Every city, country and cultural group has its own traditions: Ways of marking the passage of time, acknowledging milestones, and ritualising significant aspects of culture and spirituality. Some world rituals are acted out as a quiet moment of contemplation; others are a time to come together for collective celebration. Whether it’s a time-honoured rite that has been performed since time immemorial or a new calendar event that has popped up in recent years, participating as an outsider is a wonderful way to expand your world view.
For this new post series, I’ve teamed up with more than 60 travel writers who share their favourite festivals, rituals and ceremonial experiences in their home countries or when travelling abroad.
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Amazing World Rituals
Part Four in the series looks at different world rituals and their cultural significance. From Japan to Peru, Italy to the Philippines, here are 15 incredible ceremonies and celebrations worth travelling for.
Purification ritual in Bali, Indonesia
If you are looking for a unique experience in Bali, then the purification ritual at the Tirta Empul Temple might be for you.
Balinese Hindus from all over the island come to the Tirta Empul Temple to undergo the purification ritual, which involves using holy spring water to cleanse the mind, body and spirit. The temple is dedicated to Vishnu, the Hindu God of Water, and has been around for over a thousand years.
The purification ritual itself consists of multiple steps, including meditating, making a small offering, and purifying yourself under the different spouts or fountains of holy water. Each of the spouts has a different meaning, a different purpose—and for that reason, it is important that the ritual is done correctly.
Intrigued by the purification ritual? Nowadays tourists can actually participate in the purification ritual themselves, but is important to follow the steps as closely as possible and to be respectful of the ritual itself. Participating in the purification ritual at the Tirta Empul Temple was one of the highlights of my visit to Bali. It’s a unique experience that you don’t see every day, and something I recommend to anyone who would love to learn more about the Balinese Hindu culture.
By Odette, Omnivagant
Boun Lai Heua Fai in Laos
Boun Lai Heua Fai, which translates as ‘floating boats of light’, is a Buddhist festival celebrated in Laos on the full moon in late October each year. The festival is held at dusk to summon the phanga naga (water spirits) and to bring good luck. Lao spend the day preparing small round ‘boats’ crafted from banana leaves and decorated with colourful flowers, incense sticks and candles. Once dusk falls, the handmade boats are set afloat on the Mekong River, candles glowing, to take away any bad luck.
The Lai Heua Fai Festival is celebrated in both Luang Prabang and Vientiane capital. I participate in Vientiane every year, sending a colourful banana boat far out into the water. Visitors to Laos are welcome to get involved, too. Simply head down to the Mekong Riverfront (Quai Fa Ngum Road) at dusk and for a few kip, purchase your own decorative boat from on of the numerous vendors that line the street along the river.
Make your way down to the water (try directly in front of the Chao Anouvong Statue) where you can release your boat from a bamboo platform. Since this is a Buddhist ceremony, participants should dress respectfully, with shoulders and knees covered.
By Marie, A Life Without Borders
Tea Ceremony in Japan
The Japanese tea ceremony is one of Japan’s three main classical arts. The performance entails the skillful preparation and presentation of powdered green tea, also known as matcha. This beautiful ceremony has a long history, dating back all the way to the 9th century. Its main influence comes from Zen Buddhism.
There are many intricate elements in a tea ceremony, from the tatami tea room, carefully decorated with seasonal flower arrangement and a calligraphy scroll, to the tea master, who is often dressed in a traditional kimono, the whole aesthetic is just stunning. During the two years I lived in Japan, I was able to attend several tea ceremonies. I always loved the calm energy in the room as guests observed the tea master preparing the tea. The graceful and precise motions of the hand movements always mesmerised me.
For foreigners who would like to experience a Japanese tea ceremony in Japan, there are many options in cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto. Costs range from 500 yen to 5000 yen depending on the length and extravagance of the ceremony. Two popular houses in Tokyo for Japan travellers on budget are Kyoto-kan (a 20-minute condensed tea ceremony for 500 yen), and Nadeshiko (a full tea ceremony for 4000 yen to 5000 yen).
