Festivals are a major part of life in Asia, with many rooted in centuries-old tradition and embedded in community culture.
You will have probably heard about Songkran (Thai New Year), which is essentially a large water fight, and seen Chinese New Year celebrations when colourful dragons parade through the cities, but here are some of the more unique and unusual festivals to be spotted while you travel throughout Asia...
Sumba is a fascinating island of ancient and deeply rooted rituals, with none more mysterious than the Pasola Festival. This pre-harvest ritual takes place during February or March, on a date determined by the annual arrival of swarms of colourful nyale sea worms on Sumba’s shores (we did say they were quirky!). The worms' arrival triggers the festival’s main event: two large groups of traditionally dressed horsemen, riding bareback and wielding (blunt) spears, participate in a wild joust, the main aim of which is to spill human blood on the ground to fertilize the land, appease the spirits and guarantee a good harvest.
Another ritual best viewed from the side-lines is the Hindu festival of Thaipusam. This painful-looking rite sees devotees of the Hindu deity Lord Murugan going to extreme lengths to express their remorse for past misdeeds. It's common to see penitent Hindus skewering parts of their face and torso, or carrying ‘kavadi’ (heavy burdens), usually attached to the body by metal hooks for maximum absolution. Although the festival is celebrated throughout the country, the most notable Thaipusam pilgrimage site is Batu Caves, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, where, in early February, up to a million pilgrims congregate, having endured the walk from the city, and a 272-step climb, to reach the temple and offer thanksgiving to Lord Murugan.
The brain child of a local businessman in an attempt to boost tourist numbers, the unique Monkey Buffet Festival is dedicated, unsurprisingly, to everything monkey! Each year in late November in the ancient town of Lopburi (about 100 miles north of Bangkok), local macaque monkeys - of which there are hundreds - are treated to an immense buffet of fruit, vegetables, cakes & pretty much anything edible, set up in front of the temples by the locals. Besides the monkey feast, the festival hosts monkey focused music and dance activities; expect to see youngsters dressed in monkey costumes and primate paraphernalia for sale. There appears to be no hidden cultural significance - it’s just a bit of fun!
Another animal focused festival that we rather like is the Dancing Elephant Festival held in Kyaukse, south of Mandalay. Don't worry, it doesn’t involve any real dancing elephants; the locals construct and decorate life-sized bamboo elephants which dance enthusiastically through town (with a little help from the two men inside), to be judged by a group of town elders. The best dressed / danced elephant wins a cash prize. Why elephants? Back in the 11th century, the King let his royal elephants choose the auspicious location in which to enshrine the Buddha’s tooth relic; they stopped at Thar Lyaung Mountain near Kyaukse, and the festival is held here in their honour, every October, at the end of the rainy season.
When it comes to elaborately decorated elephants, it doesn’t get any more spectacular than Kandy’s Esala Perahera. This magnificent elephant parade, which also features a cast of dancers & drummers, whip-crackers & fire-eaters, is the culmination of a ten day celebration dedicated to a much-revered tooth! This is not just any old molar, but the sacred relic of the Buddha’s tooth, normally housed in the city’s Dalada Maligawa temple. Once a year (July or August) since the tooth's arrival in the city in the 4th century, it is paraded through the streets with an entourage of elephants and performers. Maybe not as ‘quirky’ as our other features, but the Esala Perahera is arguably one of the most spectacular religious festivals in Asia.
More a time of spiritual reconciliation than a celebratory festival, Wandering Souls Day is the second most important festival in the Vietnamese calendar. Many Vietnamese believe that when a person dies their soul is sent to heaven or hell, depending on their earthly life. Annually, the gates of hell open, and hungry unclothed souls fly back to the homes of their relatives, who lay out all kind of food delicacies as offerings. Souls with no family to return to can only roam the streets, and so food, incense and clothing (made from paper) are offered in the public pagodas for these forgotten, wandering souls. Takes place on 15th day of seventh lunar month, or a more convenient date close to it, so check before you travel for this year's festival.