The Inside Scoop on Southeast Asia’s Best Festivals

One of the most diverse regions on Earth, Southeast Asia is home to a myriad of different religions and cultures, many of which trace back thousands of years. And every year, the unique cultures of the Far East manifest themselves in a variety of colorful festivals, all free of charge, the likes of which you will find nowhere else on the planet. Add to this some of the world’s best beaches and street food, and you have every reason to stop by this neck of the woods.

With so many festivals going on, choosing the right festival and country to attend can be daunting. So, with that in mind, here are three of my favorites…and as with all festivals, there are things to do that no one tells you about, and you only find out once you have been there…

A Pilgrimage of Devotion

Thaipusam is an annual procession by Hindu devotees seeking blessings, fulfilling vows, and offering thanks to Lord Murugan, the ultimate destroyer of evil and a manifestation of valor, beauty, youthfulness, vitality, masculinity, and happiness.

This Hindu festival is one to observe from the sidelines, and it’s not for the squeamish. On the day of the festival, devotees shave their heads and undertake a pilgrimage along a set route, while engaging in various acts of devotion. At its simplest this may entail carrying a pot of milk, but piercing the skin, tongue or cheeks, or other parts of the body with vel skewers or hooks is also common.

George town, Malaysia is one of the best places to experience the Hindu festival of Thaipusam.

Apart from the amazing spectacle, the color, and the music, what no one tells you about is the food. It’s just delicious. And what’s better, it’s free! So at the end of the festival, follow the devotees—they know where they are going—and you will be led to a banquet where you can have as little or as much as you like.

The best cities for actively participating in this festival are George Town in Penang and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.

Keep the Underworld at Bay

The Festival of the Hungry Ghost marks the month when Chinese people believe that a door to the underworld opens, allowing restless spirits to wander the earth. To appease the spirits, people burn fake money and paper representations of items like cars or houses. It’s a way of passing these comforts on to the other world. Streets are lit up with paper lanterns and incense to keep ghosts at bay, large bonfires are set in the middle of the streets, and there are firework displays for the spirits. Don’t wear red and don’t get drunk, because they’re attractive to the ghosts, and you don’t want to encourage them.

One of the great things about the Ghost Festival is its street opera. It’s free and you will never see or hear the likes of it anywhere else. One tip: You will notice that the first two rows of seats are empty. Don’t sit there. They are always reserved for the ghosts.

The best cities to see it are George Town and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, in Singapore, and in Hong Kong, China.

The World’s Biggest Water Fight

You’ll find the Songkran Festival quite refreshing, as it takes place in April, one of Southeast Asia’s hottest months. This is an important event on the Buddhist calendar, marking the beginning of the traditional Thai New Year.

Songkran is essentially the world’s biggest water fight. Friends and strangers splash each other with hoses, water balloons, and even water guns. Originally, the sprinkling of water was more ceremonial, but it’s since become a wet and wild celebration that lasts three to 10 days, depending on where you are.

If you visit any Songkran festival anywhere in the world, there is no escaping the madness that takes place. And that means that you will get covered in powder and you will get soaked. Take a plastic bag for your camera and phone, and carry a washcloth and wet wipes. Both will come in super handy once you decide you have had enough and are ready to head home.

The best places to participate are Bangkok, Thailand; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Manila, the Philippines; and Singapore.


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