Lantern-lit skies, ice palaces, bejeweled camels, the flying powders of Holi: grab (and water-proof) your camera, because Asia’s festivals are a visual banquet. Rooted in Buddhist and Hindu traditions and timed to the rhythms of the moon and stars, they are joyful celebrations of fortune, prosperity and new life. To join in Asia’s festivities is to feel part of something bigger than earthly ‘business as usual’. Plus, when else do you get to drench your grandma with a Super Soaker in the name of spiritual purification? Yes we’re looking at you, Songkran.

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Get a taste of China on this cultural and ice-filled adventure.

Read about Asia Festivals

Holi Festival, India

You know those pictures of the world’s biggest paint fight? With colours so vibrant they threaten to break the saturation on your screen and set fire to your eyes? Yeah, that’s Holi – the ancient Hindu Festival of Colour. Traditionally held each March during the full moon and lasting up to a week, it’s India’s most iconic festival and a complete blast for all travellers fortunate enough to be caught up in it. We’ve got a number of trips running through the Holi hotspots – Delhi, Goa and Rajasthan – all you have to do is pick your favourite. Just remember: India gets even more chaotic during Holi, so some itineraries may be altered slightly. If in doubt, check the details with your friendly Intrepid travel agent. 

When to travel: The precise date of Holi changes each year with the Hindu calendar, but it traditionally falls just before the vernal equinox at the time of the full moon – usually March or late February. 

 

Festival survival guide

  • Buy a cheap pair of sunglasses from a local vendor. They’ll help keep the colour out of your eyes.
  • Dress appropriately, unless you want that brand new tuxedo covered in bright pink paint.
  • Protect your camera with a recyclable and resealable plastic bag.
  • If you want all that colour to wash out quickly, grease up your skin and hair with coconut oil before going into battle.
  • Get involved! Don’t be shy. The more you resist, the more colour will be thrown your way. Just relax and get in the Holi spirit. 

View all trips to India

Winter Festival, Japan

When people think of Japan, they often see the soft sunlight and blushing cherry blossoms of spring; however, we’re here to tell you, winter is when things truly heat up. At the beginning of February each year the snow-dusted islands come alive with a super-cool collection of snow and ice festivals. These aren’t your typical snowball fights. We’re talking three-storey ice palaces, night-time LED light shows, ancient wonders carved from snow and a glowing constellation of lanterns trapped in ice, not to mention some of the best skiing on the planet. Japan isn’t a country to do things by halves and neither are we. Warm sake anyone?

When to travel: Most of the winter festivals in Japan begin in the first week of February and run for about a week.

 

Festival survival guide

  • It does get chilly during a snow festival (go figure), with temperatures getting down to -10 degrees Celsius. Dress accordingly.
  • Avoid public transport: it gets crowded during the festivals and most sights are a short walk from the city centre.
  • Warm up with a miso ramen or grilled mutton at the pop-up food trucks.
  • Try to check out the smaller sculptures as well as the flashier ones – they’re often carved by talented local artists.
  • Brush up on your Japanese manga for a full appreciation of the numerous giant snow characters.

View all trips to Japan

Pushkar Camel Fair, India

Even camels need to let their hair down occasionally and the Pushkar Fair (or Pushkar ka mela) is where they get their chance. Tens of thousands of camels, horses and cattle descend on the town of Pushkar in Rajasthan, along with 400,000 locals, tourists, acrobats, dancers and snake charmers. The festival coincides with the full moon day of Kartik in the Hindu calendar and runs for about two weeks in October or November each year. Visit the mela, one of the last great traditional Indian fairs, to see the locals barter for livestock or get swept along in crazy competitions and crowd events like ‘longest moustache’ and the ‘tourists v locals’ cricket match. 

When to travel: Because the festival is based on a lunar calendar it can be a challenge to synch up exact festival dates with your trip. It’s usually held in October or November, but research and plan well ahead to make sure you catch it. 

