South East Asia is a territory filled with colours, lights, spirituality, tradition and eccentric as well as auspicious celebrations. The festivals of South East Asia and its vivid cultural heritage make it the best place on the planet for every occasion. Celebrations of South East Asia are a treat to your eyes. They are spread throughout the year at every season; summer, winter, monsoon and fall (autumn).
The cultural festivals of South East Asia are one of the most vibrant celebrations that nobody should miss! No matter which season you’re planning to make a trip, you sure are to come across all sorts of festivals.
1. Chinese New Year
Location: Hanoi, Vietnam
This festival of colourful dragon parades, fireworks and drum beating isn’t just celebrated in China but across countries in South East Asia. The best location to witness the festivities is Hanoi, Vietnam. Street bazaars and family reunion, while they give away gifts to their ancestors, mark the changing of calendars. It’s one of the most exuberant South East Asian festivals that last for about 15 days and during this period various rituals take place.
People welcome spring by cleaning their homes, while children are gifted with money in (lucky) red envelopes. A million glowing paper lanterns hover up in the night sky as the Chinese temples are shrouded by smoke from a thousand incense sticks. These are believed to welcome good fortune in the coming year.
2. Aguman Sanduk
Location: Manila, Philippines.
Ladies and gentlemen, if there is one festival of South East Asia that is truly unique, it is this. Presenting to you the only cross-dressing affair in the Philippines capital, Manila – Aguman Sanduk. This festival is dated back over 80 years and the reason is ridiculous! To bring in a new year, a group of drunken chaps dressed up as women on the 1st of January. This stunt caught on too quick and has now turned into a massive joyful parade,
Location: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
The end of January is a beginning to an incredibly spiritual Hindu festival. Celebrated to honour Lord Subramanian (Murugan), this South East Asian festival isn’t for the faint-hearted. As a symbolic ritual in an offer of penance, devotees perform bizarre yet gruesome feats. They pierce their cheeks, body with skewers and drag chariots with hooks cringed onto their skin. They also carry painful metal strings called ‘kavadis’ through the streets of Malaysia around the Batu caves. 272 steps to the shrine atop of the cave are home to the second largest Lord Murugan statue. It’s situated 13 kilometres north of Kuala Lumpur. Some devotees are believed to be cleansed of sins when they enter a trance-like state.
Location: Bangkok/Chiang Mai, Thailand
There is no dearth of variety in the celebrations of South East Asia. The advent of Songkran in Thailand occurs around the end of planting season, turning the country into a colossal 3-day water fight. The region’s farmers take a break from their planting schedules at this time of the year celebrating with their community marking the Buddhist New Year.
Armed with freezing cold water buckets, the locals take it to the streets drenching everyone who comes their way. Oh! Tourists are the favourite prey. To witness this crazy and ravishing festival, Chiang Mai is the place to be! Visiting this South East Asian country you can celebrate the best of water fight festival, welcoming summer like a boss!
Also known as Buddha Purnima, this South East Asian festival is celebrated to commemorate the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha. It is believed that the righteous will prosper throughout the year for their good deeds. The community rejuvenates their efforts in doing deeds of generosity.
On Vesakha, the devotees assemble in their various temples before dawn and sing hymns of praise by hoisting the Buddhist flag. The most scenic celebrations take place in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Thousands of Buddhists hold a procession bearing sacred objects like holy books, relics and offerings while the monks release hundreds of sky lanterns to commemorate Buddha’s bringing enlightenment to the world.
6. Boun Bang Fai Rocket Festival
Location: Luang Prabang, Laos
This festival of South East Asia goes off with a bang! Every year in the month of May, across the country the villagers gather to create huge, colourful rockets. These are kept to be launched on the big day. The person whose rockets fire the highest is rewarded with Lao Lao (local rice whisky). In the honour of the rain God Phaya Thaen, this festival is held at the onset of the rainy season for the best yield that year.
7. Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr
The festivals of South East Asia are culturally and religiously vibrant too. More commonly referred to as Lebaran in Indonesia this festival is celebrated until the end of the fasting month. To understand the significance of Lebaran you need to know more about the fasting month. During this period Muslims refrain from eating, smoking, drinking, marital relations or even getting angry anytime during the day.
In Indonesia, the Muslims gather to feast after dark. Tourists are most often sighted at the ‘pasar Malam’ or night markets to enjoy the delicacies of Ramadan. You can choose from a range of Malay dishes like rice cakes, curries and other street foods or even surf for clothes, souvenirs and other goods on display. Lebaran is met with joy as families get together for thanksgiving at mosques.