During the ceremony, the tea masters will teach you the procedures and etiquette. So relax and don’t worry about making a faux-pas. One thing that surprised me the most was that you are supposed to slurp the tea loudly as a signal that it’s delicious.
By Viola, The Blessing Bucket
Thanaka application in Myanmar (Burma)
Thanaka, a creamy white paste made by grinding the bark and roots of the thanaka tree, is widely used by both men and women in Myanmar. The paste is applied to the face to prevent the skin from sunburn, avoid acne, and make the skin soft. It is also believed to create a cooling effect in the tropical heat of Burma. That is why application of thanaka has remained an age-old beauty ritual for women in the country.
Today, you can see women and young girls covering their faces and hands with the ubiquitous thanaka paste. Grinding the paste and applying it is part of their daily lives. Even Burmese men adorn themselves with thanaka every day before leaving their homes. Thanaka is applied in circles, stripes, or in decorative leaf patterns on the cheeks and forehead. You can buy thanaka logs at local markets and souvenir shops all over the country. Use them on a grinding plate and you are all set with your own thanaka paste.
Application of thanaka has become an important part of Burmese life and culture. The ritual is strictly personal and is conducted in the sanctity of homes every morning. Once done, people step out in style, their faces decorated with the paste. It’s a spectacular sight, sometimes even more appealing than that of Myanmar’s beautiful pagodas.
By Soumya, Stories by Soumya
Pachamama Temple rituals in Peru and Bolivia
In Peru and Bolivia, locals bestow unhindered amounts of faith on the natural deities. The local people believe that earth, water, fire, wind, plants—all essential parts of the ecosystem—are gods. As these powerful nature forces can make or break lives at any second, it is natural for the indigenous communities to think of them as their protectors.
When I was on the Amantani island of Lake Titicaca in Peru, our host asked us to follow her as she walked out of her adobe house. Dressed in a colourful jobona and pollera, she kept knitting as she strode up a steep uphill. Following her, we reached the summit of the tallest hill on the island, where the island community has made a temple for Pachamama. Though I am not a big believer in temples, sometimes I like to soak up the faith of others. And that is what I did. I held my hands together and circled the temple, wishing for the island to stay safe.
From that summit, I saw the entire village of Amantani spread on the azure lake. Listening to the lake crashing against the shore, I started to appreciate the Peruvian respect for nature. After all, who would want to compete with mother earth?
By Priyanka, On My Canvas
The Almabtrieb in Austria
If you’re ever in Austria in autumn, make sure you find an Alpine Village where the locals still celebrate the safe return of their cows from the mountain pastures after the summer. It’s called an Almabtrieb, and it’s one of the most colourful traditional festivals in Austria.
Just like most of us like to take a break in summer, Austrian cows also go on ‘holiday’. They are taken to high Alpine pastures to graze freely after spending the winter indoors. In the past, it was quite a hazardous expedition. That’s why the farmers started celebrating the animals’ safe return to their valley homes in the form of the Almabtrieb.
Part of the thanksgiving ritual is to ‘dress’ the cows in beautiful headsets and collars from which huge bells hang. That’s why you hear them arrive in the village long before you see them. In many villages, the Almabtrieb coincides with the annual Harvest Thanksgiving Festival. It’s also an opportunity for the townsfolk to showcase other local traditions and skills. You’ll see lots of people dressed in lederhosen and dirndl—and it’s not just for show!
Because of the increasing interest in the Almabtrieb, some villages have started to organise their events to make it easier for tourists to attend. One of the more popular ones is in Reith im Alpbachtal in the Tyrol, but there is a festival happening somewhere in Austria almost every weekend during September and October.