 

Festival survival guide

  • Bring a scarf or something to help cover your mouth – the dust and the sand get everywhere.
  • This is a dry festival, as well as a vegetarian one – so be prepared for no meat, eggs or booze.
  • Watch where you step! One of the unfortunate side effects of lots of camels is lots of camel dung.  
  • If you’re a light sleeper, bring earplugs to block out the night-time prayers that echo through Pushkar during the mela. 
  • If you can, arrive a couple of days before the official start of the festival. That’s when camel numbers are at their most impressive.

View all trips to India

Naadam Festival, Mongolia

The wind-swept tundra and rolling steppes of Mongolia aren’t a typical setting for a big party, but they might be the most impressive. Each year thousands of Mongols celebrate Naadam, their biggest national holiday and festival. Traditionally it’s an exhibition in the three classic Mongolian martial arts: horse riding, archery and wrestling. But it’s grown over the years to be the biggest celebration of traditional culture on the Mongolian calendar. Watch the performers in Ulaanbaatar’s National Sports Stadium, but make sure to save time for some sizzling street barbecue and traditional throat singing too.

When to travel: Naadam is held on a national holiday from 11 July to 13 July each year, and you’ll find the biggest celebrations in the capital of Ulaanbaatar.

 

Festival survival guide

  • Try and find a game of shagai while in town. It’s a local version of skittles played with sheep bones. 
  • If you can manage it, touching the sweat of the winning jockey or wrestler is said to bestow good luck.
  • Make sure to check out the local craft stalls for some Mongolian souvenirs.
  • Whatever you do, don’t miss the opening and closing ceremonies. They’re always spectacular.
  • It may sound strange, but a taste of traditional Mongolian airag (fermented horse milk) is a must. 

View all trips to Mongolia

Songkran, Thailand

In a country such a Thailand, even ceremonial rituals aren’t beyond a little fun and frivolity. From a tradition originally all about instilling a respect for your elders and cleaning Buddhist imagery evolved Songkran – the world’s biggest water fight. Every year, from 13–15 April, right across the Land of Smiles, Thais young and old arm themselves with any object of water-holding ability – hoses, water pistols, buckets, Tupperware containers – and set about soaking each other silly. To be fair, the practice does have a symbolic significance: a splash of water represents washing off the misfortunes of the past year in preparation for that to come. But ultimately, the whole affair serves as one big street party splash-fest.

When to travel: Songkran takes place 13-15th April each year.

 

Festival survival guide

  • Sounds obvious, and it is, but only take waterproof photo equipment out with you.
  • Don’t head out in any clothing you’re not willing to see ruined.
  • Thai traffic can be tumultuous at the best of time and barrages of water coming every which way doesn’t help things much. Avoid driving if you can and exercise caution when walking the roads.
  • Have alms ready to give monks.
  • Refrain from dousing monks, babies or the elderly – unless they douse you first. Then it’s game on.
  • Only throw clean water at people.

View all trips to Thailand

Tet, Vietnam

Vietnam’s biggest festival celebration is a little like New Year’s meets a good old spring clean. In the interests of ushering in a new year happy, healthy and prosperous, much ado is made of sweeping out the old and prepping the scene for all things fortuitous. Homes are cleaned, respects are paid to ancestors, new clothes are bought and worn, banquets are prepared, flowers are arranged about the house and an emphasis is put on the paying of debts and resolving of feuds. For the visitor, what all this commotion translates to on the ground is an exhilarating atmosphere of anticipation and renewal. Get along dressed in your finest, tuck into specially prepared festival dishes, wish all you meet ‘Năm mới dồi dào sức khỏe’ (or as close as you can get) and see the fireworks go off.

When to travel: Depending on the year, celebrations can last from several days to over a week. The festival usually takes place between the last ten days of January and first 20 of February.

