thai islands of Koh Chang or Koh Tao (where lower key parties take place), the 24-hour party city, Bangkok. Or, for a taste of Island bliss at New Year, the Gili Islands just off Bali!
Bun Pha Vet – Laos
Bun Pha Vet is an important Buddhist Festival and a significant time of the year for friends and family in Laos to gather together. Tales of Buddha’s penultimate life as Prince Vessantara are recited throughout temples across the country and it’s considered a favourable time for Laos men to be ordained into monkhood.
Chinese New Year
The Chinese New Year marks the first day of the new moon and is a massive event that is celebrated by Chinese communities all over the world. Lasting for 15 days with unique celebrations and rituals taking place on each day, traditionally, it’s a time for families to get together, exchange gifts and eat lots of delicious food!
Homes are cleaned for the welcoming of spring, floral decorations and red paper lanterns are raised. Children are given gifts of money in ‘lucky’ red envelopes and adults see it as a time to settle old debts and start afresh.
Today, in cities, towns and villages all over South East Asia, a festive atmosphere fills the air. Colourful dragon and lion parades take to the streets, dancing to the rhythm of beating drums and cymbals which are said to drive away any evil spirits.
Fireworks and firecrackers can be heard for weeks in celebration of this significant time. Chinese temples are blanketed by clouds of incense smoke as people pray for good fortune in the New Year.
Bangkok, Penang and Kuala Lumpur are all great places to witness the festivities, take in cultural performances and gorge on the huge variety of delicious snacks and dishes at the food and drink stalls that line the streets.
Tet Nguyen Dan (Tet): Vietnam
In Vietnam, there’s a three-day public holiday to celebrate the New Year, ‘Tet Nguyen Dan,’ literally meaning ‘The Feast of the First Morning.’ Derived from the Chinese New Year and celebrated at the same time, the celebration also marks the beginning of spring.
The rituals and festivities are very similar to the Chinese New Year in terms of their focus on family reunions and the concept of starting afresh and. In Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh and other cities, you’ll find street parties and parades; market stalls bustling with people buying decorations, food, clothes and stocking up on goods for the New Year. All night drumming and fireworks also make this an extremely noisy festival!
Marha Puha: Laos
Taking place on the night of the Full Moon in February, Marha Puha is a festival which commemorates an inspirational speech given by the Buddha, in which he dictated the first monastic rules to a group of over one thousand enlightened monks. In the talk, he also predicted his own death. Grand parades and the circling of wats (temples) with candles take place in many towns across the country, particularly in Laos’ capital Vientiane and in the Khmer ruins of Wat Phu, near Champasak. Religious music and chanting can be heard from worshippers during this sacred Buddhist festival.
Trang Underwater Wedding Ceremony: Trang, Thailand
Met the love of your life whilst backpacking? Why hesitate a moment longer? Spontaneity is the way to go. Give your folks at home a heart attack and tie the knot in a truly unique way at the Trang Underwater Wedding Ceremony. Held over Valentine’s Day, couples dressed in traditional wedding dress and suits, plunge 12 metres beneath the water to perform this innovative marital ceremony and (somehow) exchange bubbly vows.
Tattoo Festival at Wat Bang Phra, Thailand
Normally held on the first Saturday in March at Wat Bang Phra (which translates as the Temple of the Flying Tiger), Thailand’s most famous tattoo festival is a must for anyone interested in the spiritual side of this ancient art.
The night before the festival, thousands of people travel to the temple to get a ‘sak yant’ tattoo engraved onto their bodies by one of the monks. Each one of the tattoos reportedly unique and the monks work through the night to meet demand.
The next day, the new tattoos are blessed or ‘charged’ by the monks using a series of chanting mantras. Some people who had tattoos last year come to get their tattoos ‘recharged’ – as the tattoos are believed to have special powers of protection and good fortune.
The scene is incredible as people fall into trances and some people start to behave like the animal that is represented by the tattoo that they have had engraved onto their skin, such as a tiger or a snake. Travellers can also attend the festival and get inked themselves. One famous person who queued up to get inked here was none other than Angelina Jolie.
Perfume Pagoda Pilgrimage – Hanoi, Vietnam
The Perfume Pagoda is an impressive complex of Buddhist Temples located about an hour’s drive from Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi. Legend has it that the site dates back to over 2,000 years when a Buddhist Monk began meditating in the area.
