Six Southeast Asian festivals you need to experience

27 March 2019

Festivals are a big thing in Southeast Asia, and chances are good that a trip to this region will coincide with some form of celebration. Here’s a selection of some of the biggest and most important festivals in the region, which we recommend attending.

January: Sinulog (Philippines)

Held on the third Sunday of January in Cebu City, Sinulog is one of the Philippines’ grandest and most colourful festivals. This Christianity-focused dance festival attracts thousands of people from all over the world eager to see people dressed in bright-coloured costumes dancing to the rhythm of drums, trumpets and native gongs.

First held in 1980 to honour the Santo Niño de Cebú (or the Child Jesus), the festival serves as an important celebration of religious devotion that sits at the heart of the Cebuano cultural identity, with many attendees bringing their own statues of the Child Jesus, which is usually newly cleaned and painted.

 

February: Tet (Vietnam)

Vietnamese New Year, also known as Tet, is considered to be the country’s most important national holiday and a chance for a fresh start. Usually falling in late January or early February, Tet is short for ‘Tet Nguyen Dan’, which translates literally to ‘the first morning of the first day of the new year’. As such, the Vietnamese people prepare for the three-day festival by trying to get rid of any ‘bad fortune’ by cleaning their homes, buying new clothes, resolving disputes and paying their debts.

The Vietnamese capital of Hanoi is arguably the best place to enjoy traditional Tet celebrations. Typically, you can expect fireworks at the stroke of midnight on Tet eve, while on the fifth day of the lunar month, Hanoi citizens head to Dong Da Hill southwest of the capital to celebrate Dong Da Festival. The sixth day sees costumed locals form a procession for the Co Loa Festival.

 

March: Nyepi (Bali)

Nyepi is probably the complete opposite of what you’d expect from a national festival. There’s no music, no cheering, no laughter and the only people you’re likely to see on the streets are security guards. That’s because Nyepi is Bali’s annual Day of Silence and to commemorate the ‘Isakawarsa’ New Year, the island completely shuts down for 24 hours on a day in March.

Shops, restaurants, bars and even Bali’s International Airport close as people spend the day in silence, fasting or meditating. The real Nyepi party occurs several days preceding Saka New Year as Balinese Hindus get dressed up in bright costumes and carry elaborate parasols, banners and small effigies for what is one of the most iconic and photogenic Balinese holidays. On Nyepi Eve, be sure to watch the Parade of Giants – where huge six-metre tall papier-mâché effigies depicting demons, locally referred to as ‘bhutakala’, are paraded throughout village streets.

 

April: Songkran (Thailand)

April is the hottest month of the year in Thailand, so what better time for a humongous water fight? That’s what Songkran essentially boils down to and anyone who sets foot outside during Thailand’s annual three-day water festival is definitely going to get a bit soggy.

Water guns, hose pipes, buckets, anything that contains a drop of water will be used as the country erupts with music, drinking and people dancing, drenched from head to toe.

Songkran has its roots as a Buddhist tradition, where a light sprinkling of water is used to symbolise purification. Over the years though, people began splashing each other in an increasingly playful manner until it became the nationwide water fight it is today, involving millions of participants.

Bangkok has many places where you can get into the Songkran groove, but the biggest parties can be found on Khao San Road and Silom Road, which gets closed off to traffic. Many other Thailand cities get into the party spirit too including Chiang Mai, Phuket, Pattaya and Koi Samui.

“Thailand is one of my favourite destinations and we have visited several times. We spent a day visiting Bangkok’s temples and the Grand Palace, where everything that glistens is gold. You must dress respectfully to visit all the sacred places so wear a long-sleeved blouse to pop on top of your strappy top if it’s hot. We also visited the Reclining Buddha, the Jade Buddha and the Golden Buddha; all must-sees if you are visiting Bangkok.”

Travel Counsellor Tip

April: Boun Bang Fai (Rocket Festival - Laos)

This festival is one of the craziest in Southeast Asia. There are the usual floats, music and dance performances you’d expect, but the third and final day ensures the festival goes out with a bang as locals show off their homemade rockets with a competition held to see who can fire theirs highest into the sky.

The festival stems from the ancient belief that provoking the Rain God will make water fall from the sky onto the crops following the dry season.

“I cannot recommend a visit to Laos highly enough. We got up extra early to watch the Buddhist monks walking through the town before visiting some of the Buddhist temples situated around the area. After riding in a tuk-tuk, we travelled down to the 4,000 Islands area of Laos where we took a boat ride to see the rare Irrawaddy Dolphins.”

Travel Counsellor Tip

October: Phuket Vegetarian Festival (Thailand)

Taking place early October, this week-long festival celebrates the Chinese community's belief that abstinence from meat during the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar brings good health and peace of mind.

Don’t be fooled by the seemingly tame name though; the Phuket Vegetarian Festival is renowned for some particularly gruesome ceremonies with firewalking, body piercing and other acts of self-mortification undertaken in a bid to invoke the gods.

Some attendees puncture their cheeks with knives, skewers and other household items, so this is definitely not one for the faint-hearted. It is believed that the Chinese gods will protect such persons from harm, and little blood or scarring results from such mutilation act.

Many street stalls and markets sell specially prepared vegetarian cuisine and even hardened carnivores would struggle to tell the veggie cuisine from regular meat-laced dishes with soybean and protein substitute products replacing meat in standard Thai fare to uncanny effect.

 

Enjoy these amazing Southeast Asian festivals for yourself by contacting your Travel Counsellor today and enjoying exclusive access to benefits such as a 24-hour duty office ready to assist you before, during and after your stay.

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