 

Festival survival guide

  • Superstitions and taboos hold great cultural currency during the Tet period and it’s well worth being aware of a few of the major do’s and don’ts. The first visitor a family receives into their home is believed to herald their fortune for the year, so never show up uninvited (unless you’re super loaded and lucky). Following this logic, don’t visit a family if you have recently lost a family member. May sound a little unfair, but you don’t want to confer your own misfortunes onto others.
  • Sweeping during the first days of Tet is also taboo, as it signifies the sweeping away of good luck.
  • Many businesses shut down during Tet as workers head home to spend time with their families. Either stock up a little in advance or try to be in a sizeable city where you’ll still be able to find places open. Shops and restaurants that keep doing business during Tet will often add a surcharge to the bill.
  • Be sensitive in haggling over prices. Sellers have a strong belief that if their New Year starts strong their year is destined to be a prosperous one. It can therefore be extremely disheartening to miss out on a sale or be bargained down unduly. If you do enter a shop, try to purchase at least something – even if it’s small and cheap. Otherwise just inspect the goods from outside without entering.
  • In a similar vein, refrain from arguing, indulging in conflict, enacting cruelty etc. These displays are believed to determine what the nature of the New Year… as well as being pretty good restrictions to abide by in general.

View all trips to Vietnam

Diwali, India

Not to be confused with the Lord of Light cult so zealously championed by Melisandre, the Hindu festival of Diwali celebrates the victory of light over darkness; goodness over evil; knowledge over ignorance and hope over despair. While celebrated in plenty of countries world over, the festival marks India’s biggest holiday – and is arguably the best place in which to experience it. Right across the nation, for four days each year, homes, offices and city skylines are bathed in light emanating from diverse as sources as tea candles to fireworks; all in veneration of Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and prosperity.

When to travel: Diwali is celebrated each year over a five-day period that coincides with the darkest new moon night of the Hindu Lunisolar month Kartika. In the Gregorian calendar, this corresponds to some time between mid-October and mid-November.

 

Festival survival guide

  • As a celebration of light in all its many forms, burn injuries can be a real risk. Exercise a degree of caution around fireworks and open flames – particularly in enclosed spaces.
  • Concerns have been raised over increased levels of air pollution during the Diwali period. Consider steering clear from the big cities if you’re particularly susceptible to sinus infections.
  • To welcome in what they hope to be a prosperous new year, Hindus try to wear new clothes and jewelry on the second and third days of celebration.
  • Try to do the same so as not to dampen the atmosphere – or at least dress nicely.
  • Diwali is a meatless holiday for many Indians. Get into the local spirit by going vego for a while.
  • A bit of gambling is customary during Diwali, though all in good fun. If partaking, only gamble with what you’re willing to lose.

View all trips to India

Water Festival (Thingyan), Burma

Part Buddhist ceremony, part New Year celebration, part water fight, part rap concert, Burma’s Thingyan festival is the country’s most important public holiday. Much like their neighbours to the East, the Burmese welcome in the new year by giving alms to monks, paying obeisance to the elderly and absolving others’ sins by dousing them with water. The main point of difference is than gyat, which sees floats of men trundling through the streets and lampooning through song the various ills they see as afflicting society. In actual Buddhist mythology, the celebration homages the time Arsi, King of the Brahmas, lost a bet to the King of Devas and, as per the deal, was decapitated. Because his head was so powerful, it couldn’t be disposed of responsibly and has to be carried around by princess devis. Thingyan marks the day one princess devi gets to hand it to another. Sucks to be a princess devi…

When to travel: Corresponding to the end of Burma’s dry season, Thingyan takes place from the 13–16 April.

 

Festival survival guide

  • When heading out during Thingyan, prepare as you would for any big water fight. Arm yourself with a water weapon; take care not to take a tumble on slippery surfaces and only wear/take out what you’re willing to get wetted.
  • Consider wearing earplugs or a towel draped over the ears. Granted it’s not the most fashionable look about, it will prevent jets of water entering your aural cavities.
  • Only throw clean water at others and never wet monks, the pregnant or the elderly.
  • If a young male, don’t freak out if a group of women suddenly grab you and start smearing soot over your face. This is all part of the fun.
  • Among all the merriment, drinking can get out of hand. Exercise caution among traffic and be alert to reckless driving.
  • Mont lone yeibaw, glutinous rice balls with jaggery (palm sugar) inside are the festival delicacy – and delicious. Before chomping into one however, take a tentative bite. Prankster vendors are sometimes prone to substituting the jaggery with chilli for a laugh.

