As Travel+Leisure India & South celebrates its 16th anniversary, the publications bring you a roundup of 16 unique festivals across the world—from an underwater music festival in the US to a mud festival in South Korea—that warrant a trip.
16 Unique Festivals Around The World
Yi Peng Lantern Festival
The Yi Peng Lantern Festival in Thailand looks like a scene straight out of a movie. Thousands of paper lanterns (khom loy) rise up against the backdrop of a full moon in Chiang Mai to mark the end of monsoons in the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar (usually November), on a full moon night. According to locals, making lanterns or donating them to temples is a virtuous act and a means of earning karma for the next life. Initially celebrated as a standalone event, this unique festival is now complemented by the Loy Krathong festival, where people make krathong or decorated baskets to float in the river as an offering to the Goddess of Water, Phra Mae Khongkha.
Visit the Three Kings Monument to watch a candle-lighting ceremony and a Buddhist worship ritual or head to Thapae Gate to partake in the festival parades. Stroll along the streets of the city and admire khom fai—colourful, intricate paper lamps used to decorate houses, gardens and temples; or launch your very own khom loy and let your misfortunes float away. If your lantern disappears into the dark before the light goes out, your wish has been granted! The festival will be held from November 7 to November 9, 2022.
With origins in the south of India, in north Kerala, Theyyam is a dance ritual performed by members of various communities in the state. The captivating art is a combination of mime and dance and is complemented by musical instruments such as chenda, elathalam, kurumkuzhal, and veekkuchenda. Performed to honour ancestral spirits, Theyyam can be distinguished into various forms—as many as 400—with each form characterised by different music, choreography, costume, and style. The history of the art form can be traced back to the Dravidian age and is a part of the ancient tribal culture in Kerala. Each participant represents a God, demon, or one of the many mythological characters, in the dance performance. They wear heavy makeup and adorn flamboyant costumes. From the months of December to April, Theyyam performances are held in many temples of Kannur and Kasargod, in North Kerala and draws in huge crowds.
Up Helly Aa
The Up Helly Aa festival, a celebration of culture and history, takes place in Lerwick, the main town and port of the Shetland archipelago in Scotland. Although there are many local versions of the festival, Lerwick’s festival is famous for its grandeur. The one-day festival involves a series of marches and visitations, ending in a torch-lit procession and the burning of a galley. Preparations for the big event are made around the year in secrecy by volunteers.
The biggest secret is what the head of the festival, Guizer Jarl, who represents the Viking chief, will wear at the event. The costume for the Jarl is based on characters from various Norse Sagas, which is only revealed to the public on the day of the event. A signal rocket explodes in the sky at 7:30 pm on the evening of Up Helly Aa that sets off a huge procession of fully costumed torch bearers, divided into squads, with only the Jarl’s squad wearing actual Viking clothes. The Jarl’s galley is painstakingly dragged to a burning site, where it is set on fire, destroying months of careful labour. Once the galley has gone up in flames, the squads head to private parties in halls, where they perform skits or dances. Though most of these halls are private, some sell tickets to the general public. The next edition of Up Helly Aa will be held on January 31, 2023.
Underwater Music Festival
While the ocean floor in Looe Key Reef, an area of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, might be a highly unlikely spot for a music festival, the Underwater Music Festival makes it work. Attracting a host of divers and snorkelers, the festival has been held every July for the past 25 years to create awareness around the protection of coral reefs and encourage responsible diving.
A pre-selected radio playlist is streamed underwater through speakers suspended under the boats positioned on the reef. The playlist usually includes classics such as ‘Yellow Submarine’ by The Beatles, ‘Fins’ by Jimmy Buffett, and more ocean-themed songs. The divers who participate in these festivals under water are dressed as rock stars and mermaids and pretend to play unique instruments designed by local artist, August Powers.
The instruments are inspired by sea life and have fascinating names such as ‘bass-oon’ and ‘trombonefish’. Since sound travels much faster in water than in air, the experience of hearing live music underwater is surreal. The local radio station, WWUS 104.1 FM, also broadcasts the event live for non-divers to enjoy. The festival is held annually on the Saturday after July 4.
