Asia's best festivals

We run down Asia's best festivals throughout the year

Paint fights, elephant processions, masked dancers, world-class art, and music in a jungle – whatever you’re into, Time Out has the perfect festival!

July
Gion Matsuri
Art on the move

rabbit

Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri is one of Japan’s oldest festivals, dating back to 869AD. The main event, held on Wed 17, is a grand parade of stunning wooden floats accompanied by dancers and musicians. The floats are 25m high, weigh 12 tons (as much as a London double-decker bus) and are pulled on wheels as big as humans. But it’s not just their size that counts. Featuring tapestries, screens and wood-carvings dating back centuries, these ornate platforms have earned the moniker ‘mobile museums’. During the nights preceding the parade, the floats are displayed around town, festive music fills the streets and food stalls sell delicacies such as tako yaki (fried octopus balls).

While there Explore another uniquely Japanese art form at Kyoto’s manga museum.
Get there Delta (www.delta.com) flies to Tokyo from 2,500RMB return. Bullet trains between Tokyo and Kyoto take just over two hours.

Naadam
Mongolia’s own Olympics

rabbit

Wrestling matches that go on for hours, horse races over distances of up to 17 miles, and archery contests where competitors hit targets 75 metres away – Mongolia’s Naadam festival is a hardcore, old-school version of the Olympics. With roots stretching back to the time of Genghis Khan, these manly games have been held annually on July 11-13 since Mongolia declared itself a republic in 1921. Celebrations are held all over the country; the capital, Ulaanbaatar, boasts the largest, with an impressive opening ceremony featuring dancers and camel parades, but in the provinces it’s easier to get closer to the action.

While there Act out your own nomad fantasy with a multi-day horse trek across the plains, booked through www.stepperiders.mn.
Get there Mongolian Airlines (www.miat.com) flies to Ulaanbaatar from 3,800RMB return.

August
Esala Perahera
Torch-lit elephant processions
Sri Lanka is a feast for the eyes at any time of year. Visit the hilltop city of Kandy during Esala Perahera (observed August 11-21 this year), however, and you’re in for an extra-special treat. Held to venerate the sacred ‘tooth relic’ of Buddha (purportedly the deity’s left canine) said to reside in the city’s Dalada Maligawa temple, this ten-day extravaganza comprises nightly torch-lit parades of elephants dressed in all their finery: silk clothes, glittering embroidery and even fairy lights. Among the thousands of pilgrims you’ll also find performers dancing, beating drums, cracking whips and juggling fire.

While there Fancy a cuppa? Check out one of the numerous tea plantations surrounding Kandy.
Get there SriLankan Airlines (www.srilankan.com) flies to Colombo via Bangkok from 4,200RMB return. Trains between Colombo and Kandy take around three hours.

Summer Sonic
Urban music fest
You’ve heard of July’s mighty Fuji Rock (held on Fri 26-Sat 28 this year) but Summer Sonic is Japan’s other premier music festival, and has a more varied lineup. Split over Tokyo and Osaka on August 10-11 (with most performers playing both cities) this year’s festival boasts artists ranging from Metallica and Muse to MIA and Justice, as well as the Pet Shop Boys, who will also play Beijing on Aug 22. Other details are tbc but previous years also included silent discos, digital art installations and massage areas.

While there Warm up for the weekend festival with the all-night dance party Sonicmania, held in the same Tokyo venue on August 9.
Get there See ‘July: Gion Matsuri’ for Tokyo flights. Bullet trains between Tokyo and Osaka take two hours and 45 minutes.
September
Thimphu Tsechu 
Bhutan’s festival of masks

rabbit

The Tsechu festival held in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, is a fantastic showcase of traditional Bhutanese culture. Running September 14-16 this year, the main action akes place in the enormous courtyard of the Tashichho Dzong, a fortress-like Buddhist monastery that is also the seat of Bhutan’s government. For three days the arge square is overrun with monks dressedn colourful costumes and giant masks. Accompanied by drums and cymbals, they dance with the acrobatic prowess of China’sOlympic medal-winning gymnastics team.

