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Beyond the Sights and Tourist Attractions – The Most Fascinating Festivals Around Asia (Part 1)

Stepping Beyond the Usual Tourist Trails

Do you want to add a truly local twist to your next holiday? Dive deep into the fun and vibrancy of the destinations and cultures you visit on your holiday travels by experiencing and celebrating their unique festivals.

Asia offers a distinctive cultural experience from destination to destination, where the underlying tropes and traditions take on new life and interpretations within each nation’s unique historic context. Festivals in Asia are an interesting blend of religious beliefs, lifestyles, and traditions that have evolved over hundreds of years. These exciting and colourful events share with visitors a delightful insight into the lives and cultures of the people who call Asia home.

Asia’s distinctive panoply of festivals bring people of all backgrounds together to enjoy life in that moment and share important cultural experiences together. While there are indeed incredible festivals celebrated all over the world, here at Secret Retreats we believe that Asia’s festivals offer visitors the superlative experience, with the largest, most colourful, most vibrant and often most fascinating celebrations that travellers can experience anywhere in the world today.

For a truly immersive travel experience it’s a great idea to schedule your trip around festival dates in the destinations you plan to visit. Our vast collection of properties and journeys in Asia are essentially a cache of travel inspiration meant to offer ideas on how to best combine each country’s most unique destinations, accommodations, and points of interest. Discuss your next holiday hopes with our team of travel concierges, and they will create a tailor-made, personalized travel itinerary, infusing unforgettable cultural experiences into your journey and festival memories that will last a lifetime.

From Thailand’s Water festival, the largest water-fight in the world, to what must certainly be the most colourful festival in the world, Holi – The Festival of Colours, in India. In this first of our 2-part edition on festivals, we share with you the first 5 of 10 must-see cultural festivals in Asia. Contact the Concierges now and start planning your next luxury holiday in Asia filled with rich and rewarding immersive travel experiences.

Holi – Festival of Colors
India

Holi, the Festival of Colour, is a cacophony of colour, laughter, wholesome fun and good-natured pranks. It is without doubt the country’s most famous annual celebration and for sure one of the world’s most photogenic festivals too. Probably as a result of the amazing images shared in social media sites, this festival is now gaining popularity globally. A Hindu festival, the Holi Festival is held on the day after the first full moon in March and marks the beginning of spring. Symbolically, the festival and its rituals and celebrations represent the triumph of good over evil, love, fertility, a great upcoming harvest and all things magically colourful. Also known as the “Festival of Love”, on this day people let their resentments and arguments of the past year go, the goal is to remove all types of bad feeling towards each other, and celebrate unity and understanding, togetherness and love. Holi is celebrated by throwing and applying colourful powders on each other, in myriad hues of jubilance. Traditionally the rainbow of coloured powders used during the Holi Festival are made by mixing primary colours from natural pigments. Beetroot, tea, sandalwood and hibiscus, a wide variety of plants, vegetables, trees and flowers are used to create the colours of Holi.

The atmosphere is incredible as people gather and wander the towns and cities playing instruments and throwing the colourful powders, often mixed with water throwing, at everyone and anyone they come across. Although celebrated throughout the country largely for 2 days, there are a few places renowned for the most vibrant and spectacular parties with music, food, water fights and lots of dancing, at which all visitors are warmly welcomed to participate.

Best Places to Celebrate Holi:
Matheran, Uttar Pradesh, between Delhi and Agra, and the birthplace of Lord Krishna – the Hindu God most associated with the Holi festival.

Jaipur, the Pink City of Rajasthan, with the highlight being the party in the palace.

Shantiniketan in Bolpur city, West Bengal. Also known as the Festival of Spring, at this small city close to Kolkata (150kms) Holi is celebrated enthusiastically by students, with cultural shows, music and dance.

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Songkran Water Festival
Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar

The Water Festival is one of Asia’s most notorious and widespread festivals. Known by a variety of names across the region, the festival celebrates the Buddhist New Year and is calculated in accordance with the solar calendar. The festival is held in mid-April, typically over 3 days comprising the last day of the old year, the transitional day between the old and the new year, and the first day of the new year. Celebrated with a variety of rituals in temples and at home, the water splashing is the most ubiquitous and obvious of the festival’s observances. Coming at the hottest time of the year, the cooling waters are often welcome, although with the use of water-pistols and the often over-enthusiastic deliverance of the ‘blessings’, you best prepare yourself for a thorough dousing.

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Traditionally, the water splashing symbolizes the washing away of the past year’s troubles and sins, with the blessing preparing you for a clean, fresh start for the new year. Water, often scented, is gently poured over you with a blessing. Although on the streets of the villages, towns and cities this has amplified to buckets and waterguns full of water to thoroughly ‘clean’ you of last year’s missteps and troubles. But considering the festival coincides with the hottest month of the year, this has to be the most fun, exhilarating and welcome water fight you will ever attend.

Prepare to get wet and keep your money and camera/phone dry and buy a water gun and join in with the locals, young and old, to celebrate the most important and exciting day of the year. The festival is most enthusiastically celebrated in Bangkok and Chiang Mai – Thailand, Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng – Laos, Yangon – Myanmar, and Phnom Penh – Cambodia. The festival goes by various names, and it’s known as Songkran in Thailand, Boun Pimai in Laos, Chol Chnam Thmay in Cambodia, and Thingyan in Myanmar with the main tourist spots all holding superbly refreshing celebrations along with more traditional observances at temples and homes.

