Nowhere celebrates like Asia. From the Philippines to Japan, David Wilson finds a festival for everyone.
Asia knows how to throw a party. Despite the moderating influence of credos such as Confucianism, the region hosts an array of ceremonial events staged with gusto every year.
We do not mean Chinese New Year and the regulation backpacker-oriented full-moon raves scattered around the calendar. They are just the smoking tip of the joss stick.
Some easily overlooked Eastern festivals are competitive, others riotous. Still others – the snow and blossom festivals – are ravishing: vibrant celebrations of natural eye candy. Assorted animals, mythical beasts and gods such as Ganesh, the lord of success, muscle-in on the act and supply another excuse for the East to feast – or even have a borderline food fight, in the case of a certain monkey festival.
Each festival spotlighted here can spice up your holiday without forcing you to wade through wet heat on a weary ATM quest. Aside from food and alcohol, most of the festivals are free as frangipani or the water hurled during Thailand's non-stop Songkran party.
Ati-Atihan Fiesta Parade
(Filipino Mardi Gras)
Kalibo, Aklan province, the Philippines
The Ati-Atihan Fiesta is the Philippines' craziest festival. That is saying something. Filipinos are not known for their aura of Zen calm. Like a big fat Rio-style jamboree, Ati-Atihan serves up a riot of primal, raucous fun but is more complicated than it appears. Christian at heart, the festival is set in the capital of the Philippines' oldest province and honours the Santo Nino (Holy Child), whose effigy is paraded. Still, it has a pagan slant – the name means "mimicking the Ati", dark-skinned Aklan aborigines whose dress and dances are caricatured by the marchers. Ati-Atihan opens with novenas (public devotions) at Kalibo Cathedral, then a food festival at Pastrana Park in the heart of town and historical re-enactments. Merrymakers cake their faces in soot and dance to the beat of troubadour bands belting out bouncy renditions of popular songs.
Bun Bang Fai
Phya Thaen Park, Yasothon, north-east Thailand
Thailand's exhilarating rocket festival has supernatural roots. According to legend, the people of Phya Thaen Park once made and fired a special rocket ("bang fai") at heaven to please the rain god Vassakan. The celestial gesture was meant to inspire the Big V to anoint the rice fields with the heavy rain for which they thirsted, it seems. The festival looks like an excuse for "sanook" (fun) – the devoutly followed unofficial Thai religion. On the day, dancing and clowning villagers dressed in loud, traditional costumes parade monstrous home-made rockets packing up to 25 kilograms of gunpowder towards a spot in the countryside. The rockets take off from platforms and float, one by one. Each launch sparks raucous folk music and cheers. The rocket that soars highest wins the contest. The triumphant winner then jauntily coaxes prizes from spectators while flop rocketeers are shoved in the mud. Despite its roughness, the festival apparently cements solidarity – vital at the rice-planting season's start, which the festival marks.
Bonn Om Touk
(water and moon festival)
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
The most extravagant festival in the Cambodian calendar, Bonn Om Touk is also a key cultural event that entices visitors from around the country and beyond. The unique full-moon festival stems from the push-pull dialogue between two linked water systems – the Tonle Sap and the Mekong. When the rainy season ends in November, the Mekong drops and the Tonle Sap empties back into it. Thanks to the reversal, the Mekong swells. The festival celebrates its resurgence and the start of the fishing season. Expect raucous celebrations and races contested by more than 200 teams riding dragon boats reminiscent of those deployed by Angkorian kings to test their warriors' mettle in ancient contests. Also watch out for a gala moonlight miniature fleet and fireworks starbursts.
Nago Cherry Blossom Festival
Nago, Okinawa, Okinawa Prefecture, Japan
In January, cherry blossoms splash all Japan's 47 prefectures. But the hotspot is a sub-tropical island reputed to be the world's happiest place, Okinawa. The festival, which centres around Nago to the island's north, lures visitors from around the world. The blossom bash kicks off before any other in Japan, the first month in the calendar being hard to beat. The swathe of early-spring petals serves as a scented, shimmering backdrop for the paper lanterns, vivid costumes and floats trundled out for the event, which showcase a symbol that is both a sign of good luck and the national emblem.
