The many spring festivals in Asia are diverse and exciting, but they’ll definitely affect your travel plans in the region.
Smart travelers know to either arrive early and enjoy the fun or steer clear until things calm down. Don't fall for the worst-case scenario: paying inflated prices for flights and hotels without getting to enjoy the fun!
Songkran in Thailand and Golden Week in Japan put a lot of strain on the travel infrastructure in both places. Many other smaller spring festivals in Asia include planting ceremonies and a variety of celebrations observing Buddha’s Birthday. Some of the festivals primarily observed only by locals will pass unnoticed by tourists.
Note: Although Chinese New Year is also known as the "Spring Festival," it falls in January or February each year. Most of Asia is in the Northern Hemisphere, so we'll consider the spring months to be March, April, and May.
Holi is rowdy, colorful, and completely unforgettable if you’re brave enough to arm yourself with powdered dye and join the fray. Crowds in the streets dance into a frenzy and dust each other with colorful powders in a good-natured blessing. Holi is a celebration of good triumphing over evil.
In old times, the colored powders were made from neem and other Ayurvedic medicines that helped prevent infections triggered by changes of season. Unfortunately, some of the artificial dyes thrown in modern times are irritants. Use caution if you have skin or respiratory conditions.
Dates for Holi vary from year to year because they are based on the full moon in March. The Holi festival is usually observed in March but occasionally at the end of February.
For one day each year, the drone of motorbikes is silenced, bars stop the thumping music, and Bali’s tourism machine grinds to a halt. This is done to keep mischievous spirits from lingering around and causing problems.
The Day of Silence is strictly enforced; Western travelers aren’t exempt. Tourists are expected to stay on their hotel grounds during Nyepi, dim the lights, and speak in hushed voices. Technically, even watching television isn't allowed. You may need a break after the noise, fireworks, and rambunctious party the night before Nyepi, anyway!
The day is considered a traditional New Year according to the Balinese saka lunar calendar.
- Where: Bali, Indonesia
- When: In March or April; dates are based on a lunar calendar and change each year.
Songkran began as a tradition of sprinkling water on each other as a blessing. Buddha statues are brought out for the new year in a procession to then be washed by worshipers looking to obtain merit.
Modern Songkran has evolved into dumping buckets of ice water and blasting strangers with big water cannons. You are guaranteed to get wet during Songkran; holding a phone, laptop, or passport is no excuse. Your luggage could become soaked if you arrive during the thralls of Songkran.
Love it or hate it, there’s only one way to survive Songkran: embrace the fun and arm yourself with a bucket—or stay far, far away!
Backpackers traveling along Southeast Asia’s Banana Pancake Trail absolutely love the holiday, but so do locals! Songkran is certainly not just a tourist party. It's a good time to playfully interact with local Thais.
Thailand experiences the hottest temperatures in April (often over 100 degrees Fahrenheit), so being sprayed with cold water isn’t as bad as it sounds.
- Where: Throughout Thailand but Chiang Mai is the epicenter. Smaller celebrations can be enjoyed in Luang Prabang (Laos) and Myanmar/Burma.
- When: Official dates are April 13 – 15, but unofficial celebrations often start earlier. You could get a drenching as early as April 11.
Reunification Day in Vietnam
The fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese troops on April 30, 1975, is celebrated with small festivals throughout Vietnam. The day is observed as "Reunification Day" because North and South Vietnam were connected, bringing an end to the "American War."
Stages are erected in streets and public parks for musical performances. Military parades march in the streets while spectators wave flags.
Reunification Day isn't very disruptive in other parts of Vietnam, but traffic will be blocked in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).
- Where: Saigon is the epicenter, but small festivals are held throughout Vietnam.
- When: April 30
As many businesses close for a break, scores of Japanese take time off of work to travel, causing delays in transportation. Trains and flights often fill up. Public parks, malls, and popular attractions become even busier than usual with large crowds. If you travel during Golden Week, expect to stand in long queues for everything you want to see and do.
Although Golden Week implies that the holidays stretch for around seven days, the impact is actually closer to 10 days or more.
Tourists traveling in Japan often find Golden Week to be exciting but restrictive. By simply waiting a week or two after the holiday to visit Japan, you'll enjoy a lot more personal space and a lot less traffic!
- Where: Throughout Japan
- When: Officially, Golden Week begins with Showa Day on April 29 and wraps up with Children’s Day on May 5; the impact may last longer.
Hanami, the tradition of appreciating of flowers, is a big deal in Japan. Spring is already a great time to visit Japan, but the blooming flowers are an excellent bonus—assuming you plan around Golden Week.
The beautiful cherry (sakura) blossoms appear sometime between March and May, depending on the latitude and climate. Big groups of Japanese people flock to parks for picnics, drinking sessions, and family time beneath the blooms. Some offices organize picnics and parties for workers in the parks.
The cherry blossoms don't last long, hence the reason they are revered as a symbol of fleeting beauty. Appreciate them while you can!
The Cherry Blossom Festival coincides with Golden Week in some places, adding to the madness.
- Where: All over Japan; the Japan Meteorological Agency actually tracks the progress of blooms.
- When: Sometime between mid March and early May, depending on local temperatures that trigger the blooms.
Known as Vesak Day, the observed birthday of Gautama Buddha is celebrated in different ways on different dates throughout Asia. Many countries observe the day in spring, often in May.
Vesak Day is observed with religious rites and sincere attempts to be more gentle, eat vegetarian food, and keep Buddhist teachings in mind.
Travelers are rarely affected by observations of Buddha’s Birthday other than being inconvenienced by the halting of alcohol sales in places such as Thailand. If you're planning to attend a Full Moon Party in May, the date may be adjusted to account for Vesak day.
- Where: Throughout Asia
- When: Almost always in May, but dates change from year to year and country to country.
"Dayak" is a collective term used to refer to more than 205 ethnic groups, many of which once practiced headhunting. Despite modernization, many old animist traditions still persist. Tourists can still visit (and sometimes stay in) traditional longhouse dwellings.
Gawai Dayak is celebrated with processions, games, and traditional music. Although Gawai Dayak is technically June 1, celebrations begin the night before.
- Where: Sarawak, Borneo; tourists can enjoy events in Kuching.
- When: June 1, however, cultural displays and celebrations begin up to a week before.