Traditions should be celebrated. And what better way to celebrate that a weird and wonderful festival.
Bareback horse racing, paint throwing, inflatable penises, voodoo, fireworks; this list of traditional festivals takes you around the world as it reveals the strangest annual celebrations of culture. All are accessible and welcome inquisitive foreign guests.
1) Songkran Water Festival, Thailand
Annually in April
New Year celebrations can be tired and predictable. Every year you probably complain that it’s expensive and overrated, but you’ll do the same in 12 months time. Thailand’s new year is one that’s never boring. For a few days the streets turn into chaos, anyone and everyone throwing water at each other. Buckets are flung at tuktuks, supersoakers are squirted at foreigners, and there an indelible atmosphere of carnage. You can’t miss Songkran if you’re in Thailand. But the streets of Bangkok are probably the funnest place to catch it all.
2) Kanamara Matsuri, Japan
31st March / 1st April
The sight of women carrying giant pink penises through the streets is strange enough. It’s even weirder in Japan, a country of normally overbearing conservatism. The Festival of the Steel Phallus includes many variations on the giant cock theme; penis lollypops, phallus-shaped swings, transvestites carrying eight foot inflatable erections, and locals dressed in pink carving radishes into penises. Don’t ask why. Just go to Kawasaki and indulge in the madness.
3) La Tomatina, Spain
Last Wednesday in August
Continuing the theme of chaotic street battles, La Tomatina involves throwing some 120 tones of tomatoes at strangers. The red warfare only takes place for an hour, but it’s preceded by equally impressive amounts of sangria drinking. Like all great traditional festivals, nobody is quite sure why La Tomatina started. Jefferson Taylor likes to think that the locals are just free-thinking maniacs.
4) Carnival in a Brazilian Village
The week before lent, usually in February
Rio Carnvial is famous around the world. But the annual festivities are not restricted to Rio. There’s a carnival taking place in almost every village and city in Brazil, so get off the beaten track and see how they party in rural parts of the country. The processions aren’t as impressive, but you’ll be one of the only foreigners, which means celebrity status and spending a week in a drunken stupor. Brazilians really know how to party and the local atmosphere gets you far more involved than on the overpopulated streets of Rio.
5) Benin Voodoo Festival, Benin
Annually in January
Voodoo is a weird and mysterious religion with its roots in Benin. Every January, the world’s great voodoo chiefs convene in Ouidah, where they call on spirits, drink lots of gin, and slaughter hundreds of animals for the gods. Hire a local guide because access to the most interesting ceremonies is restricted and you’ll need permission in advance. Handing over a bottle of gin is the usual payment for an entry ticket and watch out for the spirits who appear; local custom dictates that you’ll die if touched by one of these revered spirits.
6) Il Palio, Italy
July 2nd and August 16th
Ancient Siena is a cute and charming city for most the year. Then for two days in summer, the city square turns into a drunken and often violent competition between each of the town’s 17 neighborhoods. Traditional rivalries culminate in a bareback 90 second horse race around the central square, with at least half the riders painfully falling off their rides. One jockey from each neighborhood races for bragging rights, with everyone else chugging bottles of red wine and cheering them on.
7) Holi Festival, India
This Indian festival is so good that it’s being exported to cities around the world. Essentially, tens of thousands gather on the streets and throw powdered paint at each other. While it’s cool elsewhere, India remains the original and best. The cows are painted, the warfare continues for hours, and there’s an eery spirituality to accompany the revelry. You can find the festival all over the country but it’s most vibrant in places along the holy River Ganges, like Agra or Varanasi.
8) International Festival of the Sahara – Tunisia
Annually in October
The Sahara Desert conjures a million evocative images; camels, belly dancing, dunes, nomads, starry night skies. There are a few Saharan festivals and this one in Touz is most accessible. Expect hundreds of caravans roaming through the desert as they cometogether for mass belly dancing, camel racing, traditional music, and seeing who has the best kaftan.
9) Kiwiburn, New Zealand
Annually in January
Burning Man was on Random Vacay’s list of music festivals for 2015. Essentially, 70,000 converge on the Black Rock Desert and create a community where money doesn’t exist and freedom of expression is essential. The concept has spread to regional events around the world, perhaps the most impressive being Kiwiburn. New Zealanders are naturally far more easygoing and open than Americans. So providing a space for expressionism makes for some of the world’s most insane art and orgies.
10) Reed Dance, Swaziland
Every September, 80,000 bare-chested virgins dance for the King of Swaziland in a festival that celebrates chastity and purity. As traditional tribal festivals are dying out across Africa, the Reed Dance is both an accessible and entertaining look at historic festivities. The festival continues for a few days, the culmination being the King dancing for the teenage virgins. Tradition dictates that he uses the Reed Dance to choose a new wife or two – the previous King died with over 80 wives and 200 children.
11) Yanshuei Beehive Fireworks, Taiwan
15th day of the lunar new year
Yanshuei has a simple concept. Stuff a wall full of fireworks and then dare yourself to get close to the exploding rockets. There’s some religious significance about showing scars to prove you met the war god, but essentially this is about starting a fight with a few million fireworks. Use masking tape to cover the gaps between arms and clothes, wear industrial goggles, and walk towards the wall of exploding sound. It sounds scary. And it is. Nobody wins a war against fireworks.
12) Day of the Dead, Mexico
Honoring the dead is something that we should all do more of, particularly when it involves creating skulls made from sugar and parading skeletal costumes through the streets. Families head off to shrines and alters to leave offerings for dead souls, while pillows are left outside houses so souls on long journeys can take a nap. While the Day of the Dead is predominantly a private festival, the streets are awash with color, mescal drinking, and giant statuesque skulls. You can see it across much of Latin America with the tradition being strongest in Mexico.