There are few things I love more than joining in local festivals and celebrations when I travel. Whether it be a religious gala, a celebration to mark the changing of the season, a rite to ward off evil or a ritual to manifest good fortune, taking part or just observing cultural traditions around the world can make for an unforgettable travel experience.
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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Incredible Cultural Traditions Around the World
Part One in the series looks at 16 beautiful and fascinating cultural traditions around the world—from Bali to Mexico, Finland to Ethiopia.
Canang Sari in Bali, Indonesia
Intricately woven palm frond baskets strewn around the streets will be one of the first things you notice upon arrival in Bali. The carefully placed bright-green baskets filled with colourful flowers, burning incense, and often scraps of food, picked at by the stray animals, became a symbol that will forever remind me of the island. Stacked on top of temples, in doorways, and created daily for the past 1,000 years, this is a piece of ancient tradition that has stuck with the Balinese people through time.
Canang Sari is rooted in the Hindu religion. But for many Balinese I met, it has more to do with tradition than religion today. Even those who do not follow the Hindu faith still participate in the daily creation of the Canang Sari. Women are responsible for weaving and creating the offerings. And what you use and where everything is placed has significance. For example, red betel nut is included as an offering to Shiva (one of the three main Hindu deities). As a sign for selflessness, coins can be added. And even the positioning of the coloured petals (at East, West, North, South) signifies prayers to different deities.
After the careful creation of the offering, it is placed on doorsteps, atop statues, motorbikes, and along the sidewalks. A jepun flower is used to sprinkle water over the top of the basket while a little prayer is spoken. Prayers show gratitude and express the wish for another day of balance and peace in the world. This ritual is a tribute to the balance of positive and negative in the world that Bali is so fond of. Balinese gods of mythology, Barong/Rangda, and the black checkered colours tied to many statues and temples, are also symbols of this balance between good and evil.
Aside from simply watching the early morning streets fill up with these beautiful offerings, tourists can help craft them. Strike up a conversation with your accommodation owner or host. Express interest in wanting to assist in the preparation of the Canang Sari, and most will be more than happy to teach you the tradition.
By Geena, Bartender Abroad
Yi Torch Festival in Yunnan, China
High up in the mountains of China, in Yunnan Province, where most of China’s ethnic minorities reside, you’ll find the unique Torch Festival. For three days, torches burn outside homes and light up the hills as bearers walk in the surrounding area. The Torch Festival is celebrated not just by the Naxi ethnic people, but also by the Yi, Bai, Jino and Lahu.
During the festival, people are welcome to dance around the fire to express their wishes and pursue a good harvest year. The Yi ethnic group has worshiped fire for thousand of years. It’s pretty cool to experience these ethnic celebrations that are aimed to drive evil out of their villages.
Celebrations are held on June 24 or June 25 in the Chinese Lunar Year. A three-day celebration takes place featuring different activities, including horse racing, bullfighting, archery, wrestling, tug-of-war, swing matches, and other forms of entertainment. After the festival, tourists can take a breather and visit some of the off-the-beaten path destinations in China‘s Yunnan Province, such as Napa Lake, the Old Town of Shangri-La, and the White Horse Snow Mountain and Haba Snow Mountain.
By Pashmina, The Gone Goat
Midsummer Festivities in Finland
Midsummer is the celebration of summer and light that has a long history. In Finland, it is marked on a Friday (or in practice, the long weekend around it) between 20 and 26 June. The key traditions include being close to nature with family and friends, going to a sauna and swimming in the lake or sea, and watching a bonfire. In the past, bonfires were believed to frighten evil spirits and demons away. Dinner is typically barbecue or salmon with dill and new potatoes, and fresh strawberries for dessert.
On the day before Midsummer, almost everyone flees from the city to their summer cottages in the countryside. This is not an ideal time to visit Helsinki unless you enjoy an almost desolated capital! However, if you still plan to visit Finland around Midsummer and can’t find a cottage to escape to, there is a traditional Midsummer celebration with a bonfire that tourists can join on Seurasaari island.