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Nyepi – Bali’s Day of Silence
Bali, Indonesia

Nyepi commemorates the ‘Hindu Day of Silence’ and also marks the start of the Hindu New Year. The main purpose of Nyepi Day is to pray for the purification of humanity, earth, and the universe – something very much needed these days on so many levels. In the lead up to Nyepi Day, ceremonies are held in every village on the island where Hindu devotees organize lively, and noisy, parades in wonderful contrast to the calmness of the Day of Silence.

The evening before Nyepi day, the Balinese hold the Ngrupuk Parade. Here they carry large statues, known as Ogoh Ogoh, through Bali’s streets. These giant monstrous effigies are constructed of a mix of wood, bamboo, paper, paper mâché and Styrofoam, ensuring the dolls are not too heavy to carry. They are paraded on bamboo platforms through the village or town. Created in the image of demons and evil spirits from Hindu mythology they represent the negative aspects of living things, and the misuse and exploitation of nature and environment. The images often incorporate design to criticize society and current issues with many Ogoh Ogoh bought by collectors after the festival. The parade ends with the burning of some of the Ogoh Ogoh as a rite of purification.

Following the procession Bali enters 24hrs of silent contemplation, from 6am to 6am the following day. People are forbidden to leave their houses, with the Pecalang, traditional community security, patrolling the streets to ensure the silence is being maintained. The airport is closed, the roads fall silent and even the internet is shut down. Everything must be switched off, no TV, no music, no noise at all. The Balinese use this day to fast, meditate, practice yoga and contemplate self-improvement, in silence. Legend has it that the silence fools malevolent spirits into believing there is no one left on the island for them to influence or possess, and so they leave. The island’s symphony of life reconvenes at 6am the following day, refreshed and with one’s actions and impact on the environment reconsidered.

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Tết – Vietnamese Lunar New Year
Vietnam

While the Lunar New Year is perhaps China’s most important annual festival, it is also an event that is celebrated in many countries around Asia including Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. And no-one does it better than the Vietnamese.

It is typically assumed that the Vietnamese are celebrating Chinese New Year, yet while both countries use the lunar calendar, the Vietnamese people have a quite different set of Lunar New Year customs, celebrations, and traditions from China.

In Vietnam, Tết Nguyên Đán or Tết for short, is their most important holiday and festival of the year. More important than January 1st for the Vietnamese, Tết is very much the Vietnamese New Year. Marking the arrival of spring as based on the Lunar calendar, the name Tết Nguyên Đán translates as ‘Feast of the very First Morning of the First Day’. New Year by any other name. And what better way to welcome a New Year than with dining, lots and lots of dining, and spending time with family and friends.

Preparation for Tết begins in earnest one or two weeks before the celebration with the streets and markets bustling with busy people in the days leading up to the celebrations. Preparing in advance is essential because Vietnam will grind to a halt once the festival starts. With the whole nation joining in the celebrations, shops, businesses and markets will all be closed. The activity becomes frenetic as the festival comes closer with shopping, spring cleaning homes and setting up decorations to welcome the New Year. And perhaps most importantly, cooking a rich array of traditional Vietnamese food to be ready to welcome family members home to celebrate the coming of the New Year and to look forward together to the new opportunities this turn of the calendar will bring to the family.

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Thaipusam – The Day of Prayer and Penance
Malaysia

Celebrated by ethnic Tamil Hindus worldwide, Thaipusam festival is best enjoyed in Malaysia where it is definitely one of the largest and most extravagant Hindu Festivals in Asia. The festival is held in January in honour of the Hindu God, Lord Murugan, a God of Gods, who is also revered as the Hindu God of War and Triumph.

Thaipusam celebrates the vanquishing of evil and the overcoming of obstacles. According to ancient Hindu texts, Soopradaman, an evil Asura or demon, had conquered the three realms of hell, earth and heaven, and took the gods hostage. The evil Asuras embody hatred, greed and arrogance. The goddess Parvati gave her son, Lord Murugan, a divine spear or ‘Vel’ which Lord Murugan used to fight and kill the Asuras and freed the gods and restored peace to the heavenly realms.

In Malaysia, some of the country’s most impressive celebrations take place at the Batu Caves just outside of Kuala Lumpur. Said to be 400 million years old, this series of large caves are naturally carved out of a limestone hill and house a shrine dedicated to Lord Murugan that is a major pilgrimage site for all Hindus.

The festival starts early in the morning with 100s of 1,000s of devotees parading to the caves from the Sri Mahamariamman Temple in Kuala Lumpur. From here, they parade the 10miles to the caves barefoot, with many carrying large vessels, beautifully decorated with flowers, peacock feathers and images of the god, filled with milk as offerings to Lord Murugan. The vessels, called ‘kavadi’, include clay pots, some weighing in excess of 100kgs, and may be encased in metal frames with hooks and skewers that pierce the skin of the bearers of the kavadi. Offerings are also made at Lord Murugan’s temples and shrines by devotees of fruits and flowers in yellow or orange colours as it is believed this is the God’s preferred colours.

On arrival at the caves the parade climbs the stairway to the Temple Cave, a flight of 272 steps, an arduous climb even without a skin-piercing kavadi of milk to carry and after a 10mile barefoot hike. On completing the climb, consecrated ash is sprinkled over the metal spikes piercing the kavadi bearers’ torsos before the piercings are removed. Magically the bearers’ wounds do not bleed before or after the removal of the piercings. This is dedication and devotion on a grand scale, and truly an example of the conquering of obstacles, triumphantly.

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With many, many more fascinating and wonderful festivals taking place throughout the year and across the fascinating continent of Asia, we hope that this list inspires you to plan your next holiday, with the help of our concierges, to take in and experience one of the many incredible festivals celebrated in Asia.

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