Spanning across 48 countries and 4 billion people, the multi-cultural Asia makes up for one of the largest continents in the world. The myriad of religions that co-exist peacefully amongst a flurry of different languages creates some of the most boisterous festivals celebrated here.
Follow us on a trip with 10 of the best festivals in Asia that tend to go unnoticed - the unknown awaits!
1. Nyepi - Silent Day in Bali, Indonesia
On the 9th of March every year, the Ngurah Rai International Airport in Bali is closed - there are no flights in and out of the country, and the streets are barren with not a single car in sight, marking the peak of the Balinese New Year.
Book a flight that lands on the evening of 8th March, where the streets are paraded by demonic statues known as the Ogoh-ogoh. Represented as a malicious entity, it symbolises the negative energy and bad karma accumulated in the past year. By going through a deep spiritual cleaning depicted through the burning of the statues after the parade, the intense ritual is an eye-opener; the joy on the performers’ faces are reflective of the closure they feel after a long year. For the traveller on vacation, the festival is a stunning display of the locals’ rooted traditions, and the day of silence that follows is amazing for a period of self-reflection.
Due to that, the entire population are forbidden to step out of their houses (unless for emergency health situations and pregnant women who are delivering) and lights are kept to a minimum. No loud music is allowed, and anyone caught on the streets by patrolling officers will be fined a hefty sum.
2. Holi - Festival of Colours in India
Celebrated at the start of spring, Holi was originally a day of festivities depicting the triumph of good over evil said to be inspired by the ancient deities. Over the years, it has adapted to a festival of love and light where everyone, regardless of social status and gender, will be out on the streets on Holi Day, drenching one another in coloured water and powder as blessings and gratitude for a good year spent. Feel free to join in the colourful parade - everyone’s entitled to their own dose of fun!
After a long day of singing and dancing to rhythmic tunes on the streets, locals will indulge in delicious sweets and have a toast in high spirits, all while mending broken relationships by seeking forgiveness from family members and loved ones for their mistakes in the past, and looking towards the future together.
3. Tanabata - Star Festival in Japan
Celebrated on the 7th day of the 7th month, Tanabata follows the legend of two star-crossed lovers, Orihime and Hikoboshi, who were separated by a river of stars known to us as the Milky Way. A flock of magpies are said to form a bridge on this special day, allowing the forlorn couple to meet once more. But if it rains on this day, the magpies are unable to fly and the lovers have to wait for the subsequent year to meet again.
Following traditions of wishing for good weather (so that Orihime and Hikoboshi can meet), the modern day Tanabata is celebrated across different parts of Japan by writing your wishes on colourful strips of paper and tied onto bamboo trees, in hopes of coming true. One can often spot wishes for a romantic partner or better opportunities at work and in school.
4. Sky Lantern Festival in Pingxi, Taiwan
Lighting up the skies with the light of heartfelt wishes, the Sky Lantern Festival is one of Pingxi’s biggest festivals annually. Scribbling your wish for a better future just like the one in the picture (it translates to: “I hope everyone can meet their fated significant other and be happy ♡), the lantern takes off into the night skies, delivering your prayers to the Universal beings above us.
For the curious tourist, feel free to illuminate the jet black darkness with your own wish too - watch as your hopes for a better future ignite in a beautiful orange glow against the night sky, carried away by the gentle evening breeze.
5. Naadam Festival in Mongolia
Commemorating the independence of a new nation, Mongolia hosts the Naadam festival in July every year. Translating to “Games of men”, it traditionally consists of three segments: one can choose to observe the intense wrestling matches, cheer on the horse riders, or watch with a keen eye as archers attempt to hit the bulls eye.
As time went by, women have started taking part in these traditional games as well, except for the wrestling matches. If you’re not one for outdoor sports, drop by for a delectable selection of local pastries and friendly banter - the warm locals will make you feel right at home!
6. Sinulog Festival in honour of Santo Niño in Cebu, the Philippines
Held every year on the third Sunday of January, the Sinulog Festival honours Santo Niño, who is revered as a saint across different parts of Cebu. Taking two steps forward and one step backward, the performers express their joy for this sacred day by donning colourful costumes and dancing to the rhythmic beats of the drum. Participate in the Sinulog Contest to show off your own dance moves!
7. Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak, Malaysia
Spanning over 3 days with a jam-packed schedule of indie bands and renowned singers from all over the world, it lives up to its name of the “Rainforest World Music Festival” - located on the humble Sarawak Cultural Village, the celebration stretches past the main stage area. Lined with tons of booths, try your hand at a handmade souvenir, or indulge in some delicious local cuisine in the food and drinks section.
If you hear a particular tune that you totally dig, you can support the artists by purchasing their albums next to the main stage.
8. Thaipusam in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Celebrated at the start of the year, Thaipusam is regarded as one of the most sacred festival in Hinduism. On this day, devotees of Murugan, the God of War, carry what is known as “physical burdens” - kavadis - in the form of pots of milk that can weigh up to 30 kilograms on the top of their heads, and physical mortification that pierces through their tongues or backs after a period of fasting.
They will then embark on a pilgrimage to the Batu Caves and pay their respects to the ancient deities residing there. Many devotees report of no pain during such pilgrimages despite the heavy burdens and metal rods that puncture their skin, as the spiritual trance they are in elevates them past the physical realm. During Thaipusam, the Batu Caves are always crowded, so be sure to drop by for a glimpse into the unwavering devotion that the kavadi-bearers possess.
9. Songkran, New Year in Thailand
Generally celebrated in mid-April, Songkran marks the start of a new year on the Thai calendars. Join the water-filled streets where friendly water fights will cool you down on a hot, tropical morning, and observe the act of filial piety where young ones will pour scented water on their elders’ hands as an act of respect. Visit the local temple and sit in for a sermon, immersing yourself in the heartwarming atmosphere of gratitude and hope for a good year spent and an even better year ahead!
10. Dragon Boat Festival in China
Also known as Duanwu Jie, the main activities that take place on this boisterous day are dragon boating down stretches of clear lakes, and eating traditional rice dumplings known as zong zi. The rooted traditions actually date back to the life of Qu Yuan back in ancient China, where the incorruptible minister was thrown out of the imperial palace due to an inner revolt. Deeply saddened and disappointed, Qu Yuan threw himself into the sea and ended his life, much to the dismay of the loving locals.
In an attempt to stop fishes from devouring his body, villagers threw balls of sticky rice into the sea in hopes that the fishes would feed on it instead of his body. Fishermen rowed out to sea, aggressively hitting the waters with their oars to scare the fishes away - which spawned the tradition of steering fearsome dragon boats down bodies of water while enjoying a bite of the delicious rice dumplings on this special day.
A vibrant blend of beliefs and spirited celebrations
If you’re planning a trip across the world to the (almost always) sunny shores of Asia, feel free to join us at any of the festivals in Asia above - it’s the perfect chance to learn about the importance of these festivals to us, while having a dose of fun!