The beautiful spot is the site of a religious festival, officially beginning on 15th February and continuing throughout the month of March. The event sees hundreds of thousands of pilgrims making their way to this, the most famous Buddhist pilgrimage site in Vietnam.
People travel by boat on the Yen River through a stunning landscape of green rice fields and jagged limestone karsts to visit the series of caves built into the mountains, which make up the sacred Pagoda. There, they visit shrines to pray for happiness and prosperity in the coming year. This time is also known as an auspicious interval for young people to start courting!
Nyepi – Bali, Indonesia
Nyepi is an important event across Bali in March, which commemorates the ‘Hindu Day of Silence’ for 24 hours, starting at 6 am. The date also marks the start of the Hindu New Year. You’ll find business and restaurants closed during the daytime as the whole island observes this religious time of self-reflection and contemplation.
Bali’s usually bustling streets and beaches remain empty as there are restrictions on travelling, entertainment, eating, working and even talking on this significant day. Although primarily a Hindu festival, non-Hindu residents are also expected to respect the occasion and even tourists are also expected to observe the rules. Bali’s only airport is also closed for the entire day.
Panagbenga Festival – Baguio, Philippines
The Panagbenga Festival is the “festival of the flower” and has been celebrated in Baguio for generations. Locals in this mountain city come out from their houses to celebrate the arrival of a new season and the blooming of the new flowers around the town! This festival is one of the biggest flower festivals in the world and attracts people from all over the world.
Male’an Sampi – Lombok, Indonesia
With ‘Male’an’ meaning ‘to chase’ and ‘Sampi’ meaning cow, in local ‘Sasak’ language, you can pretty much guess what this festival entails! A high energy Lombok tradition, the event sees a series of cattle races taking place on a soggy race track 100 metres long and is a favourite amongst local farmers and is a popular event that never fails to draw in an excited crowd.
St. Patrick’s Day – Ireland and South East Asia
What! St. Patrick’s Day in South East Asia? Okay, so it’s not a traditional Asian event, but that doesn’t mean for one minute that it won’t be celebrated with fervency in this fun-loving part of the world that accepts Western festivals into the Eastern culture.
With the essential ‘Irish Pub’ sprinkled on islands and cities across South East Asia, from Koh Phi Phi to Hanoi to Siem Reap, you’ll find yourself perched on a bar stool, Guinness easier than you can say ‘Paddy and Mick McMurphy’s your Uncle.’ Cultured types will wince as green beer is downed and Thai bands cover Irish folk songs complete with the ‘local’ accent. Where am I again?
April is the time of Buddhist New Year and each Buddhist country in South East Asia celebrates a little bit differently. Here’s our short guide to each event…
Buddhist New Year – Songkran – Thailand
The “wetter the better” is the slogan for this; the most celebrated festival of the year in Thailand! If you’re lucky enough to be here for these fun-packed few days you’re in for an unforgettable experience as the entire country turns into the site of an enormous and very energetic water fight!
What could be a better way to cool off in the sweltering temperatures of Thailand’s hottest period? Garden hoses, water pistols, super soakers, even buckets of water mixed with talcum powder are thrown haphazardly at innocent passers-by.
Traditionally, Song Kran is the welcoming of the Thai New Year and is symbolically a time for new beginnings and spiritual cleansing. As well as celebration, it is also an important time to spend with family members and pay respect to elders.
On the first day of the festival, Thai people clean their houses to welcome in the New Year and visit temples to pray and offer food to the monks. An important ritual is to cleanse or bathe Buddha images by gently sprinkling with scented water, a ceremony believed to grant prosperity and bestow good fortune in the New Year.
The exuberant drenchings of today originate from this once mild ritual, as people used to pay respect and wish good luck to others by gently pouring this ‘blessed’ water on people’s shoulders.
Wherever you are in Thailand, it’s hard to miss the high energy festivities but one of the best places to witness the event has got to be Northern Thailand’s capital of culture, Chiang Mai.
Thousands of people flock to the city during these few days to celebrate on a huge scale. Hoards of people drive around the city looking for any victim who may have an inch of dryness left about his or her person! For locals and tourists alike it’s all about having fun, wet and wild style.