While there You’ll probably be flying into the international airport at Paro. If so, don’t miss nearby Taktsang, the Tiger’s Nest monastery that hangs on the edge of a 900 metre-high sheer cliff, 3,000 metres above sea level.
Get there Drukair (www.drukair.com.bt) flies from Bangkok to Paro from 5,500RMB return. See below for Bangkok flights.

Bangkok International Festival of Dance and Music 
Let’s dance!
One of Asia’s biggest, this month-long dance and music festival (with a heavy emphasis on dance), runs from mid-September to mid-October every year in the Thai capital. Ballet, opera, contemporary, classical Indian, folk dance, and tango – almost every genre is covered and the performers invited are of the highest calibre. A highlight of last year’s event was a series of performances by New York’s Limón Dance Company, a pioneering modern dance troupe whose iconic founder was recently immortalised with his own US postage stamp. This year’s line-up has yet to be announced, but later this summer you’ll find info at www.bangkokfestivals.com.

While there Visit the Patravadi Theatre for traditional Thai dance performances and classes. 
Get there Air China (www.airchina.com) flies to Bangkok from 3,000RMB return. 

October
Boun Awk Phansa 
A river of lights
If you’d just been through three months of fasting, you’d want to celebrate too. Observed on October 19 this year, Boun Awk Phansa festival (aka Wan Awk Phansa) marks the end of Buddhist lent. All over the country monks fashion miniature boats out of banana leaves, decorate them with candles, incense and flowers, and set them off floating downriver. Luang Prabang, Laos’s sleepy second city – packed as it is with gilded monasteries – is a great place to take in this beautiful spectacle. 

While there Take an elephant ride out into the waterfall-dotted countryside surrounding Luang Prabang with www.shangri-lao.com.
Get there China Eastern Airlines (www.flychinaeastern.com) flies to Laos’s capital, Vientiane, from 1,800RMB. A 45-minute flight from there to Luang Prabang with Lao Airlines (www.laoairlines.com) costs 1,150RMB return.

Mumbai Film Festival 
More than just Bollywood
With 200 films screened over eights days (October 17-24), the Mumbai Film Festival is a mecca for film buffs. You might assume, given the location, that all the films would be Bollywood blockbusters. Actually this festival combs other big festivals worldwide, such as Cannes, and screens award-nominated and winning pictures. Last year’s fest featured the likes of multi-Oscar nominated Beasts of the Southern Wild, as well as classics and documentaries, including Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.

While there Take a tour of Film City, the heart of Bollywood, where over 100 films are produced each year.
Get there Air China (www.airchina.com) flies to Mumbai via Chengdu for 5,500RMB return.
November
Singapore Writers Festival 
Write on!
With 192 writers hosted at eight venues across Singapore, including the National Museum and the National Library, the Singapore Writers Festival is like Beijing’s book festivals on steroids. The ten days of non-stop literary action include workshops, author dinners and cocktail events, readings, film screenings and live music alongside the usual writers’ talks. The list of participants in this year’s event (held November1-10) is yet to be confirmed but previous guests have included Michael Cunningham (author of The Hours) and Neil Gaiman (the award-winning writer of American Gods and The Sandman).

While there Check out the Esplanade, Singapore’s pineapple-shaped, premier performing arts centre, for more cultural fun.
Get there Jetstar (www.jetstar.com) flies to Singapore from 2,500RMB return.

Diwali 
India’s festival of lights

rabbit

The Hindu New Year, or Diwali (November 3-7 this year), is known as the festival of lights for a reason. There are fireworks aplenty, but more mesmerising are the lamps and candles intricately arranged into patterns such as lotus flowers. The holy city of Varanasi is a prime spot to admire the festivities. Boat out on to the Ganges at sunset and gaze upon the millions of lights and pilgrims on the holy ghats (steps) leading down to the water. Their riverside chants and prayers add an atmospheric soundtrack to a beautiful spiritual event.

While there Don’t miss the nightly puja on Dasaswamedh ghat, where locals make incense offerings, accompanied by traditional music. 
Get there Air China (www.airchina.com) flies to New Delhi for 3,900RMB return. From there, the hour-long flight to Varanasi on Air India (www.airindia.com) costs from 800RMB return

Bon Om Tok 
Khmer boat festival
Cambodians welcome the beginning of the dry season and the reversal of the currents of the Sap River with a festival called Bon Om Tok (on November 16-18 this year). The biggest fiesta takes place in the capital, Phnom Penh, where highly competitive races with 40-person ceremonial boats take place on Tonlé Sap Lake. Meanwhile, on the lake shores there are plenty of concerts featuring traditional local Khmer music to enjoy.