View all trips to Burma (Myanmar)

Qingming, China/Thaiwan

Looking to get a bit more festival bang for your buck? Look to Qingming. Known alternatively as The Pure Brightness Festival, Tomb Sweeping Day and The Cold Food Festival, this three-for-one celebration advocates beginning a Spring fling, cleaning gravesites and – yep, you guessed it – eating cold food. While one of these customs may sound a little more attractive than the others, all hold important places in Chinese culture. The origins of each are too convoluted to enter into here, but any who pay China or Taiwan a visit during Qingming will find themselves privy to kite-cluttered skies, special seasonal delicacies and a pensively upbeat atmosphere.

When to travel: Qingming corresponds with the first day of the fifth solar term of the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar. If this sounds a little complicated, it basically means the 4th or 5th of April.

 

Festival survival guide

  • While shops do remain open during Qingming, keep in mind that many of the celebrations take place in and around the house. For the best chance of witnessing Qingming in full swing, make your way to a park.
  • Try to limit driving during Qingming. Traffic can bank up hugely as families head to cemeteries to tend the graves of their ancestors.

View all trips to China

Hemis Festival, India

The Hemis Festival, which takes place each year in India’s famed Ladakh region, commemorates the birth of Guru Padmasambhava; bringer of Tantric Buddhism to Tibet. As the legend goes, Padmasambhava’s humble life mission was ‘to improve the spiritual condition of all living things’ – so you can hardly begrudge there being a festival in his honour. For the two days that the celebrations run each year, hundreds of Buddhist devotees converge on the grand Hemis Gompa monastery to partake in prayer, watch sacred dances performed by masked monks and perhaps catch a glimpse of the monastery’s usually hidden thangka (religious painting). So far as colourful costumes and a dramatic setting go, you’d be hard-pressed to find a festival better.

When to travel: While the exact dates change each year, Hemis happens in either June or July.

 

Festival survival guide

  • No real survival tips here. Just go along, dress modestly, be courteous and enjoy the show.

View all trips to India

Dragon Boat Festival, China, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan

Back in the third century BC, when the King of the Chu Dynasty proposed forming an alliance with the increasingly powerful Qin Dynasty, one man voiced his disapproval. His name was Qu Yuan, he was a Minister, and he thought war a better option. (Somewhat rashly) accused of treason, he was forced into exile; where he found poetry. When, years later, the Qin reneged on the alliance and invaded Chu, Yuan strapped himself to a boulder and jumped into a river. The locals raced out in their dragon boats to try and save him, but it was too late – the best they could do was throw sticky rice balls into the water in the hope that the fish wouldn’t eat him. From all this comes a 3-day holiday centred around the Dragon Boat racing, the ritual eating of zongzi (sticky rice balls) and drinking of realgar wine.

When to travel: The Dragon Boat Festival happens on the 5th day of the 5th month of the Chinese lunar calendar. This tends to be some time in May or June.

 

Festival survival guide

  • The Dragon Boat Festival takes place anywhere with a sizeable Chinese community, so you could even get to catch one in Singapore, Malaysia or Taiwan.

View all trips to China

Shoton Festival, Tibet

While its name may translate literally to the Yoghurt Banquet Festival, don’t be fooled – there’s much more to Shoton than an obsession with fermented yaks milk. Dating back to the 11th century, this Buddhist ceremony actually celebrates the day monks are once more permitted to leave their monasteries following a self-imposed summer internment; a Gelug sect precaution designed to guard against their stepping on insects. As they wandered back down the mountain, Lhasa’s residents would welcome back the lamas with offerings of yoghurt and performances of small operas – a tradition retained to this day. Horsemanship, archery and yak races also feature heavily, as does the unfurling of a 500 square meter silk painting of Sakyamuni before which the faithful prostrate themselves.

When to travel: Shoton is held annually, generally in July or August.

 

Festival survival guide

  • Expect crowds. This may be one of the world’s most remote cities, but Tibetan Buddhists are a devoted lot.
  • Prepare for a lot of walking. Distances between attractions can be far, the roads ramshackle and altitude a factor.
  • If possible, consider arriving a few days early for acclimatization. High altitude and physical exertion aren’t a great combo.
  • Flights to, accommodation in, and visas for Tibet can be difficult to arrange. Start planning your visit well in advance.

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