There are few things more rewarding than being invited to participate in local rituals and ceremonies when you’re on the road. Festivals can be an occasion for piety or debauchery, abstinence or indulgence—an opportunity to mark a new chapter in life, or commemorate those who have passed. Whatever the occasion, joining in or just observing rituals and ceremonies can be a wonderful way to learn about another culture.
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 Rituals and Ceremonies Around the World
Part Two in the series looks at 16 curious and colourful rituals and ceremonies from around the world—from Benin to Iran, Chile to Israel.
Cherry Blossom Festival in Japan
Ueno Park is a large public park located in central Tokyo and is home to the most spectacular Cherry Blossom Festival (known locally as Hanami). The grounds were originally part of the Kaneiji Temple, which was destroyed in the late 1800s. Luckily, the temple grounds were turned into a public park.
During the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, Tokyo residents and tourists converge to view the 1,000-plus cherry trees that line the park’s central pathways. In Japanese culture, the festival and the blooming of the flowers is a symbol for new life, renewal, and nature’s fleeing beauty.
Ueno Park is an ideal spot to visit for people watching, as it is typically filled with locals just out enjoying the beautiful weather and scenery. During prime cherry blossom season, crowds can get heavy, so arrive early and throw down a blanket to save your sport. If time permits, be sure to walk across the bridge to the Shinobazu Pond, where there is usually some kind of traditional street food festival going on, especially in good weather and during festival season.
During our visit to the Cherry Blossom Festival, we were delighted not only by the abundance of cherry blossoms, but also to be participating in something that local residents were partaking in. Getting to sample authentic Japanese street food was a delicious bonus and the festival definitely topped our list of favorite Tokyo experiences.
By Nancy, We Go With Kids
Village Cleansing Voodoo Ceremony in Benin
We had been in Benin, the birthplace of voodoo, for several weeks before we witnessed our first ceremony. I was put off by the thought of seeing animal sacrifices. Whilst this does happen, voodoo in Benin is about much more; it’s a complete way of life, influencing culture, philosophy, language, art, dance, music, and medicine. Voodoo pre-dates most other religions by about 10,000 years and is practiced by 60 percent of Benin’s population.
Reassured there would be nothing untoward happening, we went to the village of Heve on the banks of the Mono River near Grand Popo to watch a village cleansing ceremony. This isn’t a ritual put on for tourists. It is carried out regularly to keep the village free of evil and to ward off malevolent forces. Every villager either took part in proceedings or watched it from the sidelines. The ceremony began with rhythmic drumming. A group of local men and boys drummed non-stop for two and a half hours, sweat pouring from their faces as the beat got faster and faster as events reached a climax. Women danced throughout. They looked joyous. Some danced with babies strapped to their backs. The stamina and energy of both the drummers and the dancers held us in thrall.
Once the music was underway, the stars of the show, the Zangbetos, emerged. These are the traditional voodoo guardians of the night and are highly revered. Their costumes are made of brightly coloured straw and resemble haystacks. Local people believe that there are no humans under the outfits, only spirits. The Zangbetos dance, spinning around very fast and entering a trance-like state. The costumes are lifted, and all you can see is a plant or a small animal or a bowl. Thus, the myth is perpetuated that these inanimate objects are moving the Zangbetos around. Other ‘miracles’ happen to prove the power of the Zangbetos. Their helpers grind up beer bottles and eat them or stand on broken glass without coming to any harm
We were invited to join in. The Zangbetos demonstrated their power again by making it impossible for six big strong men from our group to move a tiny object, yet making it very easy for three of the girls! The villagers loved the magic.
Visits to ceremonies such as these can be organised through a local company, GG Tours. It costs around €100, regardless of how many people are in the group. At the end of the ceremony, when shots of home-made moonshine are being passed round, it’s a good idea for individuals to give a small tip.
By Andrea, Happy Days Travel Blog
Sak Yant Blessing Tattoo in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Travel tattoos are quite common, but nothing compares to the Sak Yant tattoo in Thailand. This ancient ritual is part of the Buddhist culture and it became known among travellers after a few celebrities were spotted sporting the unique designs from the Buddhism literature inked on their skin. The bamboo tattoo can be done almost everywhere in Thailand, but you can only find the blessing ritual in a few temples scattered across the country.
