Weird and wonderful Asian festivals

Paint fights, elephant processions, bungee jumping and more


Paint fights, elephant processions and rudimentary bungee jumping, Asia’s annual celebrations can beggar belief. We find the most exhilarating and bizarre taking place across the year. Words by Gabrielle Jaffe.

Across Asia: Thaipusam
Celebrated by Tamil communities in India, Malaysia, Singapore and Sri Lanka, the Hindu festival of Thaipusam (on January 16 next year) has devotees committing masochistic acts. They wear sandals embedded with metal nails, attach objects to their skin with hooks, and pierce themselves with skewers, tridents and great cages of spikes.

China: Miao Rice Courtship Festival
China already has three Valentine’s Day-type festivals, but the Miao minority communities in the villages around Kaili in eastern Guizhou celebrate their own courtship festival from April 14-16, 2014. The event (sometimes called the Sisters’ Meal festival or the Sisters’ Rice festival) sees all the single ladies of the community dress up in their finest silver necklaces and headdresses and in bright, embroidered traditional clothing. They dance to the tune of lusheng pipes and prepare sticky rice balls flavoured and naturally dyed with berries and leaves, that they then present to the young man their heart most desires.

India: Holi
The Hindu spring festival where celebrants light bonfires and throw vibrantly coloured powder and scented water at each other is a literal assault on the senses, but plenty of fun. Predominately celebrated among the Hindu population of India and Nepal, this festival falls on March 17 next year. In New Delhi, the political and cultural capital of India, it’s celebrated with particular enthusiasm. If you dare, head to the central Paharganj neighbourhood, where the powder throwing gets particularly wild.

Japan: Gishi-sai Samurai
Forget Keanu Reeves’ 3D action flick 47 Ronin. Visit Tokyo on December 14 for the true 3D experience of this story of loyal samurai avenging their master’s death. The Gishi-sai festival sees people dressed as the 47 Ronin and the enemy lords slowly marching through the streets of Tokyo accompanied by the dramatic beating of drums. They finish up at Sengaku-ji temple, where the original 47 are buried.

Korea: Boryeong Mud Festival
The mud festival in Boryeong, Korea, from July 19-28, 2014 claims to attract more international visitors than any other in the country. Just imagine: thousands of people from all over the world, silting themselves up from head to toe and dancing around.

Philippines: Ati-Atihan
Forget Mardi Gras in Rio; head to Kalibo in the Philippines on January 10-19, 2014 and you’ll experience an explosion of music and colour. The Ati-Atihan festival began to celebrate the coming together of the Malay and local Ati people in the 13th century. For the week-long festivities, participants paint their faces, wear colourful costumes, carry weapons and torches, and perform dances.

Sri Lanka: Esala Perahera
Visit the hilltop city of Kandy during Esala Perahera (observed August 11-21 this year), held to venerate the sacred ‘tooth relic’ of Buddha (purportedly the deity’s left canine) said to reside in the city’s Dalada Maligawa temple. This ten-day extravaganza comprises of nightly torch-lit parades of elephants dressed in all their finery: silk clothes, glittering embroidery and even fairy lights. Among the thousands of pilgrims you’ll also find performers dancing, beating drums and juggling fire.

Thailand: Songkran
In mid-April most of Southeast Asia’s population engages in a giant water fight to celebrate the region’s New Year. Whether you’re in Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, or even southern Yunnan in China, you’re sure to be soaked as everyone targets each other with water guns. Ayutthaya in Thailand, where the water-splashing festival is called Songkran and is held April 13-15, is a particularly fun spot, as even the elephants get involved.

Vanuatu: Naghol
The teenage boys of Pentecost Island, Vanuatu, take bravado to a new level. During Naghol rituals held in April and May, they dive off wooden towers some 25 metres high. The only thing stopping them from head-butting the ground are two tree vines tying their ankles to the top of the tower.

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