In Bangkok, the Khao San Road experiences even more mayhem than usual as the atmosphere reaches fever pitch and in downtown Silom, in the heart of the city, the carnival is electric! Especially being a ‘farang’, soakings are unavoidable, so don’t even think you’ll be able to stay dry! If you can’t beat them, join them. Read a Survival Guide for Songkran Scrooges here!
Buddhist New Year (Chaul Chnam Thmey) – Cambodia
Corresponding with Songkran in Thailand, the Cambodian New Year, known as ‘Chaul Chnam Thmey’ in Khmer, is a three day occasion celebrated by all Cambodians across the country. Religious ceremonies take place at shrines and temples and people can be seen building small sand hills on temple grounds decorated with five religious flags that symbolise Buddha’s five disciples.
Like in Thailand, ‘Water blessings’ also occur as Cambodians sprinkle holy water on each other’s faces in the morning, on the chest at noon and on the feet in the evening. Although not quite as wild as in Thailand, ‘soakings’ are common as locals, armed with water balloons and water pistols, make any unsuspecting passer-by their target. Traditional New Year games also take place on street corners up and down the country; as locals join together to have some light-hearted, good wholesome fun!
Buddhist New Year (Pee Mai) – Laos
Mid-April also sees in the New Year in Laos, with a festival known locally as ‘Pee Mai’, the most celebrated event in the country. Akin to Thailand and Cambodia, this is the hottest period in Laos and the celebrations not only welcome in the New Year but mark the beginning of the monsoon season.
Water plays a major role as a symbol of ‘cleansing’ as homes, Buddha images and people are people are blessed with good fortune in the coming year. It’s also a time of merit-making and paying respect to elders.
You will see ‘sand stupas’ created on temple grounds similar to those in Cambodia. But, like all of the New Year Festivals, the emphasis is on having fun! Expect to get wet as friendly Laotions take pleasure in drenchings designed to wish you a long and healthy life!
Burmese New Year (Thingyan) – Myanmar
Celebrated over a period of four to five days, this celebration of the New Year also involves throwing water (surprise surprise!) In more rural areas the tradition involves the sprinkling of scented water in a silver bowl using sprigs of jambul (cumin). However, in cities and towns, there’s a festive atmosphere akin to Songkran in Thailand and guaranteed if you’re visiting you’re in for a good soaking!
As well as the water dousing, you’ll also come across street performances by dancers, puppeteers, comedians, opera singers and more!
The Bali Spirit Festival
Enjoy the international celebration of yoga, dance, and music. BaliSpirit Festival blooms every year in the heart of the magical island of Bali. The venue is surrounded by tropical rice fields, temples, and timeless spirituality. Our diverse and vibrant community has its roots in the core life-principle of Balinese Hindu Tri Hita Karana – to live in harmony with God, with people and with nature.
Deepen your practice of yoga, to connect with your spiritual self, to others and with nature. From dawn to dusk and through the starry nights, the festival will inspire you with world-class yoga, dance, breathwork and music within a conscious community that every year unites over 7000 people from all over the world. Buy Early Bird Tickets Now!
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 Yogyakarta.
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 Gautama (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.
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.
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.
Bali Arts Festival – Bali, Indonesia
Taking place over an entire month from mid-June to mid-July, the Bali Arts Festival is a unique extravaganza of arts, music, dance and history celebrating passion and pride in Balinese culture. Amongst other performances, famous masked dances originating from tribal villages are showcased and ancient classic stories retold.
There’s a vibrant atmosphere all across the island as celebrations are enjoyed by locals and travellers alike. For first time travellers to Bali, it’s a fantastic introduction to the rich heritage of the spirited destination.
Ramadan – Indonesia
During this period (usually May or June) all Muslims observe fast from dawn until dusk and in many parts of the country, restaurants will be closed during the day.
Ramadan is also a time when Muslims offer prayers to Allah, ask for forgiveness for sins and attempt to purify themselves of impure thoughts and deeds. According to tradition, Ramadan marks the time when the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.
The fasting period ends with ‘Eid’ a huge celebratory feast, commemorated by over one billion Muslims around the world as they say thank you to Allah for all they have been given.