My husband and I did the Sak Yant tattoo in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand and it was an unforgettable experience. The monk talks to you to figure out what type of tattoo you need, the design that will protect from your fears, problems or enemies. After consulting the monk, it’s time to receive the blessing that comes in black ink and little stabs on your skin. While the monk is tattooing, he prays, sings and gives to the tattoo the magical powers you need. It’s a truly spiritual experience.
You can do the Sak Yant in a couple of temples in Chiang Mai, but for safety and hygiene reasons, we chose to do it with guidance from Where the Sidewalks End local tours. They made us feel safe and we also helped the local community.
After the tattoo, you must follow a few rules to guarantee the blessing, most of them are related to being good and doing good for people. The Sak Yant Tattoo is all about faith and beliefs, so don’t do it just for fun or for the sake of having a new tattoo. You must believe in it, and then the magic will happen.
By Nat, Love and Road
Seonyu Julbul Nori in Hahoe, South Korea
Hahoe, a sleepy town in the North Gyeongsang Province of Korea, is a traditional village on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. On any regular day, villagers toil along the river. Few tourists visit the village. Nothing special happens here.
But every year, for one night only, the village comes to life when a flaming ball of fire is hurled from a cliff. Sounds crazy, but this tradition has been alive for more than 450 years.
The nearby city of Andong plays host to the Mask Dance Festival at the end of September, which comes to an end in Hahoe, with the Seonyu Julbul Nori. This event is free to experience for all. The Seonyu Julbul Nori is a traditional fireworks display over the Nakdong river. Tiny bags filled with charcoal, salt and twigs are strung across the river and lit on fire. The small explosions look like falling stars.
This happens at the same time as the Nakwha Nori. The audience is invited to shout, ‘Nakwha-ya‘ as villagers light a barrel of twigs on fire and throw the immense ball of flames down the cliff. Participating in the festival, with every throw, we were overcome with a mix of fear, fun and excitement. Fear as we wondered if the whole cliff would catch fire. Fun, because with each throw, we were allowed to make one wish. And excitement, as we were living through an unforgettable experience surrounded by locals.
By Carine & Derek, We Did It Our Way
Persian wedding ceremony in Iran
If you have the honour of visiting Iran during your travels, chances are you will be given the opportunity to attend a Persian wedding. After all, once you befriend a Persian family, you’ll be considered family for life. And boy, are you in for a treat.
Persian weddings are unlike any other ceremony on earth. The proceedings, or Sofreh Aghd, is a cultural ceremony and represents thousands of years of tradition and symbolism. Various beautiful and delicate items decorate a large table in front of the bride and groom, including eggs to represent fertility, grain so there will always be food on their table, gold coins for wealth, and a religious book of the couple’s choice. The bride and groom look into a mirror during the ceremony to symbolise looking into your future together.
As the officiant (traditionally an old or wise relative) reads the details of the ceremony, happily married Persian women then hold a tapestry above the bride and groom as they rub sugar cones over their heads to ‘sweeten’ the marriage. After the exchange of vows and rings, the bride and groom each dip their pinkies in honey and feed it to each other before they kiss. At the end of the ceremony, the bride selects a single woman for the tapestry full of sugar to be poured over, blessing her as the next one to get married.
Iranians are very family-oriented, but I truly love how family and community-centered marriage ceremonies are. It was so special to be surrounded by the important women in my life that raised me and will continue to support me in my marriage for my own wedding ceremony.
By Danielle, Danielle Farideh
Khmer water blessing in Cambodia
Water blessings are a traditional Buddhist practice in Cambodia. They are performed at many pagodas across the country, including in Siem Reap. In a water blessing ceremony, the people who receive the blessing will sit on the stairs of the pagoda. A monk will be chanting harmoniously to wish them good luck and happiness while pouring cold, blessed water over their heads. They will be soaking wet from head to toe, but they retain a calm and serene look on their faces.
If you are looking for off-the-beaten-path travel experiences in Cambodia, visiting local pagodas and witnessing water blessing ceremonies should be on your list. It is very beautiful to watch and photograph. Try to capture impressive splashes of water in the air as well as facial expressions of both the monk and the people who receive the blessing. If you have a DSLR camera, the trick is to set your shutter speed really fast.
