After living in Asia for a few years, you learn to love holidays you didn’t grow up with in your native country. Some, such as Songkran (the Thai New Year), see people travel to Thailand just to experience it. Indeed, the diverse cultures of Asia celebrate so many different holidays and festivals, it’s almost impossible to keep track. Today we are going to discuss some of our favorites, as well as a few that we’ve always attend or experience.
Trevor: Most people, even if they’re not Christian enjoy Christmas. The cookies, the presents, time with family and friends – it’s a magical time of year in western countries especially. I wasn’t raised Christian but I love many aspects of Christmas. Thai people love Christmas and they’re mostly Buddhist. So I think celebrating many holidays is more about the pageantry for many people than traditional cultural or religious purposes. For me Thanksgiving is a bit more significant because it’s more about the food and family. Otherwise, I always loved Halloween as New England Halloweens and autumn just go so hand in hand.
Scott: Christmas takes the prize – I remember getting an Atari 2600 one year – that blew my mind. My parents would always set a minimum morning hour when I could get up on Xmas day and I remember lying in bed waiting for that hour. Halloween was always a blast too. My dad was really cool about making costumes – one year he made me a robot costume out of boxes that was really slick – except when I fell over I couldn’t get back up.
Scott’s earliest Asian holiday memory is Loi Kratong back in November 1999, a couple months after he first moved to Thailand. Trevor came in May so he missed Songrkan. He thinks it was Loy Kratong too. Going back to enjoying holidays regardless of your background or the underlying history of the holiday, Trevor enjoyed Loy Kratong even though he thought it was like Valentines Day, which it is to some degree, but only later learned what the holiday was really about, which Scott explains.
Loi Kratong – Thailand – Scott: I really like the simplicity of this one and it’s gotten better the last few years as Thai authorities tone it down. You’re making merit to the goddess of water, Mae Nam Khong Kha. It’s the end of the rainy season on the full moon day in November. You apologize for polluting her waters and thank her for the bountiful waters that have fallen. There is less loud music and fireworks which makes it interesting. From Chao Phraya to Khlong Saen Saeb and now at Benchakiti Park – I always enjoy this one.
Songkran – Thailand – Trevor: Songkran, I put up there with Brazilian Carnivale. Like the latter, however there are different ways to approach it, which will give you altogether different experiences. Scott’s first Songkran: I was in Sangkhlaburi and Three Pagodas Pass. Scott and Trevor also discuss how the Buddhist New Year is also celebrated around Southeast Asia, including as Thingyan in Myanmar.
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Bon Om Touk – the Cambodian Water Festival, celebrated in November around the full moon day (ties in with Loy Krathong in Thailand) and marks a reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River. Every town and province joins in with the festival but the biggest celebrations take place in Phnom Penh with boat racing along the Sisowath Quay. For three days, workers from every province join with the city’s residents to celebrate by night and day. The festival lasts for three days, and commemorates the end of the country’s rainy season, as well as the reversal of flow of the Tonle Sap River. It includes boat races and concerts, and attracts several million people each year. A few years back there was a tragic electrocution of revelers and it was put on hold for a while. Neat to see but truly there are so many people along the riverbanks and so much drinking that foreigners won’t get quite as much out of it.
Bunga Dyah Jatra – Nepal: This is a really wild celebration that I’ve seen a couple times – mainly the chariot which is on display before it happens in a suburb of Kathmandu called Lalitpur. People build a 60-foot tall chariot at Pulchok at the western end of Lalitpur. When the chariot is complete, the image of Bunga Dyah from his temple is installed in it. Revellers then drag the chariot through the streets of Lalitpur on a tour that lasts a month. It usually happens in May but the actual date changes annually as it’s based on the lunar calendar. This process spreads peace in the city.
Listen to Episode 62 on SoundCloud Now!
Tihar – Nepal: Is a five-day-long Hindu festival celebrated in Nepal – it is the festival of lights, as diyas are lit inside and outside the houses to make it illuminate at night. There are five days to the celebration but Day 2, Kukur Tihar, is quite interesting and cute, as they pay respect to dogs. People offer garlands, tika and delicious food to dogs and acknowledge the cherished relationship between humans and dogs. It depends on the lunar calendar but usually takes place in late October – early November.
Sakura Festival in Japan: Cherry Blossom viewing (Hanami) season in Japan is a great time of year. I first saw it at the beginning of a one-year backpacking trip around the world. I’m guessing that in many ways locals celebrate the ending of winter and coming of spring with this one. I first experienced this in 1994 on the second day of my one-year trip. I was in Tokyo and it was magical to see all the office workers out together, sitting on mats in parks under the cherry blossom trees. Really cool. Public parks are the place to be with Ueno Park in Tokyo is a particularly popular and beautiful spot to take it in. The season starts in Okinawa in February and moves south to north over the coming months, usually going down in Tokyo in March.
Makha Bucha Day: This is a really nice, relaxing Buddhist holiday that takes place in most Asian countries that practice Theravada Buddhism: Cambodia, Laos, Nepal, Myanmar, Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka. Makha Bucha Day is to honor the Buddha and his teachings which he delivered on the full moon day of the third lunar month. The spiritual aims of the day are not to commit any kind of sins; do only good; purify one’s mind. It’s a public holiday in some countries and is an occasion when Buddhists tend to go to the temple to perform merit-making activities. It culminates in the evening by walking around a temple three times with candles, which is very beautiful. Scott recalls doing it at Wat Phra Kaew in Chiang Rai many years ago.
Trevor explains that there are so many holidays across the region he can’t even keep track. He wishes he researched this topic more. Recently Thailand had the closest thing to Thai Groundhog Day, The Royal Ploughing Ceremony, which he explains. Scott and Trevor also discuss Nyepi – the Balinese Day of Silence, The Bung Fai Phaya Nak (the Naga Fireballs, celebrated on the Mekong River between Laos and Thailand), the Angkor Wat Ta Reach Vishnu ceremony in Siem Reap Cambodia, Pi Ta Kon Ghost Festival in Loei, Thailand, the Bun Bang Fai Rocket Festival in Eastern & Northeastern Thailand and Laos, and the Phuket Vegetarian Festival.
Stay tuned for our next episode on July 1 featuring Joe Cummings, who will talk about his new guide to Bangkok with The Hunt and the 2nd edition of his book Sacred Tattoos of Thailand.
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