Asia is a continent whose array of stunning cultures and religions are continuously showcased in a myriad of colourful festivals. From the brightest to the grandest, the oldest, the most famous and the least known, most elaborate and most fun: our list of 10 Astonishing Festivals in Asia You Shouldn’t Miss will guide you through the region’s array of sensational celebrations. As festival time in Asia is always, without fail, the busiest time of year to visit, we recommend you book your trip way in advance, securing essentials like flights, accommodation and tours as far ahead as possible.
Our vast collection of single and multi-country tours in Asia are essentially a cache of travel inspiration meant to offer ideas on how to best combine each country’s major attractions and points of interest. Each itinerary can be used as a guide for tailor-made, personalised tours. Whenever possible, we’ll include links to festival-specific tours but do note that any and all of our tour suggestions can certainly be planned to coincide with major festivals to add an unforgettable infusion of culture into your journey.
Here ‘s our list of 10 of the most astonishing festivals in Asia that shouldn’t be missed.
1. Chinese New Year – various countries
The most famous of Asia’s major cultural festivals, Chinese New Year is a three-week celebration marking the arrival of Spring and the start of the new lunar year. Celebrated continent-wide with varying degrees of grandeur, Chinese New Year tours are most popular in Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand and, naturally, Beijing, as well as all major tourist spots throughout China. For locals, the New Year is a time to honour their ancestors and deities and festivities abound with an array of symbolic celebrations and specially-made culinary delights. Cities are decorated no end and drenched in waves of red, a colour which represents good fortune and prosperity, with major celebrations including astonishing fireworks displays, endless markets, concerts, parades and lighting displays. The most exciting places to experience the overwhelming enormity of Chinese New Year in Asia are Singapore, where the float parade is out of this world, the old town centre of Georgetown (Penang, Malaysia), Chinatown in Bangkok (Thailand) and, arguably some of the most authentic of all, in Beijing, where folkloric performances, lion dances and festivals are held in all major parks and public spaces.
2. Tet Lunar New Year, Vietnam
The Vietnamese New Year is the most important celebration in the country and locals spend weeks leading up to the main event decorating their homes with a flurry of beautiful and symbolic flowers and trees. Held in late January or early February (depending on the lunar calendar) the Tet Lunar New Year usually coincides with Chinese New Year, also marking the arrival of Spring. Vietnam can certainly come across as excitedly chaotic at any time but Tet celebrations bring a whole new level of vibrancy that’s hard to fathom. As locals aim to drive away evil spirits, they spend the night throwing firecrackers and celebrating, with popular tourist areas holding concerts and festivals combining cultural shows with dance, food and all-around revelry. Depending on where you go to in Vietnam, celebrations can last anywhere between one and three days. See this website for upcoming dates of Tet Lunar Year in Vietnam and see our exciting array of Vietnam Tours which can be planned to coincide with this most exciting festival.
3. Water Festival, various countries
Asia’s Water Festival is one of the most renowned and widespread, celebrated in various countries all over the continent to traditionally celebrate the Buddhist New Year and attracting bucketloads of foreign tourists to boot. Held in mid-April, the Water Festival, much like Holi in India, sees in the new harvesting season, the arrival of Spring and the celebration of life, new beginnings and copious drenching, which symbolize the washing away of evil spirits and sins. The festival goes by various monikers and it’s known as Songkran in Thailand, Thingyan in Myanmar, Choll Chnam Thmay in Cambodia, Bunpimay in Laos and Poshuijie in China, with the main tourist spots all holding fantastically refreshing celebrations. Traditionally, the festival involved simple sprinkling of water yet has grown exponentially to now include bucketloads of water being thrown onto festival goers and unsuspecting spectators from passing pickup trucks. Considering the festival coincides with the hottest month of the year, this actually translates into the most fun and exhilarating water fight you’ll ever attend. Anything goes during Asia’s many Water Festivals, so buy a water gun, borrow a garden hose and help locals celebrate the most important, symbolic and exciting day of the year. For super-diper water fun, plan your tour of Asia to be in Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng (Laos), Khao San Road (Bangkok, Thailand), Yangon (Myanmar) and Phnom Penh (Cambodia) during this incredible celebration of life, love and good fortune.
4. Holi, India
India’s Festival of Colours is the country’s most famous yearly celebration and without doubt one of the most photogenic in all of Asia. Following the Hindu calendar, the Holi Festival is held on the day after the first full-moon in March and marks the arrival of Spring with fervent ardour, celebrating new beginnings (and the end of animosity) the triumph of good over evil, love, fertility, a great upcoming harvest and all things magically colourful. Although celebrated throughout the country for one night and one day, there are a few places renowned for spectacular parties with music, food, water fights and lots of dancing, which all tourists are welcomed to participate. See where we choose to run our popular Holi Photography Tour and how we combine this sensational festival with another of India’s enticing celebrations, Kumbh Mela (detailed below) which is only held every three years.
5. Kumbh Mela, India
One of Asia’s most fascinating religious festivals, Kumbh Mela is a UNESCO-listed cultural treasure of colossal proportions. Held once every three years, the mass pilgrimage of faithful takes place, alternatively, on one of the country’s four holy rivers where the faithful bathe and wash away evil spirits, ensuring their souls of divine blessings and taking them one step closer to eternal salvation. Kumbh Mela is believed to be over 2000 years old and considered one of the world’s largest human congregations, attracting tens of millions every single day over the course of a couple of months. In 2019, Kumbh Mela will be held in Triveni Sangam, in Allahabad. For this incredibly special occasion, we’ve created a tour that combines the two most famous festivals in the country: Kumbh Mela and Holi.