Cambodian people are incredibly warm and kind to tourists, and they generally don’t mind being photographed. However, you should still ask people who receive the blessing for permission before taking photos since water blessing is a sacred, spiritual practice. We were lucky to watch two ceremonies and both of them lasted for 15 minutes.
By Sophie, Delightful Plate
Tapati Festival on Easter Island, Chile
Easter Island is most famous for its statues, but it is also home to a wonderful cultural festival each year, the Tapati Festival. This two-week long festival is centred around a competition between the families and friends, or ‘clans’, of two women vying to be crowned ‘queen’ of the island for a year. Friends and family members compete in a range of competitions to earn points for their candidate, and the candidate with the most points at the end becomes the next ‘queen’.
The competitions revolve around traditional food, sports, arts and crafts, so the festival is a way to help maintain and celebrate traditional Easter Island culture. Gastronomy competitions highlight local foods. Handicraft competitions such as stone carving, jewellery making and body painting help keep traditions alive. Sports include well-known traditional sports like Polynesian canoeing, horseracing and sport fishing. However, there are also less-common events such as Kaka Pei, which involves a crazy toboggan ride down a hill on a sled make of banana tree trunks, and the Rapa Nui Triathlon, which involves rowing rafts made of reeds, carrying bunches of banana around a lake and swimming across the lake with reed floats. The festival culminates in a huge parade where points are given for the number of people behind each candidate’s float, so tourists are encouraged to join in and help earn points.
The competitions are free to watch, and a large stage is set up in town with nightly performances in addition to the competitions; also free. Tourists are very welcome. The Tapati Festival is usually held in the first two weeks of February, but dates do vary a little each year.
By James, Travel Collecting
Carnival in Sitges, Spain
Carnival is a major event in most European cities. Enjoying the atmosphere of people parading the streets dressed up in colourful costumes and masks is a wonderful experience everywhere in the world. In Spain, Carnival is traditionally celebrated in all municipalities—but one of the most peculiar carnivals is the Carnival in Sitges.
Sitges is a small coastal town near Barcelona. Every year, more than 250,000 people enjoy this extravagant fiesta, when Sitges is transformed a kind of ‘crazy-ville’. The Carnival in Sitges is dedicated to commemorate the week that starts on ‘Jueves Lardero‘ (Fat Thursday) and finishes on Ash Wednesday, when the ‘Burial of the Sardine’ takes place. The latter symbolises the abstinence from eating fish during the 40 days that follow.
During the whole week there are live music and street theatre performances on every corner. The most important parades are the Rua de la Dibauxa and the Rua de l’Extermini, both starting in the main square of the city. The craziest event of the Carnival is the ‘Fancy dress bed race’, which has an amazing atmosphere. Beds are dressed up and put on wheels to participate in an insane race where participants and the public all have a lot of fun.
By Gabor, Surfing the Planet
Oman National Day in Oman
Oman is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the region. There is one unique celebration in Oman which is not a festival or a ritual, but a day of national heritage which is celebrated more lavishly than even Oman’s Renaissance Day.
The 18th of November is the birthday of Oman’s longest ruling king, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Bin Said, who still reins on the country’s throne. The king’s birthday is celebrated with cultural dances, rallies, and fireworks shows all around the country. On this day, locals all dress in the colours of the Oman flag. It is the only time of the year when people are officially permitted to decorate their cars with flags (yes, Arabs love their cars, so decorating the cars is a big deal in Oman).
A huge parade is held in the largest sports ground in Muscat, followed by cultural dances, sword fighting, and horse riding shows. All the major highways are jam-packed with rallies and people singing songs for the King or just waving flags from their windows. At 8pm sharp, fireworks shows start at designated places all around the country.
By Rahma, The Sane Adventurer
Fasnacht Basel in Switzerland
February and March are the carnival months in Switzerland, and the most popular and largest one is Fasnacht Basel. The Basel carnival, rooted in local traditions, is celebrated on the Monday following Ash Wednesday and lasts for three days. Many locals consider the days of the carnival the three most exciting days of the year.
