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10 Must-See Cultural Festivals in Asia

By CindyUpdated Dec. 21, 2023

There's a reason why travelers love visiting new countries during a holiday and it's because festivals bring together people of all backgrounds in order to laugh, enjoy life, and share cultural experiences. While there are incredible festivals and holidays all over the world, it's our belief that Asia has everyone beat for the largest celebrations and widest variety of festivals that travelers can experience.

From the Thai Lantern Festivals to India's Holi and Japan's Snow Festival, every type of traveler will find a celebration in Asia to put on their bucket list. In this article, we will break down the top 10 cultural festivals in Asia so you can start dreaming up your trip today.

1. Loy Krathong and Yi Peng—Thai Lantern Festivals

Loy Krathong (Nov. 16, 2024) and Yi Peng (Nov. 15-16, 2024) are commonly called the Thai Lantern Festivals and both take place on the night of the full moon in November.

Loy Krathong, also known as the festival of light and involves floating lanterns called krathongs. These krathongs are often made from intricately folded banana leaves and are decorated with flowers, coins, incense, and a candle placed in the center.

During Loy Krathong, thousands of floating lanterns are released on waterways throughout Thailand. Releasing a floating lantern symbolizes letting go of the past and making a wish for good luck in the coming year. The best places in Thailand to celebrate this festival include Bangkok, Sukhothai, and Chiang Mai.

If you visit Chiang Mai for Loy Krathong festival, you'll also be able to experience the picturesque Yi Peng, or Sky Lantern Festival. Yi Peng is a holiday of the Thai Lanna people and only takes place in northern Thailand. During the celebration, thousands of people gather to participate in the mass release of khom loi or flying lanterns. Yi Peng is one of the most picturesque festivals that a traveler can experience.

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2. Holi—India's Festival of Color

Although you may not have heard of the word Holi, you've probably seen the influence of this joyous festival in some way or another. Holi (Mar. 25, 2024) is India's festival of color that takes place the day after the full moon in March and is celebrated with a country-wide color fight.

The activities of this festival are so fun that they've inspired international versions like the Color Run, but nothing can beat the real thing. Holi in India celebrates the arrival of spring and the triumph of good over evil. The legend behind the holiday involves the defeat of the evil demoness Holika by Prahlad who was a follower of the Hindu god Vishnu.

When the day comes, everyone dons white clothes, covers their hair, and heads out into the streets armed with colored powders and water. During the celebrations, everyone is fair game and if you join in, you can expect to be covered from head to toe in colors!

Holi is celebrated primarily in India, but also in Nepal and Pakistan. In India, the best places to experience the holiday include Goa, Pushkar, Jaipur, and Udaipur where celebrations are calm and travelers can enjoy the experience without feeling overwhelmed.

3. Chinese New Year—Spring Festival

Chinese New Year (Feb. 9-15, 2024) is one of the largest celebrations to take place in Asia and is not only celebrated in China, but also by Chinese communities in Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and India as well.

The festival often lasts 7 days and occurs in January or February depending on the lunar calendar. Celebrations include fireworks and lion dances as well as decorating everything with red, hanging paper lanterns, and having large family feasts. It is also traditional for older members of a family to give children lucky red envelopes (hongbao) containing money.

The two best places to experience Chinese New Year in Asia are in China and Singapore. You can't beat visiting China during this holiday to get the most authentic experience. In China, Beijing is the best city to be in for the New Year. Here, travelers can see plenty of activities from the Beijing Opera and dragon dances to martial arts shows and temple fairs.

Another great option to experience Chinese New Year is to visit Singapore which has a large Chinese population. In Singapore, travelers can watch as the city goes wild with fireworks, dragon dances, and parades. The Chingay Parade is also a sight to see and is the largest float parade in Asia including acrobats, jugglers, and lion dancers.

4. Yuki Matsuri—Sapporo Snow Festival

Yuki Matsuri (Feb. 4-11, 2024) is more famously known as the Sapporo Snow Festival and takes place every year for a week in February. This celebration began in the 1950s when a few college students made some impressive snow sculptures in the area. Since then, the festival has grown exponentially and now features around 400 snow and ice sculptures.

At the festival, you can watch as the snow sculptures are created by trained teams from around 20 different countries and stick around to see who wins in the end. There are also plenty of other things to do such as joining in the giant snowball fight, checking out the snow slide, grabbing a hot drink at the ice bar, and sampling some of Hokkaido's best food.

The main events of the Sapporo Snow Festival take place in Odori Park which is near Sapporo Station. The festival also features other events including live music concerts and a ski and snowboard jumping contest.

5. Thaipusam—Celebration Malaysia's God of War

Thaipusam (Jan. 25, 2024) is possibly one of Asia's most intense festivals and is dedicated to Murugan, the Hindu God of War. The best place to experience this celebration is in Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur which has a large Hindu population.