While there Most visitors usually go on to see Angkor Wat and other iconic temples in Siem Reap. From November 23, Siem Reap also plays host to an impressive photography festival (www.angkor-photo.com), so time your trip right. 
Get there China Southern Airlines (www.csair.com) flies to Phnom Penh via Guangzhou from 3,500RMB return.

December 
Sunburn 
Sea, sand and superstar DJs
Sunburn-Fest

Dancing all night on a beach in Goa certainly beats a harsh Beijing winter. If you’re tempted too, consider joining over 50,000 revellers from December 27-29 at Sunburn on Candolim beach. Although the area is best known as the birthplace of Goa trance, this festival showcases world-class acts from every electronic music genre. Last year’s headliners were Paul van Dyk and Roger Sanchez. Expect equally big names this year.

While there Goa has plenty of pretty cathedrals from its days as a Portuguese outpost, but we’ll forgive you if you can’t leave the beach.

Get there See ‘October: Mumbai Film Festival’ for flights to Mumbai. From there it’s an hour flight to Goa on Air India (www.airindia.com) from 550RMB return.

Gishi-sai 
Samurai in Tokyo
Forget going to see Keanu Reeves’ 3D action flick 47 Ronin when it comes out in cinemas this December. Instead, visit Tokyo on December 14 for the true 3D experience of this story of loyal samurai avenging their master’s death. The Gishi-sai Festival sees people dressed as the 47 Ronin and the enemy lords slowly marching through the streets of Tokyo accompanied by the dramatic beating of drums. They finish up at Sengaku-ji temple, where the original 47 are buried. Inside the shrine you’ll find stalls selling food, trinkets, and – this being Japan – videogames.

While there Ogle real Samurai outfits and period swords at the Tokyo National Museum.
Get there Delta (www.delta.com) flies to Tokyo starting from 2,500RMB return.
January 
Ati-Atihan 
Party like it’s 1299

rabbit

Forget Mardi Gras in Rio; head to Kalibo in the Philippines on January 10-19, 2014, and you’ll experience an explosion of music and colour. The Ati-Atihan festival honouring Santo Niño (the infant Jesus) has its roots in pagan traditions that celebrate the coming together of the Malay and local Ati people in the 13th century. For the week-long festivities, participants paint their faces, wear colourful costumes, carry weapons and torches, and perform tribal dances.

While there Take a walk through the mangroves at Bakhawan Eco-Park or a boat ride to the white beaches of Boracay island.
Get there Cebu Pacific Airlines (www.cebupacificair.com) flies to Kalibo from 2,600RMB return.

Jaipur Literature Festival 
Booking massive!
On January 17-21 next year, India’s iconic ‘pink city’ will once again be festooned with bright
banners as it welcomes 60,000 people for one of world’s biggest literary events. This carnival-like event invites over 250 musicians, artists, philosophers, journalists and writers to give free talks to the public. Howard Jacobson (The Finkler Question), Sebastian Faulks (Birdsong) and Zoë Heller (Notes on a Scandal) all spoke last year. 

While there Take an elephant, camel or hot air balloon ride into the majestic Rajasthan desert.
Get there See ‘Nov: Diwali’ for flights to New Delhi. One-hour flights to Jaipur with Air India (www.airindia.com) start at 600RMB return

February 
Sapporo Snow Festival 
Having a (snow) ball
Sapporo

Life-sized dinosaurs, the Taj Mahal, Egyptian sphinxes – Sapporo Snow Festival is a chance for you to see the wonders of world all made of snow. Harbin has the flashy lights and larger sculptures, but Sapporo (open February 5-11 next year) wins out on precision and artistry. The 400 artworks here are mostly made of pure white snow (in contrast to ice at Harbin) and visitors can keep warm in the onsen baths or by slurping miso noodle soup and hot sake. Oh, and it is also a good 15°C warmer than Harbin in February.