6. Harbin Ice Festival, China
The coldest city in China, at the coldest time of year, is simply ideal if you wish to experience the magical wonder of Harbin festival of ice, snow and astonishing sculptures. The world’s biggest ice-sculpture festival is a visual feast like few others, making it an excellent reward for travelling to China during the bitterly cold period between late-December and the end of February. The festival attracts up to 15 million visitors annually as well as some of the most talented ice-sculptors on the planet. The tallest structures rise up above 40m, employing tens of thousands of ice workers who work tirelessly to make the artist’s vision come to life. Spectacular lighting and the sheer size of both sculpture and collection, not to mention the intricate detail of artworks, make this a mind-boggling festival to visit, one that keeps growing every year. Our Harbin Ice Festival Tour combines the city’s best highlights (including a superb tiger park) and array of winter-sports facilities including, of course, access to the Harbin ice and Snow Festival venues. A visual spectacular that’s not to be missed!
7. Kandy Esala Perahera, Sri Lanka
Held on the shores of Lake Kandy in Sri Lanka’s cultural capital of the same name, the Festival of the Buddha Sacred Tooth Relic is one of the most prominent events in the country’s cultural calendar. The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy was constructed in 1595 and inducted into the UNESCO heritage listing in 1988. This is the city’s most revered Buddhist temples, one that is flamboyantly celebrated during the Perahera, a 10-day celebration held in July comprising parades of fire-dancers, drummers, jugglers, musicians, acrobats and a host of cultural events. The elaborate costumes and mind-boggling decoration of elephants is an eye-opening visual feast with the events being some of the most flamboyant you’ll ever see, anywhere. Plan your Highlights of Sri Lanka Tour to coincide with the celebrations in Kandy and you can witness this magnificent pageant in all its glory.
8. Hornbill Festival, India
Held for 10 days at the beginning of December, every year, the Hornbill Festival of Nagaland (northern India) pays homage to the cultural heritage of the Naga people, one of the country’s major ethnic tribes. A stunning display of tribal costumes, music, dancing and performances showcases the immense beauty and complex history of the Naga culture whilst also introducing visitors to the gastronomic delights and array of artwork (which you can also purchase) of this immensely interesting culture. On our dedicated Nagaland Hornbill Festival Tour, we combine two full days at the festival with some of the region’ most outstanding highlights: a multi-day wildlife jeep safari at the Kaziranga National Park in search of rhinos, elephants and tigers.
9. Kyoto Gion Festival, Japan
Headlined by a stunning parade of 3 elaborately decorated floats pulled by dozens of men, the Gion Festival in Kyoto is one of Japan’s most important celebrations. The month-long festivities – held in July each year – encompass every suburb of the city and includes festivities and ceremonies of symbolic purification: from lantern receptions to purifications by the river’s edge, processions and visits to holy shrines. All the prefectures involved in the final parade spend the first two weeks building their floats and for the last three days of the festival – called Yoiyama – there are nightly festivities featuring endless streams of street food stall and Gion music blaring from outdoor loudspeakers. The climax of the festival is held at the 100-year-old Yasaka Shinto Shrine. The Gion festival, first held in 869 CE, was created to appease the gods after a particularly devastating plague which hit the region and decimated the local population. Now enlisted as a UNESCO Intangible Treasure, this is one of Asia’s most colourful and enticing festivals to attend. See our Classic Japan itinerary to see how we can plan a whirlwind tour of the country, including a visit to beautiful Kyoto.
10. Diwali, India
The famous Hindu Festival of Lights is held over five days in Autumn each year (between mid-October and mid-November) and is one of the most atmospheric celebrations you’ll ever have the pleasure of attending. Primarily a family festivity, Diwali has grown in popularity over the last few years and is now one a huge attraction for tourists. Much like the Buddhist and Chinese New Year Celebrations, Diwali marks the beginning of the new year in the Hindu Calendar, with the lighting of the by-now famous clay lanterns signifying purification and new beginnings. Traditionally, the festival comprises several components and each region of the country emphasizes one specific aspect, be it love, wealth or the triumph of good over evil. The one thing all festivities have in common throughout India, however, is their prolific use of light to symbolise rebirth, be it with colossal fireworks displays, candle ornaments and the lighting of hundreds of lanterns in symbolic places. Diwali has become so popular, the world over, that it is nowadays celebrated in every country home to a substantial Hindu population.
For more personalised advice and itinerary ideas on how to plan a tour in Asia to coincide with one of the region’s most astonishing festivals, contact the team at Get About Asia today.
Author: Laura Pattara
“After spending years taking short vacations in Asia, Laura finally managed her dream, travelling extensively through Central Asia, China and Southeast Asia on a 3-year-long overlanding adventure that she describes as “SIMPLY EPIC”. Following in the footsteps of ancient traders, Laura meandered along the famed Silk Road through the Stans, delighted her tastebuds for 8000km across China (no mean feat) visited an insane number of temples in Southeast Asia, all the while snorkelling, diving and beach-bumming along the way. Tickled pink by history and culture, Laura loves off-the-beaten-path destinations in Asia and anything that isn’t gift-wrapped for tourists”