7 Spectacular Festivals in South East Asia

Today’s guest blogger is Nikki Scott from southeastasiabackpacker.com, she knows everything there is to know about travelling around South East Asia. If you’re looking for somewhere to stay we have loads of hostels in Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos and the Philippines.

South East Asia is one of the most vibrant, festival-loving places on earth. No matter which season you travel you are sure to come across a festival of sorts, be it a street party, a New Year bash (there are three New Years annually!) or a religious celebration. Here’s our top pick of the most enjoyable and spectacular festivals in South East Asia.

1. Songkran, Thailand

  • April
  • Best location: Bangkok / Chiang Mai

Held at the hottest time of year in Thailand, Songkran marks the Buddhist New Year. It’s a time for new beginnings, spiritual cleansing… oh and getting completely soaking wet. Armed with super soakers and freezing cold buckets of water, locals take to the streets to welcome in the New Year and ‘bless’ each other by drenching anyone and everyone with water.

Chiang Mai is one of the craziest places to witness the festivities as water is pumped from the city moat to use as ammo and trucks drive around the old town in search of any innocent stranger with an inch of dryness. Songkran is a big hit with tourists who crowd the streets to join in the wet and wild fun. Away from the frolics in temples, Buddha statues are sprinkled with water in a symbolic cleansing ritual to greet the New Year.

2. Thaipusam, Malaysia

  • January
  • Best location: Kuala Lumpur

Check out this incredible Thaipusam video…

One of the largest Hindu Festivals in Asia, Thaipusam is a sight to behold, particularly in Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur. Held annually in October, millions of people flock to the sacred site, the Batu Caves, which is the endpoint of an 8-hour pilgrimage across the city beginning at 12pm at Sri Mahamariamman Temple.

In a demonstration of devotion and offer of penance to the Hindu God Lord Murugan, devotees perform incredible (and sometimes gruesome!) feats. They pierce their body and face with skewers, drag chariots with hooks attached to their skin and carry uncomfortable metal frames called ‘kavadis’ through the streets and up the 272 steps to the shrine at the top of the cave. During the festival some participants enter trance-like states when their soul is believed to be cleansed of sins.

3. Chinese New Year, South East Asia

  • January
  • Best location: Hanoi, Vietnam

Colourful dragon parades, drum beating and thousands of fireworks are used to welcome Chinese New Year in communities all across South East Asia. The festivities last 15 days and during this period different rituals take place each day. Children are given gifts of money in (lucky) red envelopes, paper lanterns are raised, families eat huge feasts, people clean their homes for the welcoming of spring and settle any outstanding debts to friends or colleagues. Chinese temples are shrouded by the smoke of a thousand incense sticks as people go to pray, have their fortune told and perform rituals to bring them good luck in the coming year.

4. Boun Bang Fai Rocket Festival, Laos

  • May
  • Best location: Luang Prabang, Laos

This is one festival in South East Asia that goes off with a bang! Every year each May sees villages across the country gather to create huge, colourful rockets which are to be launched high (hopefully) into the skies on the big day. There is prestige and extra ‘LaoLao’ (local rice whiskey) for the rocket-maker who fires his rocket the highest and taunts for those who fire a dud. The festival is held at the start of the rainy season in Laos in honour of the Rain God ‘Phaya Thaen’ to pray for plentiful rain for the rice crop that year.

5. Aguman Sanduk, The Philippines

  • January
  • Best location: Manila

Gentlemen clad your sequined bra and silky dress for this unusual cross-dressing affair in the Philippines’ capital, Manila. Dating back over 80-years, this festival is said to have originated when a drunken group of chaps dressed up as women on 1 January as a novel way to bring in the New Year. The stunt quickly caught on and has now turned into a massive joyful parade involving some of the most respectable men in the city!

6. Phuket Vegetarian Festival, Thailand

  • October
  • Best location: Phuket Old Town

By the name of this festival you may assume it to be a gentle affair where new-age vegetarian hippies share tofu recipes over yoga mats in Thailand. However, the Phuket Vegetarian festival is one of the craziest, most spectacular events in South East Asia. You’ll witness incredible acts of self-torture such as walking on hot coals, climbing bladed ladders and the piercing of cheeks with swords, shards of glass – even beach umbrellas.

It’s believed that Gods enter the bodies of the devotees and evil-spirits are rid from the town during the 6-day event. The festival originated in 1825 when a Chinese Opera visited Phuket and after becoming ill, used a combination of a vegetarian diet and ancient rituals to cure themselves. Each year, the festival becomes more extravagant and shocking, much to the delight of enthusiastic photographers.

7. Loi Krathong, Thailand

Possibly the most visually beautiful and enchanting festival on earth, Loi Krathong sees thousand of paper lanterns illuminate the night skies above Thailand each November on the night of the full moon. Small lotus-shaped boats (or krathongs) made of banana leaves, lit with a candle and filled with offerings are also floated on rivers and lakes across the country in honour of the Goddess of Water.

The festival is a Buddhist tradition and the purpose of the celebration is to release suffering or ‘durkkha’. The freeing of lanterns signifies the ‘letting go’ of worries from the previous year. Sometimes people write messages on paper or place locks of hair and photographs in the boats as a symbol of saying goodbye to the past.

And if you miss these festivals, there are always the Full Moon Parties every month in Koh Phangan!

You can connect with Nikki on Facebook and twitter at @SEA_Backpacker.

Thanks to jhecking, tonybpics, Electrostatico and little79bear for the excellent images from Flickr. Please note, all images were used under the Creative Commons license at the time of posting. 

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