While there Niseko, one of Asia’s best ski resorts, is a two-hour bus ride away. 
Get there Japan Airlines (www.jal.com) flies via Tokyo to Sapporo from 4,400 RMB return.

Khajuraho Festival of Dances 
Tradition and temples

rabbit

The swirl of elaborate saris and ornate jewellery, the precise flick of a hand – traditional Indian dance, when done well, is mesmerising for both its artistic skill and storytelling prowess. And no event does it better than the Khajuraho Dance Festival where, for a week every February (dates for 2014 haven’t been set yet), the country’s best classical dancers perform against a backdrop of the town’s Unesco-listed medieval temples. 

While there The performances all take place at night, so use the days to get a closer look at the temples – in particular the erotic carvings depicting couples interlocked in tantric positions.
Get there See ‘November: Diwali’ for flights to New Delhi. From there the two-and-a-half-hour flight to Khajuraho on Air India (www.airindia.com) costs from 650RMB return.

March
Holi 
Lose yourself in colour. 

rabbit

If you want something more raucous than classical dances and snow festivals, why not join in the carnage at Holi, the Hindu spring festival where celebrants light bonfires and throw vibrantly coloured powder and scented water at each other? It’s literally an assault on the senses, but plenty of fun to take part in. Predominantly celebrated among the Hindu population of India and Nepal, this festival falls on March 17 next year. In New Delhi, the political and cultural capital of India, it’s celebrated with particular enthusiasm. If you dare, head to the central Paharganj neighbourhood, where the powder war gets particularly wild. Just don’t go wearing your best clothes.

While there New Delhi has plenty colourful architecture. Be sure to check out the Red Fort, Humayun’s Tomb and the Akshardham temple.

Hong Kong Rugby Sevens 
Fair play

rabbit

The Hong Kong Rugby Sevens, held March 28-30 in 2014, brings together some of the finest sportsmen from 28 nations to compete in the world’s most prestigious rugby sevens event. But everyone knows the real draw is the party atmosphere that takes over the island. Spectators, both inside and outside the skyscraper-surrounded stadium, dress as bananas and beer bottles, or in full body paint – many consuming their body weight in alcohol over the weekend.

While there Spend a night betting on the races at Happy Valley Racecourse. 
Get there China Southern Airlines (www.csair.com) flies to Hong Kong from 2,200RMB return
April
Songkran 
All-out water-fare
water-splashing

In mid-April most of Southeast Asia’s population engages in a giant water fight to celebrate the region’s New Year. Whether you’re travelling in Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, or even southern Yunnan, you’re sure to be soaked as everyone targets each other with buckets of water and water guns. Ayutthaya in Thailand, where the water-splashing festival is called Songkran and is held April 13-15, is a particularly fun spot, as even the elephants get involved, spouting water from their enormous trunks at each and every passer-by.

While there Ayutthaya is an ancient Thai capital where you can explore impressive remains of temples, palaces and monasteries.
Get there See ‘September: Bangkok International Festival of Dance and Music’ for flights to Bangkok. From there it’s an hour and a half bus ride to Ayutthaya.

Savour and World Gourmet Summit 
Food, glorious food (and drink)
In April Singapore hosts not one, but two foodie fests. Savour has demonstrations from leading chefs and a gourmet village where you can sample 60 dishes from top international restaurants, priced from 30RMB, and eat them al fresco. There’s also a gourmet market selling artisanal breads, coffees and other produce. At the higher end of the spectrum, World Gourmet Summit – last year held just a couple of days after Savour – offers food photography classes in addition to a line-up of workshops and meals prepared by Michelin-starred chefs with suitably mixed heritages (from Indian and Japanese to French and American) to match Singapore’s status as a culinary melting pot.

While there Singapore is famous for its food stalls’ delicious goods – dig in!
Get there See ‘November: Singapore Writers Festival’ for flights.

May
Art Basel Hong Kong
Artworks for everyone
Hosting shows in Basel, Miami and Hong Kong, Art Basel is one of the world’s biggest visual arts fairs. The Hong Kong event (set to run May 15-18 next year) is your chance to see Warhols, Hockneys and Picassos for sale in one room, alongside other art from 170 galleries from around the globe. It’s the kind of event where Kate Moss and Roman Abramovich rub shoulders with both the world’s leading art dealers and members of the public. And it’s not just the fair: in the weeks surrounding it, there are exhibitions, installations, workshops, talks, tours, screenings and pop-up shops in neighbourhoods all over Hong Kong. 

