Steeped in tradition as well as embroiled in controversy, Mardi Gras is celebrated throughout the American state of Louisiana, with a focus in the French Quarter of New Orleans, starting on Shrove (Fat) Tuesday (Mardi Gras means “Fat Tuesday”) in February and running about two weeks. Given the good weather in that Gulf of Mexico state at that time of year, outdoors is where things happen.
Visitors enjoy at least one parade per day (check out Mardi Gras World, a huge complex where the floats are made), picnics, dancing, costumes and masks, music, especially jazz (a new Orleans standard), food and drink (lots of drink!), and round-the-clock partying.
Catch trinkets and strands of beads that are tossed from the floats. Be sure to wear the classic Mardi Gras colours: purple, green and gold.
As always, whether Mardi Gras or any day, book your hotel and restaurants well in advance, and remember that New Orleans suffers a fairly high crime rate, so store your valuables and be aware of what’s going on around you.
The annual Elephant Festival, held at the Jaipur polo grounds in the city of Jaipur, state of Rajasthan, India, has been continuous since ancient times and is therefore one of the oldest world festivals. It is entirely a tribute to the intelligent, strong and wise elephants that have been essential to Indian culture for centuries. For those who fear that elephants are not kindly treated, rest assured this celebrates them, not abusing them, and they are kept well by trained “mahouts”. The pachyderms seem to understand this is all about them and they get into the swing.
Held on the eve of the Holi Festival, the Elephant Festival is a delight for young and old, with street food and vendors, music and dancing. It starts with a parade of female elephants, decorated with colourful rugs, anklets and other jewellery, and even with painted designs. These natural paints (the orange ones are, for example, made from turmeric), in their dry form, are tossed about the human celebrants, so everybody turns pink or orange!
This festival demonstrates the high regard in which elephants are held in this area of India. They are royalty to the locals. A few camels and horses also participate in the events. After the parade, there are elephant races, dances, polo matches and tug-of-war competitions. It’s a fun day for all.
Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is the largest amazing world festival on earth. Its current form has been in place since 1723, but it had its roots in a more Pagan form a hundred years before that. Today, as many as two million people take to Rio’s streets every day to participate in the fun. If you plan to go, you may need to book a year or more in advance.
The Rio Carnival takes place annually ending just before the Christian occasion of Lent, which is a 40-day period of abstinence from meat, alcohol and pleasure. Sort of like a last big party before being forced to behave. Due to the African and Portuguese influence in Brazil, Rio is different from other similar festivals like the Venice Carnival. Lavish, very skimpy costumes, festooned with glitter and feathers dominate the Samba dancers in the parades. There are grand balls, outdoor concerts, parties and an abundance of drinking and eating.
Carnival means “carne vale”, or “meat, farewell”, and you’ll find plenty of free things to do like street parties. Rio is tourist-safe during the day, but be more aware at night and stay in the main areas of the festival.
For nine days, beginning in the first full week of October every year, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta takes place in the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico, USA. It is an awe-inspiring sight to see as many as 600 hot air balloons aloft (yes, participants in the festival can get rides) in the popular Mass Ascension event.
Close to a million people turn up annually to see the balloons and enjoy adjunct events like chainsaw carving, live concerts, fireworks and the ever-popular Special Shapes (think cartoon characters and animals) balloon rodeo. There are two competitions, one for hot air balloons and one for photography.
Take in the ethereal Dawn Patrol and the Twilight Balloon Glows events. It’s a popular, uplifting (pun intended) event that attracts about 900,000 visitors, so book tickets, as well as hotels in advance. Up, up and away at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta!
There is more than one Oktoberfest in the world, but the biggest and oldest (begun in 1810) traditional “Wiesn” takes place in Munich, Germany, annually for about 2-1/2 weeks, beginning mid-September and ending in early October. It is a celebration of German culture, but more than that, beer. Generally, over 6,000,000 attendees drink more than 7,000,000 litres (that’s litres, not pints) of beer during Oktoberfest.
A festival of beer, food and fun, most ethnic Germans wear traditional costumes (like lederhosen) and hats during the festival. Classic German-style meat-based dishes are also consumed in great quantities. The festival offers live music (oom pah pah bands and also pop), food and drink, and parades.
For those living in North America, the world’s second largest Oktoberfest occurs during the same time period in the city of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario (about an hour northwest of Toronto). It has 700,000 attendees on average and can be driven to from all points in America and Canada. It’s been going on for 50 years.
