Insights into Local Cultures
Festivals provide a wonderful window into the local culture of a country and give you the opportunity to see how people celebrate the things that are most important to them. It is a time when visitors are often most welcome and can even join in. For example, if you had a friend from Botswana who’d never been to the United States, wouldn’t it be great to have her visit you on the Fourth of July? These are some of my favorite festival experiences.
Papua New Guinea (PNG) is one of the world's last frontiers, so it is an amazing destination for travelers who want to experience the best of both nature and culture. As you fly over the island, you can see that the interior is almost impenetrable, so it is no wonder few visitors ever go beyond the port towns. It is shockingly beautiful, with vast rivers, lush rain forests and pristine coral reefs. As the second largest island in the world, it has mountains reaching nearly 15,000 feet which create hundreds of isolated areas, promoting diversity among the people as well as in nature. With over 700 distinct languages spoken throughout the country, PNG has one of the most diverse populations in the world.
One of the most exciting cultural experiences in Papua New Guinea is a traditional Sing-Sing, an annual gathering of hundreds of different tribes and clans that come together dressed in elaborate tribal costumes to chant, dance, perform and compete. It goes on for days. This unique ceremonial ritual was first introduced in the 1960s by the government to bring traditional enemies together peacefully and on neutral ground. Seeing a Sing-Sing firsthand is like seeing color for the first time; you’ll feel as if you have lived your whole life prior to the Sing-Sing in black and white.
Another amazing cultural experience is the annual Lantern Festival in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Although the Lantern Festival is celebrated everywhere throughout Thailand, it is most impressive in scale in Chiang Mai, where thousands of lanterns, or Khom Loi, are released simultaneously. This impressive display does mean that crowds are prevalent. However, Thai culture is so lovely that to raise one’s voice or to become visibly upset in public is considered the height of impoliteness, thus making this shared moment of humanity truly extraordinary. It usually occurs from Mid-October to Mid-November of every year.
On the night of the festival, our guide gently weaved us through the massive, but accommodating crowd to the staging area. She explained to us that the festival symbolizes new beginnings. When you light your lantern, you are supposed to make a wish. There is a religious component to the festival, as releasing a lantern and letting go of one’s burden is a form of receiving merit, an important concept in Buddhism. For us, it was a chance to let go of our sadness. My partner’s father, who was very dear to her, had passed away earlier in the year. His passing was particularly difficult for her so I planned this trip in the hopes it would lighten the heaviness she felt in her heart. As Buddhist monks in saffron robes suddenly stopped their chanting, the crowd was instructed to quietly light our paper lanterns. After doing so, we were instructed to observe a moment of silence, as we all gathered our thoughts. The soft flutter of the rice paper was the only sound to be heard. Finally, we were asked to simultaneously release our lanterns. Magically, hundreds of thousands of lanterns floated up to the sky. It was as if the crowd emitted a tremendous collective sigh, a moment of profound elation shared by all as the collective burdens of hundreds of thousands lifted from us. We wept, but our tears were happy and grateful ones.
There is a second festival that takes place in Chiang Mai the next night called Loi Krathong. This is a similar festival, but instead of paper lanterns, people release floating baskets made from banana leaves, flowers, and candles in the river to express gratitude, thankfulness, and forgiveness. We also released our floating baskets, but we later watched this enchanting flotilla from our riverfront restaurant where our guide had arranged a romantic candlelight dinner for us. It was magical.
Whenever I arrange a trip, I look to see what festivals or annual events I can include. Often, by slightly shifting your dates or your itinerary, you can experience an iconic cultural event such as a Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico or one of the Tschechus in Bhutan, which includes religious mask dances as well as colorful folk dances and other entertainment. These events often are among the highlights of a trip.