By Linda, Travel Tyrol
Día de Muertos in Mexico
Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrates the lives of loved ones who have passed away. This tradition dates back to Mesoamérica, when people recognised death as a journey toward the Kingdom of the Dead, which they called Mictlan. Once the Spaniards arrived on Mexico, the tradition evolved into what it is today.
On November 1st and 2nd, the dead come to visit their relatives from the beyond. To help guide them home, living relatives create altars (called ofrendas) decorated with photos of their loved ones and items they enjoyed during their time on earth. Sometimes ofrendas are even created for pets! The ofrendas are typically adorned with the traditional papel picado, sugar skulls and yellow flowers called Cenpasúshil (or marigolds in English) and are left ready with candles lit throughout the days of the celebration.
Traditionally, November 1st is dedicated to honouring deceased children, while adults are honoured the following day. Usually ofrendas are prepared beginning on October 28th, though public ofrendas created by universities or government offices are usually created in the weeks leading up to the holiday. In some towns, people will take to the streets on the afternoon of the first day to visit the pantheon where their loved ones are buried. For many, the subject of death can be dark and sad, but in Mexico those who attend these celebrations consider it a moment to remember the good times.
Recently, Day of the Dead has gained a lot of popularity, no doubt in part thanks to the movie Coco. As a result, many tourists now travel to Mexico to take part in the holiday. Some towns are starting to leverage interest in the event to create Day of the Dead activities and events that cater to extranjeros. Most notably is the Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City.
While Mexicans are generally happy to share this event with foreigners who are keen to experience it, it’s important to do so respectfully. Remember: While it is a festive event, it’s also deeply sentimental. By all means attend the parade, visit the ofrendas and enjoy the festivities, but don’t invade the personal space of individuals visiting their loved ones in the cemetery unless you are invited to do so.
Popular places for visitors to participate in the Day of the Dead festivities include Oaxaca, Merida, Guanajuato and Mexico City. Each of these cities is filled with art and festivities surrounding the event, and your participation is encouraged! If you’re planning to visit Mexico for Dia de Muertos you’re sure to have an amazing time.
By Janine, Janine in the World
Chinese New Year in China
Chinese New Year is one of the most exciting holidays in the world. Of course, speaking as a Chinese-Canadian, I’m definitely a bit biased. According to the Lunar Calendar, the festivities for CNY can last up to two weeks. The days of Chinese New Year are filled with traditions and customs. Better yet, they are full of amazing food, chaotic family get-togethers, and endless outings. Since the dates for festivities change every year, it is recommended to do some research beforehand.
Due to the Chinese diaspora, Chinese New Year is celebrated in a lot of countries. But from my experience, nothing beats the air of festivity in China. I’ve witnessed dramatic dragon and lion dances on the streets, rows and rows of red lanterns, and some of the most spectacular firework displays. In Chinese culture, red symbolises wealth, positivity, health, and all sorts of positive vibes. From traditional clothing to Chinese couplets, this color is a common sight. For children, red is also synonymous with ‘lucky money. These little envelopes are handed to younger generation as a wish for good luck and fortune.
For travelers, CNY means an urban space decorated with lights and music, lots of public performances, and an energetic atmosphere that livens the streets. For example, in my hometown of Xi’an, tens of thousands of lantern-accessorized trees stand tall. Public arenas become a playground for musicians and artists. Drums and flutes line the streets and laughter and chatter fill the air. It is incredibly easy to get swept away by the lively atmosphere, become part of the festivities, and celebrate with the crowd!
By Daisy, Beyond My Border
Las Fallas de Valencia in Spain
Celebrating St. Joseph’s Day and the coming of spring, Las Fallas de Valencia is one of Spain’s most incredible festivals.
Back in the Middle Ages, artisans would burn unnecessary and broken pieces of wood they had saved during the winter to dispose of them and welcome spring. Over the years, the tradition evolved, and these pieces of wood were made to look like human figurines dressed with clothes and other materials.
