After living and traveling in Asia for many years I quickly learned that Asia has quite a fondness for festivals. There is the full moon festival, the Loy Krathong festival, harvest festival, hottest day of the year festival, washing hair festival, camel festival, weaving festival and the list goes on. Many of these festivals are enjoyable but what festivals are worth planning your trip around?
I think there are four festivals in South East/South Asia that I would rearrange my itinerary for and they are Holi and Pushkar Camel Fair, which are celebrated in India and Songkran and Loy Krathong Festival, which are celebrated in Thailand.
The Loy Krathong festival known as the ‘festival of lights’ falls in November, on the full moon of the twelfth month of the lunar calendar. A ‘krathong’ is a floating basket made from banana leaves and usually has some offerings and incense put inside along with a candle.
You can even have ice cream cone krathongs!
These baskets are placed into canals, seas and rivers with the lit candle. Once you set your basket adrift you make a wish and some people believe that the longer your candle stays lit the more likely your wish will come to fruition.
The candle also signifies longevity and the washing away of sins. Now imagine thousands of these ‘kathongs’ floating on a river. It is a sight unlike any other as thousands of flickering candles float adrift as candlelight reflects off the water.
You will also see the lanterns in ‘balloon form’ reaching up for the sky. You can write on them like we did. Some people write their wishes and we wrote the name of our company! If the lantern keeps floating up and does not extinguish your wish will come true, so far our wish has come true so maybe it is does work! 🙂
The tradition has carried to the west and you see many of these lantern balloons at weddings and parties. The Loy Krathong festival is celebrated throughout Thailand but one of the most magical places to be for this festival is in Chiang Mai.
Songkran in Thailand:
Have you ever wanted to throw buckets of water at random people or go around with a super soaker water gun and spray people for no reason at all? Well here is your chance to do just that! Songkran is a festival in Thailand that marks the beginning of the New Year in the traditional Thai calendar in April.
Traditionally, Songkran was a time when Buddha images from private homes and temples were cleansed with perfumed water. In many cities, Buddha images are taken from the temples and paraded around the streets for this purpose. At this time, many people take the opportunity to carefully clean their houses and to make New Year resolutions, promising to do good deeds and refrain from doing bad ones. A feature of the celebration was that some of the perfumed water used to bathe the Buddha images was collected. It was then gently poured onto elders and family members as a sign of respect and to ensure good luck and prosperity in the coming year.
What has happened in modern times is that this aspect of the celebration has become its central theme, and has become much more intense. The result is that Songkran now resembles a three-day water-fight in which any weapon, from high-pressured squirt guns to buckets filled with icy water to elephants, are considered fair game.
It has become very popular with younger Thai people, and the tourists, who see it as three days of fun, rather than a religious festival. In fact, most Thai people are happy to take part in this fun aspect of Songkran, particularly as April is usually the hottest month of the year, when temperatures can top 100º F. Every year there are calls from political and religious leaders to moderate the festival, particularly in light of the horrendous carnage on the roads, but every year these calls are ignored. It may seem like unrestricted mayhem, but there is etiquette to be observed.
Monks and pregnant women are not considered valid targets. You do not splash or shoot water inside restaurants, hotels or people’s homes. Most importantly, once the sun goes down, people go home to change into dry clothes and a general cease-fire then comes into effect. Tourists who do not understand these rules can find themselves in trouble both with offended victims and with the police. Songkran used to be observed only in Northern Thailand, leading some to believe that it was originally brought to Thailand by the Burmese. It is now celebrated all over Thailand.
Festivals similar to Songkran are held at about the same time in Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and in the Yunnan region of Southwest China.
This festival is also synonymous with the Songkran Gay Male Circuit Party that lasts for 3 days in Bangkok.
Across the way in India is the aptly named ‘festival of colors’, Holi. Holi is one of the most well know festivals in the world and many western countries have started their own Holi experience in their towns and cities. There is a reason it has gained popularity in the West, its fun! In India, Holi is celebrated in March.
The Holi festivals origins differ in certain regions. In this well-known version, an evil king was given powers that made him virtually indestructible. With each passing day he became more and more arrogant with his powers and soon made people worship him. His son however did not believe his father to be righteous and the son worshiped Vishnu even though by doing so he was subjected to cruel punishments by his father. One day his evil aunt, Holika (the name Holi derives from her name) came to see him and tricked him into sitting on a pyre with her. Aunt Holika was wearing a shawl that would protect her from the flames but when the fired roared the shawl flew off and encompassed the son. Holika was burned alive and at the same moment Vishna appeared and killed the evil king. Hence, it is a celebration of the victory of good over evil and many celebrate the start of Holi with a bonfire.
Another version says it had to do with Lord Krishna who felt hopeless that no girls would like him because of his blue skin color. His mother, out of desperation finally told him to pick a girl and to color her face. Krishna obeyed and colored a girl named Radha. After painting her face they immediately fell in love and became a couple. In this story Holi is considered to be the ‘festival of love.’ Over the years the festival has also grown to commemorate to forgive and forget and to rid oneself of past errors. Although Holi is a Hindu festival, people of all faiths in India come out to throw water and colors on each other.
It does get quite rowdy and many of the local men celebrate by consuming bhang (a cannabis beverage) and things can get out of control and women, Indian and western alike, need to be careful. If you are a female it is best to go early before the men get intoxicated and grabby.
The Pushkar Camel fair in India is one of India’s most highly-rated travel experiences, a spectacle on an epic scale, attracting more than 11,000 camels, horses and cattle and visited by over 400,000 people over a period of around fourteen days. It is trading post in the desert where people set up tents and barter and trade. It reminds you of what life was probably like long ago in the west and it truly is a unique experience.
There are many competitions, for example, which camel has the most intricate design and decoration, camel races and the longest moustache competition, and yes foreigners can compete in this one as well as in cricket where many foreigners jump in and play alongside the Indians.
It is when men show off their livestock and camel’s skills and the women also take part by setting up stalls full of bracelets, clothes and textiles as well as take part in dance performances.
It is held each November at the time of the Kartik Purnima full moon. For visitors it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness the color, spectacle and carnival of one of the last great traditional trading festival, which brings livestock, farmers, traders and villagers from all over Rajasthan.
If you travel for long enough in Asia though, you are bound to experience one or two festivals or holidays as they are plentiful.
What say you, what is a festival you have been to anywhere in the world that stood out from the rest?