Midsummer is close to summer solstice. The sun doesn’t set until closer to midnight, even in the southernmost point of Finland, while in the northern part of the country, the sun is up all night. The temperature varies from year to year, but it’s important to Finns to be outdoors as much as possible. If you’re lucky enough to be invited along, it’s a good idea to pack warm clothes and mosquito repellent just in case.
Midsummer traditions also include an element of magic, especially for single ladies. It’s believed that if you collect seven wild flowers and place them under your pillow for the night, you’ll meet your future husband in your dreams!
By Pia, Nextstoptbc
Durga Puja in West Bengal, India
Every year, West Bengal opens its arms to many visitors from all around the world for its annual festival of Durga Puja, also called Durgotsav. This festival marks the victory of the goddess Durga in the battle with the deceiving and powerful demon, Mahishasura. Thus, the festival represents the victory of good over evil, and is celebrated grandly throughout the state.
I look forward to this festival every year as a chance to return to my hometown for a few days, meet my family and old friends, and enjoy those five days without a care in the world. Without thinking about sleep, we visit pandals (canopies) one after the other and stay out of house way past our bedtime.
As per the recorded history, the first grand worship of Goddess Durga is said to have occurred in the late 1500s when the landlords of Dinajpur and Malda initiated the first Durga Puja in West Bengal. The credit of the origin of the community Puja goes to the 12 friends of Guptipara in Hoogly, West Bengal, who collaborated and collected donations from local residents to arrange the ‘Baro-Yaari’ Puja, or the ‘Twelve-Pal’ Puja, in 1790. The modern Durga Puja has become a festival of creativeness. The pandals and the idol have changed into a medium to show creativity but at the same time preserve our culture and traditions.
This festival is not only about the rituals, but also about its people. The only tip for anybody visiting West Bengal for Durga Puja is to pre-book flights and accommodations, as it would be difficult to find vacant hotels closer to the date. Visitors can hire a rental car or walk around on foot. I would urge visitors to participate in the Dhunuchi Nitra dance performed to impress the goddess, or in the Sindoor Khela, where married women smear auspicious vermilion on their forehead and on each other to pray for a happy marital life.
By Anwesha, Going Places With Anwesha
Timkat Festival in Ethiopia
Every January, the largest festival in Ethiopia takes place: The Timkat festival. The Timkat festival celebrates the Ethiopian Epiphany, the baptism of Jesus Christ. It is a highly important festival to the Ethiopian Orthodox people.
During the three-day festival, the baptism is re-enacted. Thousands of people dressed in white robes gather for spectacular processions, chanting, dancing and praying. On the first day, models of the Ark of the Covenant (tabots) are carried to a body of water. On the second morning, there are many ceremonies and prayers around the body of water involving priests in colourful robes, umbrellas, red carpets, and lots of incense. Finally, after the ceremonies, the church leader blesses the water. The Holy Water is then sprinkled on the attendants for their annual baptism.
The Timkat festival takes place from January 18th. The best places to visit the festival are Addis Abeba, Gondar and Aksum. However, Timkat is celebrated all throughout Ethiopia. I celebrated Timkat festival in Aksum, which I enjoyed as there were not so many other travellers.
Please keep in mind that Timkat is a highly important event for Ethiopian Orthodox people and that it is not a tourist attraction. Keep your distance, and don’t disturb the ceremony with photography. The ceremony is free to attend. If you get a chance to participate, Timkat festival will be a highlight of your Ethiopia travels.
By Manouk, Bunch of Backpackers
Hanal Pixán in Mexico
There are more than 40 diverse indigenous cultures in Mexico—and many celebrate a day at the beginning of November to honour loved ones who have passed away. Hanal Pixán (‘Food for the Spirits’) is a celebration of the Day of the Dead by the Maya people who live in the Yucatan Peninsula.
The Hanal Pixan altar always contains the traditional green cross, which the Spanish first introduced as a way to mesh Catholicism and the symbol of Ya’axhce, the Mayas sacred ceiba (baobab) tree. The food is similar to Day of the Dead celebrations throughout Mexico, but with a twist: It includes pib, the huge, traditional tamales of Hanal Pixan, dulce de papaya, a candied papaya (replacing the traditional pumpkin sweet), and atole that is often laced with tropical coconut flavors.