The Pingxi Lantern Festival in Taiwan has enjoyed 100 years of candle-lit night skies, but has increasingly come under criticism for environmental issues and fire hazards. A New Years 2020 fire caused by these sky lanterns killed dozens of primates at the Krefeld Zoo in Germany, and has finally put a serious face to this ethereal practice.
The point of the festival is sincere: people write their wishes on these paper lanterns (they are supported by metal wires), light a candle and set them to the night skies, the intention being that their ancestors will read and grant their wishes. It’s a sentimental concept, and makes the night skies dazzle, but the dangers are clear.
Still, it’s an amazing, emotional thing to witness, and advocates have suggested that using the small solar-powered tealight candles will eliminate the fire risk. Let’s hope so, as this is a festival of lights as pretty as any fireworks.
Body painting is nothing new; ancient tribes have practised this art for millennia. This festival, held annually since 1998 in early July in the southern part of Austria, brings together professional body painters (the world championships are judged at this event), as well as make-up artists and special effects creators. The variety of styles and designs is massive. Be forewarned, however, nudity is involved.
About 30,000 people attend the festival in Klagenfurt that uses the human body as an art canvas. People from 50 countries attend and compete, so it’s also a polyglot of language and culture. In one word, it’s: colourful!
In addition to the body painting competition, the festival offers fashion shows, live music, a market with clothing, tattoo artists and piercing options, experimental performance art, dance, and even a children’s program with a yoga component. We have a hunch that while this festival may currently appeal to only certain tastes, it will gain in popularity over time. The human body truly is a work of art.
Until the mid-1900s, Thailand (together with Malaysia and Siam) celebrated only their traditional new year, Songkran, on April 13 of each year, not the typically global January 1st; that’s because they were on the Buddhist calendar. Although for world business purposes, the new year is set at January, Thailand continues to celebrate its traditional and ancient Songkran.
How would you say Happy New Year to a Thai person? “Sah-wah-dee pee mai.” Why is it a “water festival”? During Songkran (extended a few days so people can get home for the event) people pour water over statues of Buddha, as well as young and elderly people, the intent being to wash away their sins and/or bad luck.
Because so much water is tossed around during the celebration, attendees tend to wear clothing that will dry quickly, and never white. We hear that loud Hawaiian-style short are the go-to apparel. It sounds like a fun, easy way to wash away your negatives once a year.
From a seemingly simple act of building a wooden man to burn in celebration of the 1986 Summer Solstice to a return to the peace, love and understanding era of the mid-1960s, the Burning Man Festival is a specific taste. Those who have been claim everyone should go, but the fact is, it’s not for everyone and while children are welcome, they should be left at home, and the elderly should forget about resurrecting their teens.
Held annually in the Black Rock Desert, about 160 kilometers (100 miles) northeast of Reno, Nevada, USA, the event typically draws just under 70,000 participants, more accurately, revellers, willing to pay exorbitant sums to take part. The desert is hot during the day, and participants are invariably scantily clad as they bounce about dancing to a DJ or doing yoga, riding their bicycles around or walking on stilts. A circus-like atmosphere.
At night, when temperatures cool (this festival occurs toward the end of August for about eight days), lights and fireworks abound. People dress in rope lights, LED lights flitter in the sand, and effigies and sculptures of all sizes and types are lit on fire. Some call it madness; some call it bliss.
Called “carnevale” in Italy, the Venice Carnival began modestly in 1162 when a victorious fighter for the Republic of Venice returned from battle and a celebration was staged in Piazza San Macro with dancing, singing, food and drink. As the festival grew (like any one that offers a great party atmosphere), so did its parameters and it got so crazy that at times during the long history of the city, the carnevale was cancelled. The current version was established in 1979.
The date varies year to year because of the shifting dates of Easter, but it begins about two weeks before Lent, and ends then. Unlike Mardi Gras held in places like New Orleans and the Rio Carnival, Venice’s celebrations take a historic bent, with grand balls and parades where participants and spectators dress in period (usually Renaissance) costumes and wear elaborate masks; this dangerously enables people to behave badly as they cannot be identified (rather like the Internet).
But the Venice Carnival is all about fun and frivolity, a couple of weeks of pure joy. Each year there is a fairly serious competition for most beautiful mask, judged by a panel of costume and fashion designers. It’s Affordable Travel’s choice for best amazing world festival; it combines history and frolic in perfect balance.