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Published on May 26, 2014

By Ken Scott

Source: TAT, Traditional celebration at a temple in Bangkok

One of the joys of travelling in the region are the impossibly colourful, exotic and often raucous festivals. There are two kinds of festival: ones that come from a long tradition, where the locals celebrate with gusto regardless of whether tourists come or not; and modern created events, like the wonderful Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak.

The first time I was in Thailand (1985) I found myself in Chiang Mai in the middle of April. There was no planning involved. I stumbled upon Songkran – the four-day water festival that brings in the Buddhist New Year. Even then, Songkran had become an epic street festival of indiscriminate water splashing.

Source: TAT, Songkran Festivals in Bangkok (above and below)

The same Buddhist water festival – Thingyan in Myanmar, Chaul Chnam Thmey in Cambodia, Pi Mai Lao in Laos – is arguably the highlight of the annual street festivals that take place across Southeast Asia. There’s no standing on decorum. If you’re in public, you’re going to get soaked. It’s no bad thing, as ambient daytime temperatures across the Mekong region at the time are 36-40 Celsius.

Lunar New Year (sometimes known as Chinese New Year) in late January or early February lasts up to 15 days. Loud drums, cymbals and fireworks make the occasion a cacophonous one. Each September, many in the Chinese community also embrace vegetarianism in obeisance to the goddess Goan-Im. Walking on hot coals, body piercing and walking on blade ladders can make it a surreal spectacle, not for spectators who are feint of heart. During the acts of self flagellation, benign spirits are said to enter the soul and evil ones are excised. Phuket and Penang are great places to see it in full swing.

If you love music, don’t miss the Rainforest World Music Festival. It takes place annually in June 35 kms out of Kuching in Sarawak, Malaysia. The music here comes from around the world and will move your soul. World music players from every corner of the globe converge on Sarawak for three days of performance, workshops, jam sessions and dance. The festival is regularly voted as among the top 25 best international festivals by world music magazine, Songlines.

Buffalo races, Hindu celebrations, wax work parades, lantern festivals and food, glorious food everywhere, make Southeast Asia a warm and welcoming destination for festivals – old and new. Pick a festival that appeals to you. Then immerse yourself in it – sometimes literally.