Asia Sound and Color: Exploring Asia’s Most Iconic Festivals

On any given day, traveling to the Far East is a captivating and culturally distinct experience. Certain days, however, are exalted to a level of magic that must be experienced to be understood. From streets soaked in colorful powder to a night sky filled with a thousand growing lanterns, Asia’s festivals represent the pinnacle of experiential travel, affording the rare occasion to experience a destination in a state of reality outside its typical daily routine. It’s the phenomenon of community in unison, when the air is ignited with a sense of merriment and revelry that can’t be encountered any other time or place in the world.

HARBIN INTERNATIONAL ICE
& SNOW SCULPTURE FESTIVAL

 

Coachella Valley. Rio de Janeiro. Black Rock City. Some destinations are known exclusively for their larger-than-life festivals. As the home of the world’s largest snow and ice sculpture exhibit, Harbin, China, is definitely among the ranks of those cities flaunting festival-born fame. Held each January for about a month, this festival in the Heilongjiang province of northeastern China is a frosty wonderland covering nearly 200 acres, with 2,000 wintry works of art and about 30 rides, like ice slides over 1,000 feet long. The construction of the park is a feat in itself, involving nearly 700,000 cubic feet of snow and ice cut from the frozen surface of the Songhua River. The ice is then carved, chiseled, picked and polished into a variety of shapes and structures, from mammoth mythical creatures to towering castles as tall as 15-story buildings. But it doesn’t stop there. At night, the structures are illuminated by hundreds of multicolor lights—glowing, flashing and flickering in a kaleidoscopic light show. Corresponding with the festival are various opportunities to get in the winter spirit with pop-up ice bars, snowmobile tours and even dogsledding. With so much to do, this festival might even have you looking forward to winter.

CHINESE NEW YEAR

 

Chinese New Year isn’t just big; it’s monumental—comprising the largest annual human migration on the planet. Also referred to as Lunar New Year or Spring Festival, it is technically 15 days, beginning on the first of the lunar calendar in late January or early February, depending on the year. If you’re looking to participate in the fun, there are dozens of destinations to do so. See the UNESCO-listed shower of sparks in Nuanquan town within China’s Hebei province, witness a boisterous carnival in Singapore’s Chinatown or partake in the fragrant festivities of Quang Ba Flower Market in Hanoi, Vietnam. But if you want to experience the mother of all Chinese New Year celebrations, head to China’s capital city. For first-timers in China, Beijing’s Ditan Park Temple Fair is a must. The opening ceremony is an explosion of energy and a captivating cultural celebration following the tradition of Ming and Qing dynasties. Experience live music and dance performances, shop for handicrafts and traditional art and devour street food from dozens of Chinese food stalls serving up steaming hotpots, sizzling kebabs and freshly folded dumplings. As dusk falls, welcome in the New Year beneath a canopied matrix of bright red lanterns, backed by a night sky illuminated with one of the world’s most elaborate firework displays.

PARTNER'S POV

“ATJ recognizes that Andrew Harper Travel guests desire experiences above and beyond that of a typical tourist bystander. Sitting on the sidelines isn’t why you travel. ATJ’s in-country, exclusive partnerships open the door to a universe of access. By breathing, feeling, tasting, smelling, learning and becoming part of the experiences afforded, you’ll connect to the culture you’re visiting while traveling in a much more enriching way.”

– Eric Kareus, Asia Transpacific Journeys

THAIPUSAM

 

When it comes to Malaysia’s most famous festival, you might not have heard of it and you’ve definitely never seen anything like it. In a largely Muslim country, the Hindu festival of Thaipusam is piercing—literally. Devotees of the festival embark on extreme pilgrimages as far as 20 miles wearing kavadi (or “burdens”) that penetrate the skin as a symbol of ceremonial sacrifice. Kavadi include small pins adorned with offerings like fruit or flowers, spears through the tongue or cheeks, suspension hooks through the back and elaborate cages that penetrate the skin in multiple areas. In January or February—during the Tamil month of Thai when the star of Pusam reaches its highest point in the sky—Tamil communities around the world participate in this stunning tradition, the most striking of which takes place at the Batu Caves just outside Kuala Lumpur. Gather below the 140-foot golden statue of Lord Murugan to witness the entranced devotees don their kavadi and ascend 272 steps painted in a dazzling gradient of psychedelic colors. From this oh-so-Instagrammable entrance to the awe-inspiring procession and otherworldly physical feats, the excitement and adrenaline is palpable. Attend Thaipusam at Batu Caves and you’ll surely be hooked—figuratively, that is.

HOLI

 

India is already known for being one of the world’s most colorful destinations, but the festival of Holi takes it to another level entirely. Thrown a fistful at a time, vibrant gulal powder of every color coats the streets and all its participants. India’s cities and villages erupt in celebration, pulsating with traditional music and frenetic night-long parties. One of the world’s most famous events, Holi, appropriately referred to as the “festival of colors,” takes place in March to celebrate the arrival of spring. Most know about the second part of Holi—technically called Rangwali Holi—but the festival encompasses various other events as well. Participate in traditional song and dance around the giant bonfire of Holika Dahan, slurp an intoxicating drink called thandai or marvel at extreme physical feats and martial arts performances at the Hola Mohalla festival. From the iconic Dol Purnima parades of Bengal to Jaipur elephants bedecked in elaborate costumes and the throwing of the flowers during Mathura’s Phoolon Wali Holi, each region celebrates Holi with its own colorful flair.

PARTNER'S POV

“For both Songkran in April and Loi Krathong in November, our concierge team will take guests to the heart of the celebration in town to take part in and experience all the festivities. In addition, guests who stay with us can enjoy a special themed dinner to celebrate the occasion in the luxury of the resort.”

– Racha Soontorncharoen, Four Seasons Resorts Thailand

LOI KRATHONG AND YI PENG

 

Coincidentally, one of Asia’s most romantic festivals is actually two events regarded as one. Loi Krathong and Yi Peng take place in Northern Thailand on the full moon of the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar, usually occurring sometime in mid-to-late November. Deeply rooted in Buddhist symbolism, both of these festivals are uniquely astonishing. During Loi Krathong, tiny floating krathong (rafts) handcrafted from pieces of bread or elaborately folded banana leaves are topped with exotic flowers, incense and tiny candles before being released into nearby channels and waterways, symbolizing sending negativity to float away down the river. Between the fragrant flowers and tiny clouds of incense hanging in the air to the reflection of the candles flickering on the water, the enchanting ambiance attracts hoards of couples arriving to release their one ceremonial krathong together. The main event of Yi Peng is the kind of surreal spectacle that romantic sagas were made for. Witness over 4,000 paper lanterns drift into the full moon sky over Chiang Mai—spellbound faces aglow as the blazing torches rise in tandem—in a symbolic request for blessings over the coming year. The beacons can be spotted across the city with especially magical views from Three Kings Monument, Tha Pae Gate, the Old Town moat and the Ping River. During the festivals, the whole city participates in the festivities. Stroll along romantic candlelit city lanes, spot colorful lanterns swaying for tree branches and explore ancient temples scattered with flowers.