Today, this ritual is an organised celebration that takes place on March 15th to 19th every year. Each neighbourhood in Valencia builds a big display of paper-mache and cardboard statuettes that get burned on the last day of the festival. There’s also an annual theme, prizes, events like parades and firework shows, food stalls, illuminated streets, and a lot more.
Attending the festival is free of charge. To make the most of it, you should attend the different events, explore all neighborhoods, and be prepared for the crowds and noise. You should also book your flight and accommodation at least a few months in advance. During the festival, you’ll see that it’s not just about the sculptures and events: It’s about people coming together and celebrating with their loved ones, which is the main element in all Spanish celebrations.
By Or, My Path In The World
The Regatta Storica in Venice, Italy
The beautiful and historical Regatta Storica, occurring on the first Sunday in September, is one of Venice’s most admired and popular annual celebrations. This historical celebration has been around for thousands of years and is a significant part of Venetian culture as it showcases the history of the city in a spectacular celebration.
The annual celebration is split into two parts: A historical boat parade, and rowing races comprised of row teams. During the historical portion, ornate boats are beautifully decorated, painted, and rowed through Venice’s canals. Rowers taking part in the historical celebration also dazzle in costumes and mirror personas of historical characters. Boats are decorated in a variety of ways and colours, and are enthusiastically welcomed by onlookers.
As a visitor to Venice during the Regatta Storica, it is important to find a good spot to sit alongside the main route on the Canal Grande. This event is hugely popular to not only Venetians but the thousands of tourists who come to Venice near the end of the summer season to enjoy some of the cooler weather Italy has to offer. Many people start finding spots several hours before the celebration is set to begin. But the procession is long and it is not that difficult to find a great spot along the route if you come at least an hour beforehand.
For an even better experience, since the celebration usually begins in the late afternoon, you can spend the day exploring Venice and comfortably find a cafe along the canal to watch the procession right before dinnertime.
By Diana, The Elusive Family
Dwijing Festival in Assam, India
The Dwijing Festival (meaning ‘river bank’ in Bodo) has been held for the past three years in a beautiful setting by the river Aie in Bodoland, Assam. The name Aie means ‘mother’, and the river is infamous for its unpredictable nature, which changes course every year and floods villages on its banks. However, during the Dwijing Festival, she provides warmth and care to artists, artisans, tourists, and revellers alike.
Dwijing is a 12-day festival held to mark the beginning of the new year and is now a platform for dancers, singers, artists, and people from all over the world to come perform and showcase their talents. It is being used as a time to encourage and promote sustainable tourism in Bodoland. Tourists shouldn’t miss trying out the local delicacies: Fried silkworms, which have an interesting nutty taste, fried pigeon and jute leaf curry. The ethnic games where winners can walk away with a chicken, goat or food grains is a major draw for people, too.
A unique aspect of the Dwijing Festival is the use of traditional materials to create modern necessities. The bridge to cross the bank of the river Aie is made using bamboo, as are the barriers for cars and even the dustbins.
The entry fee for this festival is very modest, less than $2. The best way to enjoy the festival is to stay at the camping grounds in tents that are available for rent.
By Khushboo, Munni of All Trades
Chiang Mai Flower Festival in Thailand
The Chiang Mai Flower Festival takes place in February each year in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. The main event is a parade through the streets, with giant floats covered in elaborate flower decorations. Flower Queens wave at guests from the floats, surrounded by marching bands and groups of dancers in traditional dress. Groups compete for the most colourful and opulent themes.
The procession winds its way around the border of the city’s cute Old Town. I recommend sitting down at one of the coffee shops that line the old moat and sipping on an iced coffee while watching the parade go by. It’s free to watch, and there’s a fun local festival atmosphere.
The procession ends in a beautiful park that’s absolutely ablaze with flowers beds, decorations and flower sculptures. In the park, you can see flower and plant-growing competition entries, including bonsai trees and hanging orchids. Plus, there are some great street food stalls. In the evening, there’s music and a pageant to elect the event’s flower queen.