Gawai Dayak Festival – Sarawak, Malaysia
Gawai is a religious and social festival held every June in the longhouses of lowland tribes in Sarawak to celebrate the New Year and harvest. In local language, Gawai means a ritual or festival, while Dayak is the name for the native ethnic groups of Sarawak.
During this important time, families get together for unique celebrations which last a couple of days, with weddings often taking place as it’s one of the few times of year that the community is at home in their ancestral longhouse dwelling.
If you happen to be travelling around exotic Sarawak during this Gawai Dayak, it’s a jolly good idea to get friendly with the locals, as no doubt you’ll be invited into the homes of the friendly tribal people to share with them this sacred festival, and spending the night in the jungle as the locals celebrate this exciting time is an experience like no other.
Feasts, songs around the fire, ancient tribal stories, animal sacrifice, and lots of betel nut chewing and drinking of the deadly local liquor, Borak, are to be expected!
Phi Ta Khon Festival – Dan Sai district, Loei province, Thailand
In Thailand, spirituality is never far away, but it perhaps comes closest with this ghostly festival, unique to the Isaan culture of North Eastern Thailand. (About 450km North of Bangkok.) Similar to the Western Halloween, locals don eerie spirit masks and wear phantom costumes and strange hats, while children play tricks in the street
The festival commemorates an old Buddhist tale, when villagers hold a celebration for the return of their Prince from banishment. It is said that they made so much noise that the dead are awakened from their graves and came out to party!
Musical processions pack the streets and rockets fill the sky for three days. On the last day, the villagers meet at the local temple, Wat Ponchai, to listen to the monks recite the message of Lord Buddha.
Singapore Arts Festival – Singapore
The Singapore Arts Festival is a dynamic event showcasing local and international talent. There are dance and musical performances, theatre showings, talks, historic presentations, art displays and more.
Boasting over 75 dance, music, opera and circus performances from all over the world, it’s no wonder this annual month-long festival is considered the ultimate performing arts festival in Singapore. Edgy, experimental and innovative performances from vastly diverse cultures are bound to have something to appeal to audiences of all ages and interests. As well as headliner performances from internationally renowned artists and troupes, Singapore becomes lit up by outdoor, late-night and children’s shows spread throughout the city for three weeks.
Coinciding with the festival will be the Singapore Street Festival, a national youth event taking place over three weeks. Budding young artists and performers will enhance the month’s festivities with their engaging and extraordinary talents, including parkour, street graffiti, yo-yo competitions, magic shows, belly dancing, J-rock, rap and urban football. Warning: May walk away with mild feelings of inadequacy (tweens who can free-run across buildings are apparently a thing now).
The Rainforest World Music Festival – Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia
Traditional Sapé (Orang Ulu guitar), gongs and bamboo harps mingle with the ancient oud (an ancient string instrument). A thousand harmonies seemingly at odds and yet in unison, a world apart but here, one world, together. Every year, festival-goers all over the world flock to the mythical land of Sarawak, Borneo for the magical Rainforest World Music Festival. Read our article from 2012’s Rainforest World Music Festival here.
As well as performances from some world-renowned performers, there’s an array of daytime music workshops and jamming sessions that take place at the gorgeous 17-acre Sarawak Cultural Village, just 35km outside of Kuching, a stone’s throw away from the quiet beach resort area of the Santubong Peninsula.
Three days beginning at 2 pm with workshops and lectures – and three nights crammed with concert after concert on the main stage. With its central lake, abundant flora, landscaped walkways, and surrounded by thick jungle and the legendary Mount Santubong, this is seriously one of the most breathtaking festival settings in the world!
It’s none too shabby from a music perspective, either. The RWMF has been voted one of the Top 25 Best International Festivals by world music magazine Songlines for the 4th year running. As well as international acts, there’s also a big traditional representation from Sarawak itself – from huge log drums and gongs to all kinds of innovative bamboo instruments, including the haunting sape, the boat-shaped lute. Dance to the rhythms of the rainforest, chill out under the canopies of the trees; drink, dine – then pick it up again at the Tree Stage ‘til late.