Hermanus Whale Festival
Celebrating the return of the Southern Right whales to the coast of South Africa, Hermanus Whale Festival has been running annually since 1992. Now in its 31st year, the festival is a tribute to the story of Wendy the Whale who was beached on the shores of Hermanus in the 1930s. The townsfolk pulled together and returned Wendy to the sea, after which she came back year after year to visit her friends. Wendy’s story is a reminder of man’s ability to coexist peacefully with nature, and the power of a community’s desire to protect the environment.
Today, Hermanus is one of the best places in the world for whale-watching, and one of the only places where you can spot scores of Southern Right whales up close. After watching whales play in the waters with their calves, head to one of the treasure hunts for a challenge or attend one of the nature talks at the marine tent to know more about how you can contribute to the cause. Car enthusiasts can admire beautiful, vintage cars at the Whales & Wheels Classic Car Show. The Market Square also has a large play area for children, with magic shows, fair-ground rides, and art classes. End your day with a delicious meal at one of the local restaurants. The unique festival was held from September 30 to October 2 in 2022.
Mai Dulce Festival
The Mai Dulce Festival in Chisnau, Moldova, is the stuff dreams are made of, for anyone with a sweet tooth. Choose from a wide variety of homemade traditional Moldovan sweets including croissants with rose petal jam, pastries with poppy seeds, and a variety of cakes, jams, cookies, cupcakes, and candy. Held in May every year, the event draws a huge crowd of people of all ages, eager to binge on sweet treats and soak in the cheerful atmosphere. The adults relive their childhood, while children celebrate the beginning of summer vacations. Let your inner child out as you dress up in a colourful costume (which fits the theme, of course), attend workshops with professional chefs and food bloggers where you can watch desserts being prepared live. Try your hand at face painting or say hello to friendly clowns and jugglers on the streets. There are also workshops for your little ones where they can learn about baking cookies, making candles, and pottery.
An ancient annual ritual with a history spanning hundreds of years, Busójárás a UNESCO-recognised event, celebrates the end of winter and the beginning of spring in the small town of Mohács. Located in southern Hungary, Mohács hosts the event over six days at the end of the carnival season. The key part of the festival is the Busós; where residents of the town dress up in scary costumes based on the attire of Ottoman Turks, wooden masks, and cloaks made of sheepskin. Watch out, for these mischievous troublemakers enjoy playing pranks on unsuspecting observers and make loud noises to scare winter away.
Legend has it that around the 16th century, Mohács’ ethnic Croatian minority people, the Šokci fled to the neighbouring swamps and woodlands to escape the Ottoman army. One night, an old man devised an ultimately successful plan to construct masks and noisy objects to frighten the Ottomans away. At the festival, choose from a variety of activities such as workshops, folk dances, musical performances, masquerading, or creative workshops, or simply sit by the bonfire and listen to stories. Don’t forget to sample traditional Hungarian delicacies such as lángos, chimney cake, spicy sausages, and fresh mini doughnuts. Busójárás will be held in February 2023.
Abu Simbel Sun Festival
Celebrated since the time of ancient Egypt, over 3,200 years ago, Abu Simbel Sun Festival takes place twice a year, in February and October at the spectacular temple of Ramses II in the south of Egypt. The temple is reachable both by road and air; flight timings are such that tourists can spend two hours here. These enormous rock-cut temples, constructed by the greatest of the pharaohs, Ramses II, marked the southern border of the Egyptian Empire with Nubia at the height of its power. The event occurs twice a year, when the temple’s inner sanctums are perfectly aligned with the sun’s rays. The clever craftsmanship is such that the light, which streams in reflects only on the statues of Ra (the Sun God), Amun (God of the Air), and Pharaoh Ramses II.
The statue of Ptah, the God of Darkness, remains shrouded in darkness by design. People gather outside the temple before sunrise to catch a glimpse of the three statues. Once the sun rises high enough, the statues disappear into darkness once again. After admiring the architectural genius of the Egyptians, make your way outside where you can watch traditional music and dance being performed, sample one of the innumerable Egyptian delicacies on display, or pick up handmade Egyptian crafts from local artisans. The next edition of the festival will be held on February 22, 2023.