8. Hungry Ghost Festival
Marking the seventh lunar month, the hungry ghost festival is celebrated with a traditional belief in the afterlife. Taoist’s momentarily allow the spirits of the dead to roam in the world of the living. It wouldn’t be spooky to pray to the dead but it will definitely seem crazy to dance among the dead! During this feast, communities of Malaysia and Singapore make offerings of food and burnt prayer money to the deceased.
The best part is setting up a stage to entertain the spirits with music and theatrical performances. The celebrations of South East Asia make sure that all – humans and spirits – are all served well.
9. Phuket Vegetarian Festival
Location: Phuket Old Town, Thailand
Note: This Festival isn’t for the faint-hearted.
By the name you may assume it to be an affair where vegetarians share tofu recipes over yoga mats in Thailand. However, this festival of Thailand is among the most bizarre festivals of South East Asia.
Witnessing unimaginable acts of self-torture such as climbing bladed ladders, walking on hot coals, piercing cheeks and body with shards of glass and swords are an icing on the cake. The belief is that Gods enter the devotees and purge the evil spirits from the town.
The origin of this festival is in 1825 when a Chinese opera visited Phuket. They used a vegetarian diet and ancient rituals to cure themselves when they fell ill. Each year the festival becomes more exorbitant and incredible, much to the delight of adventurous tourists and photographers.
Otherwise known as Diwali, this South East Asian festival is celebrated widely in Singapore and Malaysia by the Tamil Indian community. Deepavali commemorates the return of Lord Rama to Ayodhya after his 14-year long exile. It also commences the Hindu New Year. It’s a family reunion time for the Indian communities during this season. “Singapore ethnic enclave” is the place you would want to be in. Flourished with street markets this place is a home to spices, clothing, flowers and traditional dishes. There isn’t a particular date for this feast. It falls in October or November as per the Indian calendar.
11. Loi Krathong
Location: Chiang Mai, Thailand
This is often referred to as Thai’s lantern festival and possibly the most enchanting festival on earth. On a full moon night of this South East Asian festival, the skies above Thailand sees thousands of paper lanterns illuminate each November. Krathong is a word for small lotus-shaped boats which are made of banana leaves. These are lit with candles and offerings are floated on rivers and lakes across the country in Honour of the Goddess of water.
The purpose of this festival is to celebrate freedom from suffering which is a Buddhist tradition. The freeing of lanterns signifies “letting go” of pain and worries from the past years. It isn’t unusual to notice people write messages on paper or place a lock of their hair with photographs in the boat. This is their way of saying goodbye to the past. That’s one “Tangled” festival indeed!
12. Bon Om Tuk (Dragon Boat Races)
The culturally rich festivals of South East Asia hold a great attraction for people all over the world. This South East Asian festival is celebrated at the end of Buddhist Lent. Dragon boat races are held in every riverside of the country. The celebrations run for three days long with parades, shows and fireworks.
There is something peculiar about this festival; it marks the reversal of the water flow between the Tonle Sap and the Mekong River and marks the beginning of the dry season. The largest celebrations are found in the capital city – Phnom Penh.
Month: Two celebrations anytime of the year
Location: Bali, Indonesia
The motive of this festival is to celebrate the victory of good (Dharma) over evil (Adharma)It marks the period when the spirits of ancestors visit the earth. It’s a 10-day ritual wherein the ancestors are believed to pay a visit thus reassuring the Balinese to show their gratitude to the divines in various ways. Offerings are in the form of sacrifices of flowers and food in their family altars or temples.
An exorcism ceremony known as Ngelawang is held at each one’s home to welcome the mythical beast “Barong”. This is awakened by tall bamboo trees that sprout beside their homes often called as “Penjor”. Galungan is a moveable feast that occurs twice every solar year.
Month: December 25
The Philippines is largely populated by Catholic Christians who throw the biggest Christmas celebrations in the region. Christmas at Singapore is a mash up of street light-ups, shopping specials and late night parties. In the Philippines, families hold a reunion during the yuletide season, hanging up lanterns called ‘parols’ outside their homes. ‘The Giant Lantern Festival’ is an icing on the cake.
Summing It Up
The diverse culture of South East Asia and its festivities never cease to surprise you. These festivals of South East Asia are a great way to learn about authentic culture of these beautiful countries. It is a sweet and spicy mix of Indochinese, Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Thai.
Indian, Islamic and Austronesian culture isn’t left behind either. Besides the stunning natural beauty that this region of the world offers, the culture and traditions and the colourful and vibrant celebrations of South East Asia makes it a must on your bucket list.
Adios, Bon Voyage!
An Aspiring blogger and a wanderer living in the fantasies of music and art.