At night, visitors can take part in the Paseo de Animas procession in Merida from the centre of town to the cemetery, where thousands of people gather with painted faces and dressed in traditional white clothing. All ages are welcome to visit the numerous altars around the city honouring the deceased, and to learn about this important holiday. During the week, there are dances, skits, and puppet shows that share the history, plus contests for the best pib.
By Becky, Kid World Citizen
Buddha’s Birthday in Seoul, South Korea
Buddha’s Birthday is one of those few holidays in the South Korean year where almost everyone gets three days off (the day before, the day of, and the day after). Celebrated on the eighth day of the lunar calendar’s fourth month, it’s May 12th in 2019 and April 30th in 2020.
Perhaps the best place to observe and enjoy the festivities is in central Seoul, specifically the Jogyesa Buddhist temple. The religious will bathe a statue of the baby Buddha with a ladle of water over his head or donate to the monks. Tourists are free to do either, or simply walk around a very nicely decorated temple.
At night, the focus usually shifts to the Lotus Lantern Parade, one of the biggest spectacles Seoul has to offer. This parade runs along several of Seoul’s biggest downtown streets, and always gets extremely crowded! For a lower-key event, head to the lantern displays along Cheonggyecheon Stream. These are all free events open to the public, though some craft-making events may have a small fee.
Outside of Seoul, virtually every Buddhist temple will celebrate the holiday in some way. The bigger and more well-known the temple, the more likely they are to have a large celebration.
By Chris, Becoming a Digital Nomad
Mama Negra in Ecuador
Ecuador sits on the ring of fire and its volcanoes are a present reminder of the power of nature. The town of Latacunga sits below the almighty Cotopaxi, a volcano that is still active today. In 1742, Cotopaxi was in a period of high activity and the locals feared for their town. They pleaded for their lives to the Virgin of Mercy, who is the patron saint of the volcano. Legend says that she was merciful and in return, the citizens celebrate her in the Mama Negra Festival annually.
Traditionally, there are two dates for the celebration. The first is the closest weekend to 23rd-24th September, and the second coincides with the independence of Latacunga on 11th November. The festival is a mix of traditions featuring African, Spanish and Mayan influences. During the celebrations, locals dance in the street and parade splayed pig carcasses around the city. These heavy pigs are carried all day before being presented as offerings to the Virgin of Mercy.
Whilst it is a celebration that doesn’t attract many tourists, locals are very keen to get travellers involved. Alcohol is handed to the crowds and bystanders are encouraged to take part in the parade. It may be an initially daunting spectacle, but it’s sure to be a celebration you’ll never forget!
By Sheree, Winging the World
Beehive Fireworks Festival in Yanshui, Taiwan
The Yanshui Fireworks Festival in southern Taiwan has been called one of the most dangerous festivals in the world. Once per year, the sleepy countryside village lights up with a two-day procession that involves hundreds of thousands of bottle rockets being shot not up into the air, but directly into crowds of participants at close range. Locals travel from across Taiwan in hopes of getting hit by one, which is considered good luck.
The festival dates back to the late 19th century, when a cholera epidemic swept through the region. Local villagers paraded a statue of Guan Yu, the war god, through the neighbourhood, setting off firecrackers to ward off the evil spirits causing the disease. It seemed to have worked, and an annual tradition was born. But over time, they began shooting the firecrackers and rockets in multiple directions at once from layered platforms resembling beehives, hence the name of the festival.
Anybody is welcome to join, but participants must wear full body protection, including a helmet. As my father and I learned when we took part in the event, once the bottle rockets start going off, you have to hop up and down to avoid rockets getting stuck when they strike you and lighting your clothing on fire. This happened to us a few times!
