Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Year of Asian Festivals

By Beth Green

At the end of every year I like to think back on the travel I enjoyed over the previous twelve months and make some general plans for where I’d like to go and what I’d like to see in the next calendar cycle.

Sinulog. Photo by Sidious Sid/
Twenty-twelve was a year of near misses for me in the festivals department. I was lucky enough to visit seven countries this year, but poor planning on my part had me losing out on good music, great photo ops and interesting cultural insights I would have experienced if I had been more diligent about checking holiday and festival calendars for my destinations. So, perhaps that’s one reason that I’m so excited about Sinulog, the religious street dancing festival held in Cebu City, Philippines, every January.

The Sinulog dance pre-dates Christianity in the Philippines; however, converts in Cebu began using the dance to honor the local miracle—the discovery in a burning home of an unburnt image of the baby Jesus 44 years after Magellan brought it here. The same ritual dance has been done for centuries with an added tradition of dressing in costumes to perform it on the festival day of Santo Nino (Jesus). In the 1980s a formal parade was organized, and the event has blossomed into an internationally recognized street festival lasting more than a week.
Sinulog. Photo by Sidious Sid/

In addition to the dancing, among other events, this year’s schedule has choral competitions, a beauty pageant and a parade of giant puppets. I’m also looking forward to the fluvial parade, when flower-bedecked boats navigate the channel between Cebu City and Mactan Island bearing images of the Santo Nino (Read my post on the history of Lapu-Lapu here).
But Sinulog isn’t the only festival I’m hoping to attend this year. With a little searching, I’ve found interesting festivals in Asia for every month of the year ahead. Will I have a chance to attend them all? Probably not. But I do hope to make one or two. Which ones would you most want to go to?

Asian Festivals for 2013

JanuarySinulog. Events begin before the third Sunday in January. (Jan. 20 this year). The festival’s motto is “one beat, one dance, one vision."

A Spring Festival street market. Photo by Beth Green
FebruarySpring Festival. Celebrated in slightly different ways in China, Taiwan, Japan, the Koreas, Vietnam and elsewhere, the lunar new year—or Spring Festival—celebrates the coming of spring and the end of winter darkness with lights, feasting and togetherness. This year, the Year of the Water Snake will begin on Feb. 10.

MarchHoli. Another festival marking the beginning of spring, Holi is a Hindu festival celebrated mostly in India and Nepal but also in Indian communities in Malaysia and Singapore. The most famous—and fun! —part of this ancient celebration is the tossing of powdered dyes. This year, Holi falls on March 27. 

AprilSongkran. The Thai new year doesn’t begin until Songran, the Water Splashing Festival. Held between April 13-15, people celebrating Songkran—and the end of the dry season—bless each other with splashes of water, and visit their families to pay respect to their elders. The water washes away bad luck and opens the floodgates of second chances.

MayWesak. May 27th, 2013 is Wesak, or Buddha’s Birthday (called so even though it actually commemorates the Gautama’s birth, enlightenment and death). Celebrated throughout Asia, Buddhist devotees bring offerings to temples, set captive animals free, and make donations to charities and the poor. It is a national holiday in Malaysia, even though Islam is the state religion.
A Holi celebration in Jaipur, India. Photo by Dan Pelka

JuneDragon Boat Festival. June 12, 2013 is when the Chinese will remember the poet Qu Yuan, who filled his pockets with stones and threw himself from a bridge after he was captured in exile. Nowadays on Dragon Boat Festival, people throw glutinous rice packets in rivers to entice the fish to eat the rice instead of the body of the fallen poet. (No fools, people eat the yummy packets, called zong zi, too.) The Dragon Boats which are raced represent the nine children of the Dragon King who raced to save the beloved poet (some versions of this story say the boats represent the villagers only; I like the dragon kids better).

JulyNadaam. Every midsummer, Mongolian athletes hope for strength and luck while participating in Nadaam, a competition of wrestling, horseback riding and archery. It is held in Ulaanbataar on July 11-13 every year, and, though an ancient tradition, now commemorates the 1921 revolution.

Boryeong Mud Festival. For a quite different type of festival, I’m intrigued by Korea’s Boryeong Mud Festival, also held in July. (July 19-28 in 2013). Festival-goers enjoy the world’s most natural spa treatments by mud bathing, mud sliding and getting mud massages.   

Nadaam. Photo by Julie Laurent/
August—Litang Horse Festival. August is a sleepy month for festivals in Asia, but back in China they always hold the Litang Horse Festival in Sichuan province from Aug. 1-7. Celebrated by the nomadic Tibetan Khampas tribes, it started as a religious festival for monks and has evolved into a chance to do trade as well as compete in horsemanship.

SeptemberTet Trung Thu. This Sept. 19 sees Vietnam’s Tet Trung Thu, the country’s second biggest holiday. In China, the same date on the lunar calendar is called Mid-Autumn Festival. In both countries people have a family gathering, give thanks for their good luck, and pray. In Vietnam, it’s sometimes also called the Children’s Festival, and youngsters wear masks while carrying lanterns in parades.

OctoberUbud Writers & Readers Festival. I couldn't resist looking at the various literary and arts festivals also happening in Asia. For example, I’d love to go to the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. Not only is the destination alone worth the trip, the festival celebrates storytelling in contemporary literature from around the world. This year it will be held on Oct. 2-6. 
Bali. Photo by Beth Green

NovemberLoi Krathong. Celebrated in Thailand, Laos and parts of Burma, Loi Krathong (Nov. 17, 2013) is a chance for people to get rid of bad energy and send their prayers and wishes to the water spirits via floating offerings. Participants launch their “krathong” on water on the full moon. These offerings are folded out of leaves or made from bread and decorated with flowers, incense and a candle.

DecemberDongzhi Festival. As you’ll have noticed, many Asian festivals revolve around the changing of the season. So it’s no surprise that in China the beginning of winter is celebrated too. On Dec. 21, on Dongzhi Festival, Chinese people have different ways to celebrate. In one place I lived, local tradition held that you had to eat dog meat on Dec. 21 so you wouldn’t be cold the rest of the year. A friend from a different part of China shared that his family always made ear-shaped dumplings, to make sure their earlobes wouldn’t get frostbitten in the coming months.