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5 Fantastic Urban Festivals in Asia

From Hong Kong’s Dragon Boat Festival to Chiang Mai’s Songkran, these thrilling events are a fantastic way to get a large spoonful of the country’s culture, without even leaving the city...

If there’s one thing we can say about Asians, it’s that they know how to throw a party. From the rural countryside to the heart of bustling cities, grand, colorful festivals are celebrated across the continent, cropping up in every corner of the calendar. In the cities, these festivals take on an even more elaborate flavor, as they bring the country’s oldest traditions to a population surrounded by cosmopolitan modernity. From Hong Kong’s Dragon Boat Festival, dating back two millennia, to Chiang Mai’s Songkran, with its origins in India’s ancient Holi festival, these thrilling events are a fantastic way to get a large spoonful of the country’s culture, without even leaving the city.

Hong Kong – Dragon Boat Festival

Fierce competition at Hong Kong’s Dragon Boat Festival

Thought to be one of the world’s greatest parties, Hong Kong’s Dragon Boat Festival has its origins in a tragedy that took place over 2,000 years ago. It was then that Chinese national hero Qu Yuan drowned himself in the Me Lo River in a protest against the country’s corrupt leaders. To stop the fish and other river creatures from eating his body, the townspeople threw glutinous rice dumplings (zongzi) in the river for them to feed on instead, while beating drums loudly to scare them away.

Today, the event has transformed into a huge festival celebrated across China and by Chinese around the world, who snack on zongzi and go swimming in lakes and rivers. The festival’s main event, as suggested by its name, is the dragon boat races, performed to the beat of drums in elaborate, fierce-looking dragon boats over 30 feet long. A huge party, sponsored by San Miguel beer, takes place alongside the races, featuring live music, dancing, and lots of beer. Find the Dragon Boat races at Victoria Harbour, in East Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. The festival takes place this June 6 – 8, and in 2015, June 20 – 22, and in 2016, June 9 – 11. The San Miguel BeerFest, which takes place after the races, is nearby at UC Centenary Garden.

Stay: Peninsula Hotel, Hong Kong

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 Cebu, Philippines – Sinulog

A Mardi Gras atmosphere at Cebu’s Sinulog festival

Across the South China Sea from Hong Kong, another festival featuring drums takes place on the island and city of Cebu, in the Southern Philippines. The festival honors the revered Santo Nino, or Baby Jesus, through dancing to the beat of drums. Sinulog’s origins are long and winding, with Pagan roots and natives who first danced the Sinulog once in honor of their wooden idols. When the image of Baby Jesus was brought by Magellan in the early 16th century, the Sinulog continued, but its worship switched to the new Christian idol. In the 1980s, Cebu’s administration directors decided to step the festival up a notch, introducing new steps, a new logo for the festival, and floats depicting different periods of the festival’s history.

Today, the festival has blossomed into a world-class event that can be watched through live TV broadcasts around the world. Sinulog has become the Philippines’ grandest cultural festival, drawing crowds by the millions. The parade has grown to become long and elaborate, featuring many groups of people in colorful costumes, who continue to dance the traditional Sinulog dance as they move through the streets of downtown Cebu.

The festival takes place on the third Sunday of January. The next event will be on the 18th of January, 2015, and following that, the 17th of January, 2016.

Stay: Shangri La’s Mactan Resort & Spa

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Osaka, Japan – Tenjin Matsuri

A lively procession at Osaka’s Tenjin Matsuri

The world’s greatest boat festival, also known as one of Japan’s three greatest festivals, Osaka’s Tenjin Matsuri dates back more than 1,000 years. The summer festival is held at Tenman Shrine, which enshrines Japan’s patron god of learning and art. To honor him, the festival includes traditional Japanese kagura music, bunraku theater performances, and other types of traditional Japanese performing arts. The festival also features land and boat processions, the land parade featuring around 3,000 people dressed in the ancient Imperial Court-style, while they march beside portable shrines; these paraders then board about 100 boats, which sail upstream from Tenmabashi Bridge. In the evening time, the boats are lit up with contained fires on-board, while an elaborate fireworks display takes place. The festival takes place on the 24th and 25th of July each year.

Stay: Ritz-Carlton Osaka

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Chiang Mai, Thailand – Songkran

Songkran revellers in Chiang Mai

In Thailand, what started as a respectful festival where water is gently poured onto elders to symbolize washing away their sins and cleansing them for the new year ahead, has evolved into what must be the world’s largest water fight. Taking place during the Thai New Year, April 13 – 15, Songkran is now celebrated with water guns and a sticky white paste that’s slapped onto the cheeks of passersby. Though the festival is great fun, many fear it is straying too far from its traditional roots. In Chiang Mai, the festival is celebrated to honor its traditions. Yes, there is a water fight, but the activities run deeper than that, including a Songkran parade on April 12, and a traditional activity in the evening of the 13th where locals head to the banks of the Mae Ping River to gather sand that is deposited in flower-topped piles at local temples.

Chiang Mai draws huge crowds each year who flock to the city to experience the fun, history, and culture of Songkran as it was meant to be celebrated, far from the chaos of Bangkok and other places where many say Songkran has lost sight of its gentler, deeper origins.

Stay: 137 Pillars House

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Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Thaipusam

Though celebrated in many different parts of Asia, Thaipusam is best enjoyed in Malaysia’s capital of Kuala Lumpur. Here in the capital, the festival is known as the Malaysia’s most spectacular Hindu festival. During the festival, devotees subject themselves to masochistic acts, which they believe will lead to their prayers being answers. Such acts include scary-looking body piercings, milk pots connected to skin by hooks, and huge cages of spikes that pierce the skin of its carrier. The participants of the festival are put into trance-like states before the piercings begin, which allows them to experience the rituals without feeling much pain.

Thaipusam in Kuala Lumpur – not for the squeamis

Stay: Carcosa Seri Negara

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