Nowhere else on Earth
During the month of April, the streets of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand set the scene for a slippery warfare, where the weapons are plastic guns, hosepipes, buckets and just about anything that can be used to carry water. Even the Buddhist nuns are in on the act—drenching unsuspecting tourists with bowls of icy H2O.
Songkran (or Thai New Year) is one of the country’s most celebrated festivals and has its roots in ancient Buddhist custom.
In the old days, the monks would gently sprinkle water on the hands of local citizens—as a symbol of cleansing the old year and making way for the new.
Whatever gentle origins this festival may have had, they are not evident on the streets of Chiang Mai where “gangs” of plastic gun- toting “terrorists” wreak mayhem from the backs of 4x4s, bikes and on foot.
Even the forex tellers will hand you your bhat accompanied by a quick squirt in the face. The festival lasts for four days and family activities and temple blessings and meditations are all part of the deal.
On the drier end of the scale is Tunisia’s Festival du Sahara (around November and December). The event takes place in Douz, deep in the Sahara, and celebrations last for three days. The festival draws nomadic communities from all over North Africa and a massive stadium is set up in the desert to host the major events.
There are horse races and equine gymnastics (men doing headstands on their cantering horses) as well as rabbit chases and camel fights. The desert is transformed into a carnival atmosphere and one can take a caravan safari at the end of the festivities.
Another place where the camels get down and dirty is in Selcuk, Turkey. Believe it or not, camel wrestling is a sport here—a less bloody equivalent to the Spanish bullfight. Basically, two bull camels are brought into the ring, with a female camel nearby to stir a hormonal rumpus. The male camels will usually start attacking each other and sometimes (if the audience is lucky) will wrestle each other to the ground. A real highlight is when one of the camels runs into the crowds—as in the case of the more famous Pamplona equivalent, the experience relies on the adrenaline that comes with running from an enraged beast.
The Spanish are equally strange. Where else in the world would throwing tomatoes be considered a highlight? The annual La Tomatina festival is a major happening on the streets of Bunol (near Valencia) where war is waged using over-ripe tomatoes as missiles. What began in 1944 as a simple fight between friends in the town’s main square set the stage for the globe’s largest food fight. The facts say it all—about 30 000 people pitch up and throw more than 108 000kg of tomatoes.
Japan must be the one country in the world that hosts a penis festival. Hounen Matsuri takes place on March 15 in the town of Komaki (400km south of Tokyo). It is here that a mile-long procession of locals make their way to the Shinto shrine of Tagata Jinja carrying an enormous, erect wooden penis. The penis is offered at the shrine as a symbol for a fruitful harvest.
If you’re ever in Lagos wondering whether being manhandled in the street is the common demoninator of world travel, you could rely on music to get a glimpse of the real warmth and energy beneath the hustle and bustle. The best way to do that is to go to one of Lagbaja’s concerts.
He is Nigeria’s most enigmatic saxophonist, famous in the capitals of the world, yet unknown in his hometown. This is because Lagbaja wears a mask when he performs in Lagos, so that he can remain anonymous and walk the streets “like an ordinary guy”. The mystery of the mask lends a magic to his performances and allows the maestro to whip his fans into a frenzy. If you and he happen to be in town at that the same time, there will be a myriad adverts telling you where to go. The concerts start at midnight and last well into the daylight hours, so be sure to take a lot of energy along with you.
Africa also has a fare share of other exotic festivals and ceremonies and many of these are centred on death, dying and appeasing the ancestors. Famadihana is Madagascar’s turning of the bones ceremony that takes place around the Antananarivo highlands during the Malagasy winter (August and September). This is when the Merina people dig up the bones of their dead and hold something of a family reunion. Feasts are prepared and there is much revelling and celebrating of life until a farewell ceremony takes place and the bones are returned to the earth. A stranger’s presence is said to be a good omen and travellers are often invited into homes to take part in the festivities.
Speaking of strange customs around death and dying—the folk in Accra are hell-bent on being buried in style. Here, the coffin-makers in Ghana double up as artists. Forget a standard wooden box in which to place your loved ones. In Ghana you can choose be buried in a Nike sneaker coffin, a Coke bottle coffin, an aeroplane coffin, or perhaps even a miniature Elmina castle. Creativity varies depending on the client’s needs and, of course, their wallet.
Europeans seem less concerned with death and dying and more worried about the trivial things in life, such as the best weed in the world. The Cannabis Cup takes place in Amsterdam every year and is a five-day event that brings fundis together to crit the latest varieties of marijuana. Among a lot of puffing and coffee, there is singing and dancing and spiritual lamentations, poetry gatherings and New Age meetings. The best thing is the free samples given out to all and sundry.
While the Dutch are holding week-long festivals celebrating the best wacky tabacky, the Belgians are taking to their bathtubs. During mid-August, the town of Dinant hosts the International Regatta of Bathtubs along the River Meuse. The festival is in its 20th year and the only important rule is that sinking fellow competitors leads to instant disqualification.
The Europeans are clearly bored and need to find new creative ways to entertain themselves. For the past seven years, the town of Seeboden in Austria has hosted the World Body-Painting Festival. The event usually draws crowds of more than 15 000 people—no doubt the 250-plus naked models have something to do with attendance figures.
The Finns are also a pretty barmy bunch, they created the Air Guitar World Championships and a load of other completely irrelevant festivals such as the Wife Carrying Championships (in Sonkajarvi) and the World Sauna Championships (Heinola). Perhaps they should get out more.
The Pacific Islanders prefer things a lot more physical. On Pentecost Island in Vanuatu, land diving takes place during the yam season (April and May). This is when the local males take part in the island’s fertility rite by plunging 35m (headfirst) from a timber tower. Sheer madness.
Perhaps the awards for the most inane festivities should go to Canada and Australia. Canada boasts the Rock Paper Scissors International World Championships and Brisbane is the headquarters of World Championship Cockroach Racing … say no more.