How to really stop a nation

For foreign visitors to Australia, last Tuesday must have been a bit of a head-scratcher.

Melbourne Cup day. It's the race that stops a nation, but even I'm not really sure why. It's not like we care too much about horse racing for the other 364 days of the year, not like the event is the culmination of a year's worth of gee-gee fanaticism.

For most of us it's a bunch of horses we've never heard of carrying a bunch of little men we've barely heard of, making a few people rich and a lot of people drunk.

But for one day, it really does grind Australia to a halt. As a traveller, I spent much of that day thinking of the nation-stopping equivalents around the world.

Hogmanay, Scotland

This isn't just New Year's Eve. This is two, maybe three, maybe four, possibly five days of NYE celebration, of taking to freezing cold streets and lovely warm pubs to see in the new calendar. The Scots know how to do this properly, and the result is a nation where not a great deal gets done for a week or so.

The Super Bowl, USA

Like Melbourne Cup in Australia, Americans might not be consumed with a passion for football the rest of the year, but on Super Bowl Sunday it's all barbecues and beers and picking a team you might not know a lot about to cheer on for the day. It's an excuse, basically, to have a good time. And they do.

The Selecao, Brazil

It doesn't matter if they're playing a friendly against Lichtenstein at two in the morning – if the Brazilian national football team has a game on, don't expect to get anything achieved. One of the world's largest countries grinds to a halt for 90 minutes as all eyes swivel from whatever it is they're supposed to be looking at, to instead rest on the nearest TV. Trust me, it's better to just join in.

A strike, France

I know, it's a bit of a stereotype and there's an element of facetiousness to this entry, but France really does have a lot of strikes, and they really do stop the nation occasionally. Not every strike, but if they've really got their French knickers in a knot they you can expect to be stranded for a while.

Independence Day, Bolivia

Plenty of countries have independence days but I've never seen one celebrated with quite as much fervor as it is in Bolivia. Parades are marched in during the day every August 6th, then some serious drinking is done by night. And everyone's invited.

Songkran, Thailand

The Thai New Year, sometimes known as the Water Festival, is impossible to avoid if you find yourself in the country during late April. You won't just see it, you'll feel it as water is shot at you from pistols, or flicked at you with brooms, or thrown at you in balloons, or just poured on you with buckets. As far as nation-stopping goes, it's a fun way to do it.

The Eisteddfod, Wales

Now, this assurance comes to me from third parties, because I've never been in Wales at Eisteddfod time. But I'm told that the Welsh go mental for a bit of traditional celebration, for local literature, science and artistic performance, mental enough for the whole country to pause for a while as they either attend, or make a pot of tea and watch from the couch.

Bledisloe Cup, New Zealand

Like the Selecao in Brazil, any match involving the All Blacks is going to draw New Zealand to a grinding halt. What's that, bro? Work? Nah. But still, nothing gets the Kiwis fired up like the chance to laugh at the Wallabies as they grind us into paste year after year. You'd think it would get old after a while – but you'd think wrong.

Hockey Day, Canada

On one day a year, usually in early February, six Canadian NHL teams are drawn to play against each other, a day when fierce local rivalries are played out on ice rinks and pub TVs across the nation. If you have any love at all for this great sport then this is something you have to experience, a day when all Canadians gather together with friends and family to watch elegant, skillful sportsmen bash the hell out of each other.

Ramadan, the Islamic world

To witness the nation-stopping properties of Ramadan observance, you only need to go outside around sunset in countries such as Turkey, or Jordan, or Egypt. There you'll find thousands and thousands of families gathered patiently around feasts of food, waiting for the call from the mosques, the signal to end their day's fast and tuck in. It's something everyone should see.

Have you ever seen a nation stop on your travels? What is their equivalent to the Melbourne Cup?