By Nick, Spiritual Travels
Lucia in Sweden
If you happen to be in Sweden in the middle of December, this is a must! Lucia, celebrated on the 13th of December, is one of Sweden’s most popular Christmas traditions. The reason as to why it’s celebrated isn’t completely clear, even to the Swedes. Saint Lucia’s feast day is on the 13th of December and this day was also known as the darkest night in Sweden according to the old almanac. Maybe this is the reason behind this beloved tradition.
The Lucia celebration usually takes place in churches. A procession takes place involving a girl with a wreath of candles in her hair, followed by an entourage of girls, with candles in their hands, and boys that hold a star on a stick. Everyone is dressed in white gowns and sings Christmas songs for the audience.
The Lucia entourage usually performs rather early in the morning. Every time I’m back home in Sweden for Christmas, I make sure to go and watch Lucia—I’ve always thought of it as a very beautiful and cosy tradition.
As a tourist, there are different ways to join the celebration. The easiest would probably be to contact a church directly, but you can also ask at your hotel or closest visitor information centre. Lucia is celebrated all over the country and if you’re visiting a bigger city, you’ll most likely have plenty of options to choose between!
By Amanda, My Backpacker Life
Tak Bat in Luang Prabang, Laos
Morning Alms Giving, also known as Tak Bat, is one of the most controversial tourist attractions in Luang Prabang, Laos. Tak Bat is a ceremony where monks collect their food for the day from the public as soon as the sun rises. It has been a concern for the authorities in Luang Prabang in recent years due to disrespectful behaviour by some tourists.
The ceremony has been around since the 1600s and is considered holy by the locals. So if you’re planning a visit to Luang Prabang or any part of Laos to observe Tak Bat, make sure you know the rules. Watch the ceremony from a distance so that you don’t disturb participants, never use your flash while photographing, and remain silent throughout the ceremony.
If you want to join the Alms Giving Ceremony, make sure you consult your hostel manager or locals first.
By Yen, Swing Abroad
Yi Peng (Loi Krathong) in Northern Thailand
Yi Peng (or Yee Peng) is a Buddhist festival primarily celebrated in Northern Thailand that features a ritual of releasing paper lanterns called khom loi. Buddhists believe that the act of releasing a lantern during the full moon frees them of bad luck from the past year.
Chiang Mai, the former capital of the Lanna kingdom, hosts the largest Yi Peng lantern festival in Thailand. Because the festival is based on the Thai lunar calendar, the exact dates of the lantern festival shift every year, but it typically falls around the full moon in November.
As you observe the festival, it is important to bear in mind that while the ceremonies are very beautiful, it is a significant religious festival for Buddhists. Tourists should dress appropriately, keep their voices down, and try to not obstruct people from releasing their lanterns. Additionally, the volume of inorganic trash generated from Yi Peng is significant: The lanterns are mostly made of rice paper with a bamboo or wood frame and wire to hold the candle or flammable coil, and the vast majority of the lanterns end up on the ground, in trees and in the river after the festivities. You may want to consider sticking to observing the religious ceremony rather than releasing your own lantern, especially if you are not Buddhist.
If you want to observe the Yi Peng lantern festival in Chiang Mai, head to Nawarat Bridge and all along the Ping River towards the south. The best place to observe the Chiang Mai lantern festival is at Wat Chai Mongkhon, where monks help devotees and tourists release lanterns safely, or Wat Phantao in the Old Town. Note that monks no longer release lanterns within the Old Town—instead they light them and hold onto floating lanterns using wire.
By Flo, Yoga Wine Travel
Fasching in Germany
If you are planning on traveling to Germany around January/February, be sure to check out a Fasching parade. These parades take place the week before Ash Wednesday, ending the night of Shroud Tuesday.
Fasching, also known as Karneval, is an entire week of festivities and parties ending with a huge parade with masked creatures, floats, bands and a bit of trickery. Its history dates back to pagan times when it was a way of driving off the evils of winter and encouraging spring to arrive with plentiful crops. It is also associated with the festivals of the Christian church, where everyone would let loose a bit before Lent arrived.
Fasching is a child-friendly event, although some of the masks can be a bit scary. Parade participants throw out candy along the way. If you have teenagers, be wary because they might get scooped up for a bit of fun (like carting them off, tying their shoes together or spinning them around). Each town and city has its own traditions, which makes the event that much more unique.