While there Check out the Hong Kong Arts Centre, a hub for contemporary performing, visual and filmic arts. Even the toilets in this building are art installations! 
Get there See ‘March: Hong Kong Rugby Sevens’ for flights. 

June
Rainforest World Music Festival 
Eco-sounds for the jungle massive

rabbit

There probably aren’t many music festivals that can boast bands from Korea, Istanbul, South Africa, Denmark, Ukraine, China, Iran and aboriginal Australia. Then again there probably aren’t that many held in the jungle either. The Rainforest World Music Festival (www.rwmf.net), held in June in the lush surrounds of Sarawak Cultural Village, just outside of Borneo’s largest city, Kuching, accomplishes both of these feats. It’s the perfect destination for travellers with broad musical tastes and a propensity for sporting henna tattoos and ethnic fabrics. Last year the festival included Irish folk band Kila, Louisiana-based Cajun band Pine Leaf Boys, traditional Croatian group Kries, Korean performing arts group Palsandae and Borneo’s own Lan E Tuyang, to name but a few. For those looking to book a complete trip package, there are travel packages available via the festival website that include transfers and accommodation. Peace out!

While there Go face to face with the bizarre, long-nosed proboscis monkeys in the nearby Bako National Park
Get there Air Asia (www.airasia.com) flies to Kuching via Kuala Lumpur from 2,800RMB return.
Asia has some of freakiest festivals around. If you're not too squeamish, read on for our round-up of some of the most intriguing...

Boryeong Mud Festival 
Mud-fest

If you want to get down and dirty, why not try the mud festival taking place in Boryeong, Korea, from Friday 19 to Sunday 28 this month? This festival claims to attract more international visitors than any other in the country. Just imagine: thousands of people from all over the world, silting themselves up from head to toe and dancing around like fools. Beeeautiful! 

Ashura
During Ashura (falling on November 14 this year), Shi’a Muslims mourn the death of Muhammad’s grandson by re-enacting his martyrdom. In Pakistan and Bangladesh this can take an extreme form: men walk on fire and whack themselves with iron nail whips and swords until their backs are a bloodied mess. 

Phra Prang Sam Yot festival
If you can’t bear to see food wasted, don’t attend the annual monkey buffet held at Phra Prang Sam Yot temple in Lopburi, Thailand, on November 25 this year. Tonnes of fruit and soft drinks are laid out for the area’s long-tailed macaques. Beware: they’re prone to downing cola then throwing the cans at tourists. 

Thaipusam 

rabbit

Celebrated by Tamil communities in India, Malaysia, Singapore and Sri Lanka, the Hindu
festival of Thaipusam (on January 16 next year) has devotees committing masochistic acts. They wear sandals embedded with metal nails, attach objects to their skin with hooks, and pierce themselves with skewers, tridents and great cages of spikes. Ouch! 

Crucifixion festival
Good lord! What’s that you say, Filipinos in San Fernando, Luzon, actually re-enact the crucifixion during Easter (March 31 next year)? Yes! Some simply drag giant wooden crosses on their backs through the streets. Other penitents are nailed to crosses with spikes hammered through their feet and hands as thousands watch. Now that’s devotion.

Kanamara Matsuri 

rabbit

Not one for prudes, the Japanese Kanamara Matsuri festival sees a giant penis statue paraded through the streets of Kawasaki. These festivities will next come to a head – so to speak – on April 6 next year. Expect blushing revellers and stalls selling a variety of phallic trinkets, from cuddly toys and blow-up models to shaft-shaped lollipops. Apparently it’s all about warding off sexually transmitted diseases. 

Naghol
The teenage boys of Pentecost Island, Vanuatu, take bravado to a new level. During Naghol rituals held in April and May, they dive off wooden towers some 25 metres high. The only things stopping them from headbutting the ground are two tree vines tying their ankles to the top of the tower. Yes, this is reportedly where bungee jumping came from.
Submit your details and vote for our cover
Your name*
Your email*

Time Out Family newsletter

Comments