Watch the skies of Albuquerque in New Mexico fill up as multicoloured balloons of all shapes and sizes rise up en masse in the morning of Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta that completed 50 years in 2022. Stick around for the Special Shape Rodeo event to see the most uniquely shaped balloons the event has to offer, designed to look like animals or even beloved cartoon characters. While gas balloons chase each other in an effort to win America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race, artists below use chainsaws with extreme dexterity and skill to create masterful carvings.
At night, don’t miss the balloon glow events where burners inside the balloons are lit to make them look like giant ornaments hanging in the sky. This surreal event is followed by a display of fireworks in the AfterGlow Fireworks Show to wrap up the night. For an even more special experience, book a tent for glamping at the Balloon Fiesta Park, a short distance from the launch field; here you will have access to restroom and shower trailers, as well as a hospitality area with grills, games, and lounge chairs. The festival will be held from October 1 to 9 this year.
ÁgitAgueda Art Festival
Making waves in Águeda every year, the unique ÁgitAgueda Art Festival has, since its inception in 2006, been an energetic, colourful display of talent, creativity, and culture. Initially imagined as an extended celebration of the FIFA World Cup in Germany in 2006, the festival now has a life of its own. During the course of the almost month-long festival, streets of Águeda are bedecked with urban art installations, making the whole city an open-air gallery. It attracts musicians and artists from across the globe—including the Grammy-winning band, Inner Circle.
While the festival promotes well-known names, there is also a focus on providing a platform for lesser-known Portuguese artists. The festival has brought on stage nearly 500 artists since it started. If you have had your fill of art installations and concerts, head to one of the street displays such as Carnaval Fora D’horas, a parade led by samba musicians and dancers in colourful, feathery outfits; or make your way over to the ‘Gathering of Human Statues,’ where numerous artists stand eerily still to resemble mannequins. Buy a souvenir for your loved ones at one of the local shops selling handicrafts. This unique festival will be held from July 1 to July 23 in 2023.
This is another one of India’s most unique festivals. Started in 1933 by Inderjeet Singh Grewal as a means to strengthen bonds between different villages, Rural Olympics, also known as the Qila Raipur Festival is held at a local sports stadium in the village of Qila Raipur in Punjab. For four days in February every year, eager sportsmen participate in races, kabaddi, hockey, tug of war, and horse racing, in a spectacular display of competitiveness and skill. Along with popular categories of sports, Qila Raipur festival also showcases unusual feats of strength that are considered almost inhumane.
Participants push themselves to the limit by allowing themselves to be run over by tractors, holding a plough in their mouths, and pulling a car with nothing but hair, to showcase their strength, tolerance for pain, and ability to balance. One of the most unique festivals, Tirinjen involves competitive singing. Participants spin a wheel to decide the emotion they have to convey in what they sing. The winner is decided based on who was able to do so with the most accuracy. Don’t forget to watch trained fighters whirling around in a performance of Gatka, the ancient Sikh martial art form, which originated in the 15th century.
Bolas de Fuego Festival
Every year on August 31, the streets of Nejapa, a small town in El Salvador, witness a fiery battle between two groups on an unregulated battleground. Residents of the town paint skulls on their faces, or don masks, hurl kerosene-soaked burning rags at one other, while being cheered on by a huge crowd. This is called Bolas de Fuego festival, which translates to ‘balls of fire’. The participants wear gloves and thick clothing to avoid burns.
This unique festival is held every year on August 31 to commemorate a volcanic eruption that took place in the region in 1658. It had forced people to abandon the town. According to local legends, the eruption was a fight between their patron saint, San Jeronimo, and the devil, where the latter threw fireballs to distract the former. This dangerous, yet thrilling display of culture is an important event in Nejapa, and one of the most unique festivals around the world. Worry not, a team of medical professionals and law enforcement officers closely observe the event to prevent it from getting out of hand. This year, the festival had around 150 participants and lasted for about two hours, with a grand total of about 3,000 fireballs thrown.