By Chelsea, Pack More into Life
Festival of San Martino in Taviano, Italy
The Festival de San Martino (St. Martin of Tours) takes place on November 11th in Taviano, a tiny town in Puglia located in the ‘heel’ of Italy’s boot. The festival coincides with the vino novello (new wine of the season) harvest, much like other autumn festivals in towns throughout Italy’s wine producing regions. In Taviano, the Festival of San Martino recognises the patron saint of wine making, horsemen and horses, beggars, the poor and injured. Images of the beloved saint often depict him on horseback, sharing his cloak with a beggar, as legends say he cut his cloak in pieces in order to protect the man from the cold.
In Taviano, the Feast of San Martino begins in the early evening on St. Martin’s Eve on November the 10th, when lights strung throughout Taviano’s Old Town are illuminated in a spectacular sound and light show. The hub of the festivities is the Piazza San Martino, a plaza dominated by a Baroque church built in 1635. The statue of San Martino is taken from its position within the church and hoisted on the shoulders of devotees at the head of a procession led by priests and dignitaries. Brass bands parade throughout the cobblestone streets while residents and anyone else who wants to participate join in.
The festival is a mix of carnivale and Thanksgiving, with feasting on seafood, regional dishes and wines of the Salento region of Puglia along with much revelry throughout the narrow winding streets, bars, cafes and restaurants.
By Michele, A Taste for Travel
Bonfire Night in the United Kingdom
Bonfire night is one of the UK’s more curious festivals. What has become a big family night out to watch spectacular fireworks displays (traditionally accompanied by a huge bonfire) has some rather ominous roots.
“Remember remember, the 5th of November”—it’s a popular saying associated with the festival—but why should we remember the 5th of November? Why do we have fireworks on this date? Because the 5th of November is the date the famous Gunpowder Plot, when Guy Fawkes and his accomplices planned to blow up London’s Houses of Parliament and the then monarch King James I, was foiled. The plot never came to pass; their treason was discovered and each of the plotters met a grisly end (Fawkes was famously hung, drawn and quartered). Over the centuries, what started as a raucous celebration of the downfall of the plotters has turned into the family-friendly event that we see today.
As the place where the plot originally happened, I think seeing the fireworks should be at the top of your London bucket list. The city is full of places to watch the fireworks. Some of the displays, like those on Blackheath Common, are free, others like those at Battersea Park you have to pay for. It’s worth checking ahead and getting to your chosen destination early as they do fill up.
By Julianna, The Discoveries Of
Shinbyu Ceremonies in Myanmar
As I stood on the side of the road in a village somewhere near Bagan, I sensed something significant was happening. The sound of drums was approaching in the distance, beyond the large ornate gate painted in red and gold.
The procession was led by young women dressed in vibrantly coloured dresses spreading lotus flowers. And then, I caught my breath as a young boy dressed like royalty came through the gate in a gold horse drawn carriage. There was a never-ending line of these young boys parading through the village. Some were resting on golden chairs atop the horses and others were in opulent carriages drawn by all different sorts of animals.
This was a Shinbyu Ceremony, where young boys are presented to the local monastery to become novice monks. This coming-of-age ceremony is part of the Theravada Buddhist tradition, believed to bring good fortune to a family. The procession leads them to the monastery where the boys endure the ceremonious shaving of the head (hsan cha) and trade in their silk robes for saffron-coloured ones.
After the families and their sons part ways (often for the first time in the boy’s life), the village hosts a celebration. This includes a shared meal, dancing, and other performances. Unexpectedly, as I was watching the procession, members of the village invited me to share in their meal. It was such an honor to be welcomed into this special celebration.
There is not a set date to experience Shinbyu as each local monastery selects a day. However, the New Year Festival period is a common time for these traditions to take place. The date of the New Year Festival varies as it’s based on the Burmese calendar, but usually falls in mid-April.
By Susan, This Big Wild World
Have you ever experienced a local ritual or festival while you were travelling? What are your favourite cultural traditions around the world?