Bali Kite Festival – Sanur Beach, Bali, Indonesia
Traditionally held as a religious festival, this wonderful spectacle of an event is thought to send signals to the Hindu Gods to create plentiful harvests in the coming year. Kites of all different shapes, sizes and colours take to the skies above Bali, with some of the kites measuring up to 10 metres in length!
Teams from local villages battle it out in competitions for best launch and longest flight. There is live music in the form of a Gamelan orchestra throughout the festival and hundreds of spectators.
Kuala Lumpur Festival – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
The KL Festival is a whole month of Malaysian culture and heritage. Around 50 performances, visual arts, traditional games, and language and literature events entertain locals and tourists all over Kuala Lumpur and the Klang Valley.
Khao Phansa (Buddhist Lent) – Myanmar, Laos, Thailand
Khao Phansa is one of the most important occasions in the Buddhist calendar that also marks the beginning of the rainy season across the kingdoms of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. Also known as the ‘Buddhist Rains Retreat,’ it’s a time when Buddhist monks retreat to the temple where they must remain for a period of three months.
Traditionally, this was so that they would not be in danger of treading on young plants, which sprout during this season of growth and new life. It’s a time for study and meditation and is also considered an auspicious time for ordinations into monkhood. Celebrations take place across the country to commemorate the beginning of Khao Phansa.
Singapore Food Festival – Singapore
Food connoisseurs delight! A festival dedicated to the pleasure of eating delicious delicacies from all over the world. (And your parents were worried you’d come back skinny and undernourished from your travels!)
Each street serves up a unique range of cuisine and there’s a festive atmosphere in the air. As well as food glorious food, there are also cultural activities; street shows in Chinatown, riverboat cruises, music and entertainment.
Banana Festival – Tagum, Davao del Norte, The Philippines
Taking place in Davao del Norte, the country’s leading producer of bananas, the fun-filled Banana Festival is a ten day festival with lots of festivities and fairs, with street dancing and an agricultural trade fair to highlight Davao del Norte as “banana country”.
The Candle Festival – Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand
This is a deeply spiritual festival following Khao Pansa, or Buddhist Lent, when a great candle procession parades through the streets of Ubon Ratchathani to honour the everlasting faith of the people in Buddhism. The festival includes floats, special displays, cultural presentations and music and dancing.
If you have been interested in learning about Buddhism and Meditation while you are in Thailand, this is a wonderful opportunity to find out more about traditional Thai beliefs in a beautiful, spiritual setting away from the tourists that can clutter the popular Chiang Mai at times.
Hungry Ghost Festival – Chinese Communities in South East Asia
Every year for a whole month, Chinese people believe that the ghosts of their ancestors descend to earth to wander the earth in search of food! Although you may not actually bump into one of the actual ghosts, you will encounter the festival alive and well in Chinese communities all across South East Asia from Phuket in Thailand, to Penang in Malaysia.
You’ll see offerings left outside temples and houses to appease the hungry ghosts, as Chinese people believe that their ancestors can bring them good luck. There are also Chinese Opera performances and puppet shows taking place in lively Chinatowns everywhere.
Metatah (Tooth Filing Ceremony) – Bali, Indonesia
Metatah is an interesting ritual carried out by Balinese Hindus, that generally takes place during this time of year. The ceremony marks the passage from childhood to adulthood and filing the teeth is said to cleanse the body and mind of invisible evil spirits. Balinese belief systems view teeth as a symbol of lust, greed, anger and jealousy, among other vices.
George Town Festival – Penang, Malaysia
George Town Festival (GTF) is a month-long celebration of art, music, theatre, dance, opera and film to commemorate George Town’s inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage listing on 7 July, 2008. Each year since 2009, GTF transforms George Town Penang into an exciting and unique platform for the arts, heritage and culture. The festival creative local talents and internationally acclaimed performances of art, theatre, music, dance, opera and film screenings. Check out their website for more information.
Indonesian Independence Day
Each year, every neighbourhood holds friendly contents of hilarious games, such as climbing oily trees to reach gifts placed in the branches, the sack race (jumping race with your feet inside a bag), biting the krupuk (using your mouth to collect coins from a melon covered in black slippery oil… Good wholesome family fun where everyone from the old to the young gets involved.
Merdeka Day – Malaysia’s Independence Day
Throughout the country, Merdeka day is a day of national pride and a celebration of cultural heritage. The event commemorates Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957. Particularly in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, there are parades, performances and events taking place on this momentous day. Head to Independence Square to witness the celebrations.