By Maire, Temples and Treehouses
Diwali in India
The famous festival of Diwali is one I’ve been told about ever since I was a child. Also known also as ‘The Festival of Lights’, it is celebrated every year somewhere between mid-October and mid-November.
Perhaps the most famous and symbolic of all Hindu festivals, Diwali celebrates the victory of light over dark, as well as good over evil and knowledge over ignorance. The exact first year Diwali was celebrated is not known, but the tradition is at least 1500 years old. Though it is celebrated all around the world, if you wish to experience Diwali in all its glory, then I recommend heading to India.
While visiting India in 2018, I attended the festival in Jaipur. It was a sight I’ll never forget! The entire city went crazy that night, without almost everyone filling the streets and celebrating. From around 6pm onwards, the noise of fireworks and firecrackers fills the air, and the entire city as decorated with banners and flowers as everyone parades through the streets.
By Bradley, Dream Big, Travel Far
Mayan Cleansing Ceremony in Mexico
We are in the Mexican jungle in the Yucatan peninsula in search of monkeys. The rainforest is full of natural wonders. We are going into a Cenote, which is a cave with water in it. The Maya believe that the Cenote is a portal to Xibalba, where the gods of the dead are. Before we go into the Cenote we must have a cleansing ceremony to ask permission for us to enter Xibalba and then return to the land of the living safely.
We stand in front of a Mayan cross, which looks a bit like a table. Underneath represents the land of the dead. The table top is the world with many pots of offerings. Above, the table legs curve together, which represents the branches of the tree of life and are placed at the cardinal points. The top represents the celestial realm.
Mayan ceremonies like this performed to respect the balance of the cosmos have been acted out in this region for thousands of years. Mayan crosses were discovered by the Spanish when they arrived, but sadly a lot of the information about the ceremonies and their surrounding beliefs has been lost. This ceremony is still performed by modern Yucutec Maya as a way of preserving the culture and practices of their ancestors and so they can continue to live a more traditional way of life.
The ceremony is full of symbolism drawn from the Popol Wuj, ‘The Book of the Council of the Maya people’, and the Tzolkin and Haab, the Mayan Callander. During the proceedings, the Shaman explains the meaning of the ritual. He crumbles some copal into a clay chalice with red hot coals in. A pleasantly aromatic smoke billows out, which he waves first over the Mayan cross, then over us.
I participated in the Mayan Cleansing Ceremony as part of an adventure day at Punta Laguna. If you speak good Spanish or Yucutec Maya, you can go direct. Entrance costs about 900 pesos ($50). For a great translator, teacher and guide, ask Lia about her Mayan Immersion Tours.
By Dominic, Best Cenote Dives
Bunglasan Festival in Dumaguete, The Philippines
Buglasan Festival is the first in the Philippines celebrating all festivals of a province in the one event. Popularly known as ‘Festival of Festivals’, it’s an occasion where different towns unite to showcase their unique culture and creative arts all together.
Bunglasan is a celebration of peace among towns and a celebration of camaraderie. Fortunately, I’ve had a chance to witness the festival almost every year. The show dance is the one that I love most because the ritual and cultures of each town are presented. Though it’s a long presentation, I recommend other traveller’s check it out too.
Each town puts up a decorated booth, majestically depicting their top tourist spot or something that best represents the area, such as waterfalls, caves, volcanoes and animals. Sometimes people sell their own crops and vegetables from the stalls. A festival in the Philippines wouldn’t be complete without a street dance competition, and Buglasan Festival shows off some of the country’s most extravagant dances.
All of this takes place in front of the Capitol Hall of Dumaguete City in Negros Oriental every second week of October. To fully enjoy the festival, I suggest visiting on Friday and watching the show dance and the street dancing before visiting the booths in the evening. The entrance cost is PHP 40.00 for the show dance and some booths have an extra fee entrance fees.
By Ferna, Everywhere With Ferna