Every year the celebrations of Thaipusam include a procession to Batu caves, located on the outskirts of the city. Millions of pilgrims show up for the event and participate in climbing up the 272 steps to reach the cave. The idea behind the festival seems to be enduring pain in order to honor Murugan and most events are not for the squeamish.

During the Kavadi Attam or "burden dance" devotees will perform acts to demonstrate their devotion to the God of War. These acts may include piercing tongues and skin with skewers and pulling heavy items via ropes that are hooked into the skin of participants' backs.

Preparation for the festival begins 48 days in advance with fasting, prayer, and many people shaving their heads.

6. Diwali—Hindu Festival of Light

Diwali (Octo. 31, 2024) is the biggest Hindu festival of the year and is celebrated in October or November on what Indians believe to be the darkest night of the year. Diwali is often called the Festival of Light and celebrates the victory of light over darkness and good over evil. The main symbol of Diwali is the diya or a small clay lantern.

During the night of the holiday, Indians all over the country light thousands of diyas in celebration of the defeat of darkness. Some Indians believe that the holiday celebrates the mythological return of King Rama, others believe it celebrates the birth of Lakshmi, while others still celebrate it as Lord Krishna's defeat of the demon Narakasura.

No matter the reason, Indians celebrate this joyous holiday by lighting candles, performing rituals for the gods Lakshmi and Ganesh, buying gold and silver, and having large get-togethers with family where they eat and exchange gifts.

The best ways for travelers to experience this festival include visiting New Delhi or Jaipur where you can take in the illuminated Diwali markets, visiting Varanasi where the streets are covered in diyas, or experiencing the celebration of the goddess of destruction, Kali, in Kolkata.

7. Tet—Vietnamese New Year

Tet (Feb. 10, 2024) is the celebration of the Vietnamese New Year and because it is based on the Buddhist lunar calendar, it usually occurs at the same time as the Chinese New Year. The two celebrations also have many similarities from the tradition of getting together with family and having a large meal to giving children lucky money.

The celebrations of Tet often last for around four days and include fireworks, temple visits, exchanging gifts, and visiting relatives. Many Vietnamese also return to their ancestral homes and villages during the holiday so many cities may feel empty and quiet.

If you are a traveler visiting Vietnam during Tet, the best places to go are Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh where you can join in the celebrations. In Hanoi, you can take in the fireworks, watch the parades of the Co Lao Festival, or celebrate the Dong Da Festival with locals.

In Ho Chi Minh, travelers can see the Tau Hu Canal when it is transformed into a vibrant flower market, attend the book festival, and try some great street food in Cholon.

8. Songkran—Thai Water Festival

Songkran (Apr. 13-15, 2024) is the Thai New Year which is celebrated with the world's largest water fight. This festival is an absolute joy to experience with the three days of celebrations requiring most cities to practically shut down to allow the chaos of the water fight to ensue.

This festival has its origins in Buddhism where water is a symbol of purification and cleansing. Traditionally, Songkran is celebrated by cleaning the home, sprinkling water on the hands of elders and monks, and spending time with family. The water fight is a more recent addition, but one that brings the whole country to life with fun and games.

People of all ages head to the streets armed with buckets of water, water guns, and even hoses in order to "bless" or "cleanse" those around them on the New Year. Fair warning, if you visit Thailand during Songkran, you will get wet!

One of the best places in Thailand to celebrate this holiday is Bangkok where the city comes to a standstill and the entirety of Khao San Road is shut down and blocked off for water fights.

Annual date: April 13-15

9. Boryeong—Korea's Giant Mud Fight

Boryeong Mud Festival (in Jul. /Aug. 2024) began in 1988 as a way to promote the nutrient-rich and cosmetic properties of the mud located near Boryeong. Since then, this festival has grown to include many events and has attracted people from all over the world who gather to smear mud on each other and have fun.

Most of the events at the festival are mud themed and include activities like mud baths, facial masks, a mud maze, painting with colored mud, mud wrestling, inflatable slides, and mud fights. The event also has a performance stage from which artists play EDM and pop music.

More laid back visitors can consider participating in events like beauty mud therapies, soap making, and massages.

The festival grounds can be reached during a day trip from Seoul and the event is great for families as well as solo travelers.

10. Harbin Ice Festival—Ice and Snow Sculpture Celebration

The Harbin Ice Festival (Dec. 20, 2023 - early April, 2024) is the largest ice sculpture festival in the world and takes place every year in China's north-most province, Harbin. The festival showcases incredible ice sculptures ranging from small figures and ice lanterns to 250-foot-tall monuments. Most of the ice sculptures are also lit up with beautiful colored lights for photographs.

The Harbin Ice Festival started with the Chinese tradition of creating lanterns from blocks of ice during the winter months. Local peasants and fishermen would often hollow out a chunk of ice and place a candle in the center to make a lantern that was wind resistant.

Today, the ice sculptures are made around 260,000 cubic yards of ice taken from the nearby Songhua River. At the festival, travelers can explore the ice exhibits, go skiing, ride the ice slide, and take photos of your favorite sculptures.

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