7 Weird and Wonderful Festivals To Add to Your Bucket List
Dial the novelty of your adventures up a notch by timing your next trip to coincide with a unique annual festival, when locals (and tourists) let loose to celebrate with wild and wacky feats of athletic prowess and creative revelry. Whether you want to join in the raucous action by lobbing tomatoes in Spain or prefer to simply soak up the atmosphere as a spectator of Thailand’s monkey buffet, here are seven of the most unforgettable and over-the-top festivals worldwide.
Up Helly Aa
Marking the end of the winter holidays, the rowdy Scottish celebration of Up Helly Aa is lit … literally. This fire-centric festival takes place in towns across the Shetland Islands, though the largest event is held on the last Tuesday in January in the main town of Lerwick. There, hundreds of costumed locals—known as “guizers” and led by a “Guizer Jarl”—march through the streets carrying blazing torches before setting alight a mock Viking galley. Afterward, live music, dancing, feasting, and general merrymaking continue through the night as islanders honor Shetland’s Norse history.
How to visit: Travel to Lerwick by plane or ferry from London or mainland Scotland; the evening torch-lit procession and galley burning are open to the public but you must purchase a ticket to enter the halls.
Don’t wear your best clothes if you plan on diving into the messy mayhem that is La Tomatina. Thousands flock to the small town of Buñol (just west of Valencia) each August for the annual Tomato Festival, but the real draw is the 1-hour food fight on the final Wednesday of the month, when the crowd chucks an estimated 300,000 pounds of tomatoes at one another. This fun free-for-all began with a real tomato-tossing incident in 1945 and has become so popular over the years that participation is now limited to 20,000 ticket-holders.
How to visit: Be sure to purchase your ticket far in advance for this popular event and keep in mind that most visitors head to the nearby Los Peñones natural pools in the Rio Buñol to clean up after the veggie battle.
Cheung Chau, Hong Kong
Held annually on the island of Cheung Chau to coincide with Buddha’s birthday—which falls on the eighth day of the fourth month in the Chinese lunar calendar; usually April or May—the Bun Festival is a traditional Da Jiu Taoist religious celebration. During the event, the deity Pak Tai is honored with a parade and soaring bamboo towers covered in thousands of steamed buns that are distributed to the crowd to bring good fortune on the final day of the 4-day festival. Locals would once scale these bun towers as part of the festivities, but today there is a more staid (and safe) race to the top open only to trained climbers.
How to visit:Ferries for Cheung Chau depart from Hong Kong roughly every half hour and take less than 60 minutes to make the trip. Once you arrive on the island, follow the crowds to the public Pak Tai Temple festival site.
Monkey Buffet Festival
Its name may make you do a double-take, but this annual festival does not feature monkey meat as the main course. Instead, on the final Sunday of each November, the town of Lopburi entices thousands of local macaques with a fancy feast set up among the ruins of a 13th-century Khmer temple. Long a symbol of good fortune and prosperity, the primates are first honored by dancers in monkey costumes then presented with lavish towers of fresh fruit and vegetables. After eating their fill of almost 4,000 pounds of durian, watermelon, pineapple, and other delicacies, the guests of honor frolic with the crowd.
How to visit: It takes about two hours to reach Lopburi from Bangkok by train; no tickets are required to attend the festival.
Carnaval de Oruro
Many countries in Central and South America pull out all the stops when it comes time for Carnival each February. In Oruro, however, you can see thousands of demons dance as part of the diablada during the main parade of the 10-day Carnaval festivities. An example of the fusion of Andean and Christian rituals, this traditional dance was once used to worship the Uru god Tiw and today takes the form of frenetic footwork and devilish costumes and masks. Almost 40,000 decked-out dancers and musicians perform for 20 uninterrupted hours along the procession route, making this one of the most over-the-top Carnival celebrations in the world.
How to visit: You can reach Oruro from La Paz by taxi and purchase tickets for seats along the procession route on the day of the festival.
Long-time attendees (or “Burners”) may complain that this everything-goes celebration of creativity and self-expression has lost some of its radical weirdness over time, but there is no denying that Burning Man reigns as one of the most unique festivals in the world. Thousands gather in the Black Rock Desert for the week preceding and including Labor Day weekend to form a temporary artistic community with fantastical installations, performances, and a general atmosphere of cooperation and inclusion that culminates in a ceremonial burning of a 100-foot-high (30-meter-high) wooden man—hence the name.
How to visit: If you’re planning to join in, be sure to bring camping gear, food, and water. There are no hotels or other services in this remote canyon outpost about four hours northeast of Reno.
Uttar Pradesh, India
Perhaps the most exuberant celebrations in the world take place during India’s spectacular Holi, or Festival of Colors. A homage to the Hindu god Krishna, this spring festival takes place the morning following the full moon each March in northern India (especially the cities of Mathura and Vrindavan) and, unlike other holidays in India, does not center around religious ceremonies. Instead, locals dress in white and take to the streets with colored water and powders to cover passersby with a joyful rainbow of hues throughout the day. Like La Tomatina, Holi requires clothing you won’t regret having to toss out—and a good scrubbing down afterward.
How to visit: The best way to experience Holi is with a guided tour, so as to avoid the hassle of arranging transportation as well as enjoy insights into the history of this one-of-a-kind festival.