Asia’s Top Festivals: A Guide to 6 of the Best

Asia’s Top Festivals: A Guide to 6 of the Best

Asia is renowned for its festivals. Each country has its own, full of colour and steeped in culture and tradition. Senior travellers who aren’t bound by work or school holidays can plan their travel to coincide with the festivals they want to see. The largest of these transcend national borders and are celebrated by tens of millions across the continent. Here, in chronological order, is a brief guide to six of Asia’s biggest international festivals.     

Thaipusam

Thaipusam is a major occasion for Hindus of Tamil descent. They hold the festival on the full moon of the Tamil month of Thai as an annual show of penance. It features a colourful day-long procession through the streets, usually from one temple to another.

Body piercings carried out for Thaipusam. Image: Françoise Gisbert

Men carry various forms of kavadi or burdens, which often take the form of a wooden arch supported by an iron rod carried on the shoulders. Many pierce their skin, cheeks or tongues with hooks or skewers. Women carry pots of milk, fruits or other food on their heads; some of them, too, pierce their flesh.

Where

Thaipusam is held in countries with a large Tamil community, including India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, Mauritius, Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar. 

When

The festival is held each year on a date between 14 January and 14 February. In 2019 it will take place on 21 January. 

Highlight for visitors

The procession is exciting to watch. Some Kavadi carriers have their flesh pierced in scores of places but appear to lose little blood and to be in a trance-like state. Batu Caves, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, is a great place to watch it.

Lunar New Year  

The Lunar New Year is one of the world’s most celebrated festivals. Based on the Chinese calendar, it lasts 15 days, starting on the day of a full moon in January or February. It’s China’s most important festival and is also known as Chinese New Year or the Spring Festival. Vietnam, Korea and Mongolia celebrate their new year at the same time. The festival is also marked in other countries with significant ethnic Chinese populations.

A Chinese New Year recital at a Kuala Lumpur shopping mall. Image: © Alan Williams

Millions of Chinese return to their home towns for family reunions, to honour their ancestors and to enjoy sumptuous meals. Restaurants and public transport are crowded. Lion and dragon dances and firework displays are popular, streets and houses are decorated in red, and people hand out red envelopes of money to relatives and friends. It’s a time of noise and good cheer.

Where

Lunar New Year is celebrated in China, Vietnam, Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Laos and Cambodia, among other countries.  

When

In 2019, Lunar New Year begins on 5 February, marking the start of the Year of the Pig. It ends on 19 February with more family get-togethers and grand meals.

Highlight for visitors

Enjoy the fireworks, especially at midnight on new year’s eve. Carry red envelopes of money to give to young people.

Vesak Day

Vesak Day commemorates the birth, enlightenment and death of Gautama Buddha.  The Buddha was born in Nepal in 623 BC and his teachings form the basis of Buddhism. Devotees celebrate in at least 20 countries around Asia, on different days and in different ways.

Monks at the Borobudur Temple on Vesak Day. Image: © tubagus625 | Dreamstime

Common themes running through all the celebrations include prayers and offerings at temples, cultural singing and dancing, the release of birds and animals, and acts of charity towards the less fortunate. Many abstain from eating meat for the day. 

Where

Vesak Day is celebrated in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, Mongolia, Japan, China, South Korea, North Korea and Vietnam, among other countries.

When

In 2019 the event takes place on or around 19 May, when the moon is full.

The date may vary slightly from country to country.  

Highlight for visitors

One of the best places to experience Vesak is the famous Borobudur Temple in Java, Indonesia. Thousands of monks walk in a procession around the temple and more than 1,000 lanterns are released into the night sky. In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a colourful, noisy procession of decorated floats takes place in the evening.

Eid al-Fitr

Asia’s hundreds of millions of Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr to mark the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. It’s a time for prayer, acts of charity and visits to the graves of ancestors. Many city Muslims return to their home towns for family reunions marked by cheerful festivities and lavish meals.

Muslims walking to a prayer gathering for Eid in Indonesia. Image: © Suryo | Dreamstime

Eid celebrations can last for up to a month and many people buy new clothes for the occasion. In the Indian subcontinent many women wear henna on their hands and feet. Eid goes by different names in different countries. In parts of Southeast Asia, it’s known simply as Hari Raya (‘great day’).

 Where

Asia has the four largest Muslim countries by population: Indonesia, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Other countries with substantial Muslim populations include Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, the Philippines, Cambodia and Thailand.

When

The start of Eid al-Fitr depends on the sighting of the moon. In 2019 it will start on or around 4 June.

Highlight for visitors

Visitors are particularly welcome at the homes of Muslims for a meal during the festivities. Invitations aren’t needed and you can drop by at any time of the day or evening. Enjoy the good food, especially the tasty desserts.

Diwali

Diwali, also known as Deepavali, is the Hindu Festival of Lights. It’s India’s largest festival, symbolising the victory of light over darkness, and good over evil. Celebrants light up temples, homes and other buildings with lamps, candles and lanterns. Floors are decorated with rangoli, brightly-coloured religious images made of coloured rice, powder or sand.

Diwali lights on a street in Singapore’s Little India. Image: kamodayz

Families get together and enjoy good food. Communities and towns organise celebrations including parades, fairs and firework displays. Other religious groups in India such as the Jains and Sikhs hold their own, related festivals over the same period, as do the Newar people of Nepal.

Where

Diwali is celebrated in countries with a large Hindu community, including India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia and Myanmar.

When

The festival lasts five days and reaches its height on the third day. The main day in India in 2018 is 7 November, although in South India and in some other countries, it’s a day earlier, 6 November.

Highlight for visitors

The best way to celebrate Diwali is with an Indian family. Visitors can do this if they are staying at an Indian homestay. Jaipur in Rajasthan and Varanasi on the Ganges River are famous for their Diwali festivities.

Christmas

Christmas is celebrated throughout Asia, mainly as a non-religious occasion. Visitors will see Christmas decorations everywhere in almost every country, from city streets to beach resorts. It’s highly commercialised, with Asia’s large shopping malls cashing in on it, and shoppers happy to spend.

Christmas carols at a hotel in Sri Lanka’s hill country. Image: © Alan Williams

The true spirit of Christmas is particularly strong in Asia’s two mainly Catholic countries, the Philippines and Timor Leste. The Christmas season in the Philippines begins as early as September and continues until January. A unique Philippine Christmas decoration that visitors will see all over is the parol, a star-shaped lantern traditionally made of bamboo and paper.

Where

The Philippines, Timor Leste and pretty much everywhere else in Asia except North Korea and Brunei, where public Christmas celebrations are forbidden.

When

Christmas starts on Christmas Eve (24 December) in the Philippines, and on Christmas Day (25 December) in other countries, and lasts for 12 days.

Highlight for visitors

If you’re in the Philippines, you’ll be spoiled for choice: Christmas festivals and pageants take place across the country. In Singapore, enjoy the dazzling Christmas lights on the Orchard Road shopping strip. In Japan, eat strawberry shortcake with whipped cream – it’s known as ‘Christmas cake’ and is sold everywhere.

Header image: Vinson Tan

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