Boryeong Mud Festival
Initially a means to promote mud-based products from the region, Boryeong Mud Festival has now transformed into a popular summer festival that attracts Koreans and foreigners alike. The mud flats of Daecheon Beach in South Korea turn into a giant playground for all ages, every year during summer. While one end of the beach hosts a mud zone for children, the other end is where adults can partake in activities. Jump on a mud slide or into the giant mud bath, treat yourself to a mud massage, or head to Mud Prison to literally get your hands (and the rest of you) dirty by having mud flung all over you by the staff.
Apart from being immensely fun, the mud is said to be full of medicinal properties that will leave your skin looking radiant. Once you’ve had your fill of the mud zone, relax on the beach with a cold beer and enjoy the numerous street performances, or attend a K-pop concert. Stick around for a gorgeous fireworks display after the performances. The beachfront has numerous restaurants that serve delicious, fresh seafood for the perfect end to your day. It is recommended to only wear clothes that can be discarded after the festival. The festival is generally held between July and August every year.
Equal parts fun and hair-raising, Kukeri is a centuries-old tradition in Bulgaria where men dress up in animal skins, put on elaborate masks, and tie huge bells around their waists to scare away things that go bump in the night. Locals believe that the masks and attire are frightening enough to chase away evil spirits. In some regions of the country, Kukeri performers act out plays in groups, with each member assigned a particular role, such as a king, grandma, or some type of animal. The characters are symbolic, and the over-the-top plots are meant to make people laugh. The costumes used are either passed down over generations or sown by the wearer.
In the past, dancers would go door to door to perform. However, now, there are large-scale events around the country where you can watch this strange, yet charming custom along with traditional dances by the groups. The biggest Kukeri celebration, Surva Festival, is held in mid to late January in Pernik, a town 50 kilometres away from the nation’s capital, Sofia. Various Kukeri groups flock to the event to compete against one another, while tens of thousands of spectators watch. The Surva Festival takes place at the end of January or at the beginning of February.
Both the name and celebration of Kwanzaa were originally conceptualised by Maulana Karenga, a professor of Africana studies at the California State University, and a pioneer of Afrocentrism. A community event, Kwanzaa draws African American, and other members of the African diaspora together with their families in a poignant celebration of African familial and social values. The festival has seven core principles: unity (umoja), self-determination (kujichagulia), collective responsibility (ujima), cooperative economics (ujamaa), purpose (nia), creativity (kuumba), and faith (imani).
Each day of the festival, families light one candle in the kinara (candleholder) and discuss one of the principles. On December 31, the celebrations come to a head with a grand community feast, karamu. What better way to familiarise yourself with a culture than with a hearty meal? Try African creole, Cajun catfish, jerk chicken, or groundnut stew with jollof rice, collard greens and Kwanzaa slaw on the side.
You can also celebrate the spirit of Kwanzaa by donating to charities that support the African American or Pan-African communities, and create artefacts using the three colours of Kwanzaa—black, green and red—to honour kuumba (creativity), one of the principles of the festival. It is celebrated every year from December 26 to January 1.
One of Abu Dhabi’s most significant heritage events and tourist attractions, Liwa Date Festival highlights the many ways in which dates have impacted the cultural, heritage and economic life of the country. Now in its 18th year, the festival is held in the Liwa City Al Dhafra Region in Abu Dhabi, and introduces date producers to modern agricultural practices and facilitates the exchange of expertise on the best ways to produce the highest quality date.
Visitors can sample the myriad, popular varieties of dates at the festival. The contest for ‘Best Date Fruit’ is this unique festival’s primary attraction, with farmers contesting for the title of ‘Best Date Grower.’ There are also date auctions, where the fruit can sell for over AED 6,000 (INR 1,30,000) a kilo; lectures on date farming; poetry evenings; and an exhibition space for farming equipment and date products. This year, the unique festival was held from July 16 to July 24, and prizes worth AED 8 million (INR 18 crores) were distributed to winning farmers.
Hero and feature image credit: Courtesy of Inno Kurnia from Pixabay