Taung Byone Nat Festival – Taung Byone Village near Mandalay, Burma/Myanmar
This festival is known as the major gathering spot for spiritual mediums. Hundreds of mediums (Nat-Kadaw) and thousands of pilgrims come once a year to Taung Byone, where the statues of two brothers (who died mysteriously after forgetting to provide two bricks for the Pagoda of Wishes), are placed in a shrine and there stands still the “Pagoda of Wishes” with the two missing stones. It is the most impressive Nat (spirit) Festival in Myanmar. Offerings and dances, the inflow of merchants, the constant arrival of pilgrims and the intensive use of loudspeakers continue day and night.
Mid-Autumn Festival – Vietnam
Known to Vietnamese as ‘Tet-Trung-Thu’, the Mid-Autumn (Harvest) Festival is an important time for families, with a traditional focus on children. The celebration originates from an old folktale about parents working so hard to get ready for harvest they forgot about their children. Mid-Autumn Festival became a time when parents would make it up to them.
There’s a festive atmosphere in many cities as lights and flowers adorn the streets, toy shops stock their shelves and people flock to buy mooncakes which are sold in shops in the hundreds. In many communities across Asia, this is a time when people believe the moon to be at its biggest and brightest signalling a time of happiness and harmony.
The Phuket Vegetarian Festival – Phuket, Thailand
Despite the rather misleading title of this festival, for spectators, this world-renowned event is a feast for the eyes rather than the stomach! The Phuket Vegetarian Festival occurs over 10 days with a series of celebrations through the streets of Phuket’s Old Town in South Thailand.
It’s the sixth day that has long been a favourite of photographers the world over. On this day, devotees partake in incredible feats of body piercing, as well as acts such as walking barefoot on hot coals or climbing ladders made of blades. During such self-torture, it is said that gods can enter the body and evil spirits are dispelled from town.
The festival dates back to 1825 when a Chinese Opera came to town. When the troupe became ill, they turned to a vegetarian diet used in conjunction with ancient rituals to cure themselves. Locals were astounded as each one was miraculously healed and thus became converts to ritual vegetarianism.
Since that day, the Thai-Chinese people of Phuket have celebrated the festival annually with the belief in its power to invite good fortune.
Participants must not eat meat for a number of days in order to purify the mind and cleanse the soul. This festival should be high on the list of priorities for action-hungry travellers this month!
Bang Fai Phaya Nak (Naga Fireball) – Thailand
Astounding miracle or an elaborate hoax? This unusual spectacle that occurs in Nong Khai along the Mekong in northern Thailand on the border with Laos has baffled even the most sceptical onlookers. On the night of the full moon, at the end of Buddhist lent, hundreds of spectators congregate on the banks, eyes glued, as burning red fireballs ascend from the surface of the water into the night sky.
Locals believe this phenomenon occurs because of Naga, the great serpent of the underworld who dwells in the murky depths. Once a year, Naga sends a powerful sign to all villagers to remind them to respect the river and the life source it stands for.
Researchers have tried to solve the mystery, but no one has been able to explain how or why this phenomenon takes place on the same night each year. Still dubious? Well, there’s only one way to make your mind up!
Chonburi Buffalo Racing – Thailand
Mooching about in the muddy field with your mates chewing on clumps of grass? Pah! The buffalos of Chonburi have more serious things to do. Thanks to the efforts of some determined farmers Chonburi’s buffalos have been transformed from sluggish workhorses to lean, mean racing machines.
Each year at the beginning of October, the Chonburi Buffalo Races are a series of highly competitive sprints taking place in front of the towns Municipal Office. Crowds of people gather to cheer their favourites to victory in an event that has been known to feature on the BBC and CNN.
Deepavali – Malaysia
Deepavali, often known as the ‘Festival of Lights,’ is one of the most important events in the Hindu calendar. Celebrated in Hindu communities throughout Malaysia, the festival signifies the triumph of good over evil and light over dark. Candles and lanterns are lit to guide souls of the deceased back to their loved ones during this time.