On Monday, the celebrations begin at 4am with the Morgenstreich, which is the official start of Fasnacht, followed by Gugge music (brass and percussion band concerts) on Tuesday. The carnival finishes on Wednesday with the Endstreich, a second large procession somewhat similar to the first day.
The festival is colourful, lively and filled with music, lots of fun and a great community spirit. The Fasnachtlers (participants of the parade) dress from head to toe in traditional carnival costumes while the members of the music bands wear themed dresses as they take part in the parade. Confetti, flowers, and sweets are thrown into the crowd from floats and decorated vehicles during the parade.
One of the main things all visitors to the carnival must do is purchase a Plakette, which is the official carnival badge. Proceeds from the sale of the badge help to cover some of the costs of the carnival groups. Also worth noting is that unlike other carnivals around the world, the Fasnacht has a distinct separation between the participants and the visitors/spectators. Do not dress up in costume or paint your face unless you are a participant. Other than that, it is similar to other carnivals: Have fun, be respectful and enjoy the parades and music while tucking into local dishes.
We were in Basel for the carnival last year and it was an absolutely amazing and fascinating experience. If you’re planning to visit Switzerland around this time of year, do plan to experience the carnival for yourself.
By Deeptha, The Globe Trotter
Holi in India
Holi, known as the festival of colours, is one of the biggest festivals in India. Holi is a two-day affair. On the evening of the first day, a large bonfire is made and on the second day colours are played with. Holi is more of a celebration in the north part of India, and falls after the full moon in the month of March.
The festival is celebrated to mark the victory of good over evil. According to the story, on this day, the evil Holika tried to burn her god-loving nephew Prahalad using her special powers. But god saved the child and she burned in the fire instead.
Holi also marks the end on winter and the arrival of spring. It is one of the festivals that promotes the concept of equality among different classes and religions in India, as people from all walks of life celebrate and throw dry and wet colours on each other. The playing with colors starts in the morning and goes on until the afternoon. A grand lunch of vegetarian dishes is served afterward. Some people drink Bhang on Holi, which is a type of edible cannabis.
It is advisable to use natural colors, but sometimes people use coloured powders and liquids made from chemicals. To avoid the effects, participants should apply a thick layer of oil to their body and hair before participating in Holi. It’s advisable that women play Holi with a group of known people. This is a festival of happiness celebrated with friends and family, and tourists are welcome to join in.
By Sapna, My Simple Sojourn
The Hungry Ghost Festival in Penang, Malaysia
On the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar (between August and September), the gates of hell open and King of Hell Tai Su Yeah unleashes an army of hungry ghost back to… Penang, Malaysia. They come to look for the mundane entertainment, food and material things they can’t find on the poorly stocked aisles of Supermarket Hell.
Humans, of course, must oblige: The Hungry Ghost Festival, possibly one of the top festivals in Asia, is celebrated all over Penang island in Malaysia. Local Chinese prepare makeshift little shrines on street corners, each of them containing a paper statue of Tai Su Yeah, and organise events for the departed. Of course, they keep up with the times. Apart from the Chinese opera shows, the devotees invite sexy female singers to perform on stage. Watch and mingle as much as you want, but never sit in the first row of empty seats: Those are reserved for the ghosts.
The spirits are taken care of for a whole month, their altars filled with food and drinks, until it’s time to return to hell. The biggest statue of Tai Su Yeah is shuttled around George Town and then burnt in the middle of the street in a ritual bonfire that seals off the passage to the netherworld for yet another year.
By Marco, Penang Insider
Good Friday (Holy Friday) in Jerusalem, Israel
Standing in one of the narrow alleys of the Old City of Jerusalem, we could have sensed there was something special in the air. A group of nuns was waiting patiently next to us, some photographers were scattered along the alley. We were all waiting for the grand procession that was about to begin. Groups of believers from different countries with their own unique garments were following each other. Some groups were dressed in white, others in all black. People were carrying huge crucifixes on their backs, praying and singing, their faces were beaming with excitement. They all came to fulfill their dream of following in Jesus’ footsteps along Via Dolorosa—the path Jesus walked on his way to his crucifixion.
