The best of the rest (3)
Where? Lopburi, Thailand
When? Late November
How long? 1 day
Bad table manners? Not to worry. At the Lopburi Banquet (also known as Lopburi Monkey Banquet) in Thailand, you’ll fit right in. This strange feast is laid on in the jungle town of Lopburi, 160km north of Bangkok, to thank the primates that are said to guard the well-being of the town, and your fellow diners are several hundred long-tailed macaques who may get nasty if you reach for the wrong banana.
Losar Archery Festival
When? Late January or early February
How long? 1 day
Archery is Bhutan’s national passion, and every year, as part of the Buddhist New Year, or Losar, celebrations, teams of marksmen across the land compete to hit targets at 140m using old-style bows and arrows. Traditionally, competitors spend the night beforehand sleeping out in a barn or in the forest – it’s claimed that spending the night at home with your wife is liable to make your concentration waver during the big event. On the day, there’s a big build-up, with competitors calling on shamans, astrology, mantras and other spiritual trickery to ensure their skill and good fortune. In the heat of the moment, though, all that inner tranquillity can go to pot, as rival teams and the hordes of drunken spectators are permitted – and even encouraged – to put the shooters off their stride. Anything bar actual physical contact goes, so there’s much cat-calling, insult- hurling – and, bizarrely, a preponderance of cross-dressing. The crowd has a great time – drinking, feasting, shouting, dancing (especially when someone makes a good shot), and generally acting the goat.
Where? Nara, Japan
When? Early March
How long? 1 day
Nara’s Todai-ji temple, home to the country’s largest Buddha, is also the venue for the annual Buddhist “water-drawing” festival, held every March for over a thousand years. Basically, a large crowd gathers outside the temple while eleven monks stand on a balcony above and wave lit torches around so that embers and flames deliberately drop onto the people below – all while other monks chant and pray behind the veil. Rather than dodge the embers, people try to catch them, as they’re believed to ward off evil. After a couple of hours of this, water is drawn from the temple’s sacred well and everyone goes home happy.
Obando Fertility Festival
Where? Bulacan, The Philippines
How long? 3 days
This festival sees all the childless locals gather together in the middle of the town of Bulacan and dance through the streets in procession to the town’s main church, the dancers carrying images of the town’s three patron saints, St Claire, St Paschal and the so-called Our Lady of Salambao (the festival takes place over their three saints’ days: May 17,18 and 19). The dance is a deliberately sexy affair, with lots of grinding hips designed to summon up the mystical forces needed to aid reproduction. The whole thing ends when the dancers reach the church, dance up the aisle and a mass is held.
Where? Kerala, India
How long? 10 days
A particularly joyful affair, this Keralan celebration of the harvest, has everything: flowers, dance, music, food, fireworks and – its main feature – the snakeboat races or Vallamkali, held in the towns of Karuvatta, Payippad, Aranmula and Kottayam, in which up to 150 oarsmen compete hard to win as well as look good, festooned as they are with siik, lace and flags.
Where? Thrissur, Kerala, India
When? Late April/early May
How long? 2 days
Introduced over two hundred years ago by the Cochin raja, Shaktan Tampuran, Puram is Kerala’s largest festival, a riot of colour and activity in which a host of stylishly decorated elephants parade through town, alongside marching bands of drummers and folk dancers. The frenetic climax to the amazing, seemingly non-stop percussion acts as a signal to the elephant riders, who stand in unison, twirling their feather fans and hair whisks in an incredible co-ordinated sequence. The festivities continue through the night, when the entrances to the Vadukannatha temple, right in the heart of town, are ablaze with colour and a spectacular firework display takes place in the early hours of the morning.