(dragon boat racing)
Stanley Beach, Hong Kong
Pageantry, percussion and athletic might collide in the high-octane sport of dragon boat racing. Reminiscent of a war canoe, each craft has a dragon's head carved into the bow and a dragon's tail at the stern. Paddlers tear through the water, in thrall to the "heartbeat" provided by on-board drummers. The drama is instant. Still, as befits a culture with a 5000-year history, the sport has deep roots. It marks the death of the ancient scholar-statesman, Chu Yuan, reportedly killed in a bizarre suicide attempt involving a "river dragon". Either way, Stanley Beach, on the south-eastern strip of Hong Kong Island, is the place to witness one of the hottest dragon clashes.
Pushkar Camel Fair
Pushkar Lake, Rajasthan, northern India
Just one camel can be a handful. So imagine the commotion stirred up by a camel convention. The small but perfectly formed town of Pushkar hosts the yearly gathering of tanned and toothy primadonnas. The festival kicks off with a camel race then morphs into a livestock market and bazaar, where everything is sold, from bracelets and clothes to textiles and fabrics. Other attractions include a moustache contest and a cricket match that pits Pushkar against a ragtag random tourist team while the camels flutter their lashes and sip from the sacred lake.
Sapporo Snow Festival
Hokkaido Prefecture, Japan
Picture scores of snow statues and majestic ice sculptures along with a snow maze and ice chutes ridden by children and immature adults alike. This winter wonderland, which sounds as if it could be straight from the pages of a children's fantasy novel, dates back to 1950, when high school students set the ball rolling by building six snow statues in a local park. Now the festival features an international snow sculpture contest that lures a wealth of overseas countries, some of which are never even dusted with snow. Typically, the sculptures depict pop-culture icons. Think the latest Japanese anime figure and the boy wizard, Harry Potter, whose very spectacles are made from the white powder. This is one of Japan's top winter events, with the week-long festival attracting about 2 million visitors from the island nation and beyond.
Lopburi Monkey Banquet
Lopburi, Lopburi Province, Thailand
Festivals come no wilder than the monkey banquet that unfolds 150 kilometres north of Bangkok, at Lopburi. Locals believe the army of long-tailed macaques that swarms through the jungle around them shields the town from external dangers. So, every year, the locals pay protection money of sorts by throwing a cross-species feast. Man and monkey – about 3000 macaques come to the celebration – share tables draped with red tablecloths. Platters and pyramids of every kind of fruit and vegetable imaginable grace the menu of the visual and culinary feast that the sugar-fuelled macaques duly wreck as they riot. Typical antics include playing hide-and-seek behind tablecloth hems, splashing puddles and climbing over human guests. Anyone is welcome to join the primate-dominated mad hatter's tea party. Be prepared to wind up filthy, smelling like a monkey and laughing hysterically.
WANT TO GO? Lopburi Monkey Banquet falls on the last weekend in November. See discoverythailand.com (click on "more" then follow the links).
Pune, Maharashtra, India
All over India, the elephant-headed Hindu god, Ganesh, is worshipped with the ardour accorded a Bollywood star. The city of Pune marks Ganesh's birthday with special panache. Several months before the date set aside in his honour, the devout in the city start constructing clay models of the god with the captivating cartoon appearance. The idols may be the size of a pepperpot or six metres high. On the day, they are placed on platforms in locals' homes or slotted into extravagantly decorated tents for people to worship and watch while chewing the god's favourite sweet, modak. Amid a hubbub of mantras, shawl-clad priests ceremonially breathe life into the idols. The theatrics only come to a close when, after being offered coconuts, flowers and camphor, the clay depictions of the deity are dunked in the Mula-Mutha River.
Photo gallery: Asia's wildest festivals