Many ancient stories are told to explain the origin of the festival, all of which symbolise the removal of evil with the replacement of benevolence. In Malaysia, there’s a one-day public holiday and in the run-up to the big day, homes and temples are given a spring clean to symbolise renewal.
They are then colourfully decorated and brightly lit to welcome the coming of, Devi Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth and prosperity. Many Hindus pray, fast or observe strict diets during the weeks before the festival.
Thimithi (Firewalking ceremonies) – Malaysia & Singapore
Thimithi is an interesting Hindu ritual of fire walking which has its origins in South India. Its roots lie in the old Indian epic, the Mahabharata as the ceremony is said to commemorate an event where the main character, Draupadi walks over a bed of coals to prove her purity and emerges as a fresh flower.
You will find Thimithi ceremonies occurring at local temples in Hindu communities of Singapore and Malaysia. Devotees walk over scorching hot coals as proof of faith to Draupadi and to show gratitude for the fulfilment of personal prayers.
It is believed that a strong devotion will overcome the danger of getting burnt. You can witness the festival in parts of Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Penang and the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia.
Awk Pansa, End of Buddhist Lent – Thailand, Laos, Myanmar
Awk Pansa literally means “leaving the period of rain” and is celebrated all over Thailand, Laos and Myanmar on the night of the full moon in October, marking the end of the Buddhist Lent. Rooted in agricultural tradition ‘Awk Pansa’ indicates the start of a new season and controls the planting of crops. In many parts of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, Awk Pansa is celebrated with a series of boat processions.
In Isaan province, huge boats are filled with offerings of sticky rice parcels, flowers, candles and lamps and are launched on the river by local villagers. In Laos, in riverside towns such as Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Savannakhet, boat races are held in a festival known as ‘Bun Nam’ or ‘Water Festival.’ Similarly, in Myanmar, boat races take place in rivers and lakes all over, best observed at the beautiful Inle Lake.
P’chum Ben – Cambodia
P’chum Ben takes place on the fifteenth day of the tenth month in the Cambodian calendar. It is the time of the year when Khmer people believe that spirits of dead ancestors rise and walk the earth. Offerings are made at temples as early as 4 o clock in the morning as people go to give the spirits food to eat in an attempt to ease their suffering. Most commonly, sticky rice is thrown onto the ground for the spirits as it is said to be the easiest food for them to consume.
Bali Vegan Festival
Established by Down To Earth Bali in 2015, the Bali Vegan Festival has been growing in size and scope each year and 2017 featured a huge range of activities and entertainment for vegans and omnivores alike. As well as talks, the weekend plays host to scores of others activities including raw vegan dessert workshops, cooking classes, yoga and meditation, live music, healing sessions, movie screenings and a host of children’s activities.
Loi Krathong (Festival of Lights) – Thailand
One of the most enchanting and magical festivals in the Thai calendar, takes place on the night of the full moon in November, marking the end of the rainy season. Night skies all across the country become illuminated as glowing lanterns are floated into the air and rivers and lakes glisten with candles as tiny boats are set afloat in honour of the Goddess of Water. The roots of the festival lie firmly in Buddhist origins and the beliefs centre upon the concept of ‘letting go’ or ‘being freed’ from your troubles.
As the lantern or boat is launched and drifts away, it is believed that people can be released from their ‘Durkkha’ or suffering and may wish for good luck in the future. The name of the festival comes from the small lotus-shaped boats, which are called ‘krathong.’ Made of banana leaves and filled with candles, incense and other offerings. The boats can also contain locks of hair, photographs or symbolic remnants of the past.
For those lucky enough to be in Chiang Mai at this time, the festival, known as ‘Yi Peng Lantern Festival’ is a wondrous sight to behold. One of the best places to watch the spectacle unfold is on the banks of the Ping River in Chiang Mai where thousands of people cast their fortunes into the night sky. The paper lanterns, known as ‘khom-fai’ look like big luminous jelly fish hovering up above. Parades, music, markets, street entertainment and of course lots of street food surrounds the festivities by the river.
Don’t miss the Mae Jo Lantern Release!
Part of the Yi Peng celebrations, taking place just on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, in San Sai, the Yi Peng ‘mass lantern release’ event was created by a few entrepreneurial monks in order to attract tourists to the area. The event is extremely popular and you must buy a ticket to reserve your place.