Good Friday is the Friday before Easter and is celebrated all over the world to commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus. It is a day of sorrow and penance in the Christian world, full of praying and fasting. There are processions globally, including in Jerusalem.
Due to different calendars (Gregorian Calendar/Julian Calendar), some believers celebrate Good Friday and other Easter events on different dates, meaning there are actually two Good Friday processions in Jerusalem: One for the Catholic churches and another for the Orthodox. There are also many related events before and after, so it’s a good idea to check the event calendar prior to your arrival.
During the procession itself, some of the alleys are closed but if you are a journalist or photographer, you should be able to get into the heart of the procession. The alleys are opened immediately afterwards and walking through the old streets of Jerusalem you’ll get to see many unusual sights. For us it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one that we won’t forget for many years to come. Jerusalem is one of the most special places in the world and being able to explore it during Easter is a special experience you’ll probably cherish for a very long time.
By Maya & Sari, Chasing Lenscapes
All Souls Procession in Tucson, US
One of the many highlights of my time in Tucson included attending the All Souls Procession, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary year in 2019 on the weekend of November 8 to 10.
The All Souls Procession began in 1990 with a performance art work by Tucson artist Susan Johnson, who was grieving the death of her father at the time. The event began with local artists in Tucson and has grown over the years to include people who celebrate various traditions. All are welcome at the All Souls Procession. The event is not directly related to Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), but many people who acknowledge it do attend the procession.
The purpose of All Souls is to honour the dead. The procession moves through the streets of downtown Tucson, ending with the ceremonial burning of a large urn, a receptacle for prayers and messages to loved ones. Anyone is welcome to contribute a message, with paper and pencils provided at the event, or bring your own prepared remembrance.
When I attended in 2015, I paid to have my face painted by one of the many artists at the event. Afterwards, I wandered around taking in the festive spirit and marveling at some of the elaborate and creative costumes. You’ll see buskers performing, and there are lots of food trucks set up towards the end of the procession route. Before you go to the event, you should read the Procession Guide. The event is free, but relies primarily on donations, so please contribute to the fundraising buskers at the event.
By Susan, Solo Trips and Tips
St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago, USA
Chicago never disappoints, even during cold winters, but one of the best times to be in the city is on St. Patrick’s Day. St. Patrick’s Day is a religious and cultural day that is celebrated on March 17th in commemoration of the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. It’s not a specifically American holiday, so one might be surprised why then Chicago is so special on this day.
Everything is festive and green. The city is full of people, all ages, who wear green clothes and other accessories. The most important event that happens every St. Patrick’s Day is the dyeing of the Chicago river green. A tradition since 1962, organisers use an environmentally friendly vegetable-based dye to give the water a temporary emerald hue. It’s lovely to experience it and see how the river slowly turns green to match the joyous people gathered on its banks.
This year, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated on March 16, a Saturday. Visitors can enjoy this event for free. If you’re only going to watch the river turn green, be there early enough so you can find a good spot and experience the whole show. Don’t forget that drinking alcohol in public in Chicago is illegal and in bars, you have to be 21 or older to be served.
By Lavdi, Kosovo Girl Travels
Vardavar in Armenia
I spent a few days in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, in July. Completely by accident, I was there during the biggest event in the country, the most popular festival all over Armenia: The Vardavar festival.
A religious celebration, Vardavar has its origins in the Biblical story of Noah’s ark. Noah found refuge on Mount Ararat during the flood. After the water receded, he celebrated by asking his sons to spray one another with water. The tradition was held onto and is still present today in Armenia. It takes place every year, exactly 14 weeks after Orthodox Easter.
To understand what Vardavar is, you just have to walk the streets and you’ll quickly understand. Basically, people spray one another with water. You can spray anyone, not just your friends or people you know. Everyone participates: Kids, adults, the elderly, men, women… Everybody! All over the country, Armenia feels like a big schoolyard. As a tourist, you’re going be the target of many people, so you need to be able to respond. Don’t leave your hotel without a water gun, a bucket of water or a gallon jug. The atmosphere is really relaxed and fun. Everybody is having a good time.
By Roobens, Been Around the Globe
Have you ever participated in a local festival or celebration on your travels? What are your favourite rituals and ceremonies around the world?