Getting to and from the site is also a challenge as thousands of cars, tuk-tuks, motorbikes and people clamour to get a space. However, the stress is worth it. The release is truly a sight to behold with thousands of lanterns launched into the sky at the same time. Of course, the event attracts travel photographers hoping to get the perfect shot.
Bon Om Touk (Water Festival) – Cambodia
Bon Om Touk, in Khmer, or the Water Festival to you and me, begins on the night of the full moon in November, marking the end of the rainy season in Cambodia. It is one of the most enjoyable and vivacious festivals in the country that attracts thousands of captivated partakers to the capital Phnom Penh.
The event celebrates the amazing natural phenomenon of the reversing flow of the Tonle Sap River. The marvel occurs when the water levels of the lower Mekong become so high during the monsoon season that it forces the water back upon itself. Not only is it an important cultural event, it indicates the beginning of a plentiful fishing season for many Cambodians who rely on the water as a vital life source.
The festival continues for three days as a carnival spirit envelopes the city. There are street parties, market stalls, floats, dancing and firework displays, but the main event is the traditional boat races on the Tonle Sap River which date back as far as the 9th century, Competitors sweat it out in energetic heats as hoards of spectators line the riverside. The exhilarating final is watched by the King of Cambodia himself.
That Luang Festival – Vientiane, Laos
A deeply religious event, the That Luang Festival in Lao’s capital, Vientiane takes place, like most Buddhist Festivals on the day of the full moon in November. On this day, before the break of dawn, thousands of Buddhists surround the beautiful golden temple, That Luang to say prayers and give alms to the monks who have travelled from all across the country for the festival.
As the sun rises, the tradition is to circle the stupa three times in an anti-clockwise direction. Flower processions, market stalls, live music and dancing ensue.
Hmong New Year – Laos, Vietnam and Thailand
Early December sees a New Year celebration unique to the culture of the Hmong people, one of the largest ethnic groups residing in Northern Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. The event takes place at different times each year as the timing depends on the harvesting of the rice. The superstitious beliefs of the Hmong people mean that the festival must be at least three days long, as it is bad luck for events to last for an even number of days. Celebrations have been known to proceed for a month and a half!
Existing as both a religious and social event, it’s a huge festivity for the Hmong people, as it’s one of the only times that they have a break from farming during the year. Traditional performances, games and events are enjoyed by everyone in the community, so it’s also the perfect chance for the singletons of nearby villages to meet prospective spouses.
The Annual Angkor Photo Festival – Cambodia
The Angkor Photo Festival in Siem Reap kicks off at the beginning of December, and the week-long festival features over 100 photographers in a series of indoor and outdoor exhibitions as well as daily evening slideshow projections. The festival is the longest running photography event in Southeast Asia and the aim of the event is to nurture and promote young Asian talent and encourage the development of photography in the region. All events are open to the public and free of charge.
River Kwai Bridge Week – Kanchanaburi, Thailand
Cultural performances, folk dances and a carnival atmosphere pervade the town of Kanchanaburi during the remembrance week of the world famous, River Kwai Bridge. Historical exhibitions and displays explain more about the history and a light and sound presentation enacts the World War II legacy.
Christmas (or Hari Natal) in the Philippines
Dreaming of a white Christmas? Although snow may be a little light on the ground and there ain’t a mince pie in sight, you’ll be sure to find the twinkle of Christmas Spirit in many places across Asia.
Glitzy tinsel, plastic reindeer, Santa hats and even fake snowflakes may seem a little strange in the likes of Hanoi and Bangkok, but it seems the fun-loving locals, don’t mind celebrating festivals traditionally deriving from other cultures; if it’s a jolly good excuse for a party that is!
The big question is, where’s the best place for a homesick backpacker to fill their stockings with festive cheer in Southeast Asia?
If you’re looking to hang out with fellow countrymen, you can Full Moon it, Khao San Road it or head to any of the Thai islands where you’ll even be able to get a traditional Christmas dinner if you try! (Parts of the Philippines, East Timor and Indonesia hold traditional Christmas celebrations, (known as Hari Natal) amongst the large Christian populace.)
International New Year
Lo and behold, here we are again! Time to make some resolutions and whizz back up to the top of the page to start the whole cycle over again.
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