Take a trip around the globe this winter to experience some of the most spectacular and bizarre festivals in destinations as diverse as Australia and Austria, Egypt and Guatemala, Japan and Malaysia.
Festival de San Tomás: Chichicastenango, Guatemala (December 21, 2006)
The open air market in Chichicastenango is a colorful and exciting destination at any time of the year, full of native Guatemalans in traditional tribal dress selling their wares, burning incense on the church steps and dodging tourists. The Festival of Saint Thomas makes the market town an even greater attraction as thousands of people from the Guatemalan highlands arrive to participate in a celebration of music, dance, art and craft. Women wear the traditional multi-colored shirt and multicolored multi-layered skirts, there is a Guatemalan style maypole and costumed dancers in masks perform in the streets in a type of carnival pageant. Images of the city's patron saint San Tomás are paraded through the streets with the strong smell of incense coming from the church and loud firecrackers, drums and bands playing in celebration.
The Rolex Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race: Sydney, Australia (December 26, 2006)
What would Boxing Day in Australia be without an excuse to head to the shore and watch the yachts set sail on the infamous Sydney to Hobart -- one of the most treacherous medium course sailing races in the world. For over 60 year brave sailors have taken to the sometimes inhospitable waters of the Pacific Ocean and Bass Strait to compete in this event and the start of the race is a spectacle like no other. Imagine thousands of water craft, yachts and send off boats alike, descending on Sydney Harbor with the Opera House and Sydney Harbor Bridge as a backdrop. As the flotilla makes its way through Sydney Heads, hundreds of thousands of spectators line the shore to give them the send off they deserve. With over 300 yachts competing and a ton of festive activities happening along the foreshore, all this grandeur can be enjoyed for free: you just need to find the right vantage point. For more race details, visit www.rolexsydneyhobart.com.
Wakakusa Yamayaki: Nara, Japan (January 8, 2007)
This ritual burning festival is steeped in tradition and dates back to the Kamakura Period of the late 12th to mid 14th centuries. During Wakakusa Yamayaki, the grass on Wakakusa Hill in Japan's ancient capital of Nara is transformed into a giant burning landscape when the whole hill measuring over 1000 feet is set ablaze. The event starts just before sunset with purification rituals and prayers for safety, followed by a display of fireworks. Monks sound the call out on conch shells for the burning to begin and priests dressed as Japanese warriors use torches lit by the sacred flame of the Kasuga Shrine. The rising flames and sky illuminating fireworks can be seen throughout Nara with vantage points in Nara Park. Over 100,000 people are on hand to watch the annual event that represents purification and rebirth.
International Grizzly Gas Hot Air Balloon Week: Filzmoos, Austria (January 13 to 20, 2007)
Filzmoos is tiny picture postcard town located in the Austrian Alps, south of Salzburg, and for 27 years, it has been home to this supreme international ballooning event, drawing balloon and competitive teams from around the world. Next year 40 teams will take part in Hot Air Balloon Week creating a stunning visual image of color set against the serene white of the alpine ski fields. Unlike many ballooning events where you need to go out to remote open spaces to watch the ascents, in Filzmoos, the balloons actually take off right in the middle of the village and face challenging winds off the surrounding mountains. The highlight of the event is considered to be on January 14, the Balloon Night: Balloon Glow: when all balloons ascend in the starry night sky. Directly following Balloon Week is the Hanseat Balloon Trophy runs from January 20 to 27 and involves 15 balloon teams competing. The event attracts thousands of visitors who bus in from neighboring ski resorts and towns. For more information visit www.filzmoos.at.
Thaipusam at Batu Caves: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (February 1, 2007)
I must admit that I was in Kuala Lumpur a couple of years during the Thaipusam but couldn't bring myself to visit the Batu Caves as I thought the images may be too disturbing. In retrospect I was probably wrong as this is one of the most spectacular if not unique Hindu festivals that just happens to be known for its bizarre displays of devotion and penitence through what we westerners might consider self-mutilation.
Thaipusam commemorates the day when the Goddess Parvathi gave her son Murugan a lance so he could vanquish the evil demons. The festival starts with a procession through the town, a silver chariot carries the image of Lord Subramaniam, Shiva's youngest son and people throw coconuts on the ground beside it. Devotees then head for the Batu Caves, which are a Hindu pilgrimage site. Followers atone for their sins by dragging heavy metal frames attached by steel hooks inserted into their skin. Some put skewers through their cheeks or tongues to represent the lance or they make the journey up to the caves with the large steel hooks in their backs or chests. The caves are located less than 10 miles north of Kuala Lumpur are accessible by bus.
Abu Simbel Festival: Abu Simbel, Egypt (February 22, 2007)
Remember in the film Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones used a gold medallion mounted on a rod and placed it in the floor in the map room and the sun shone in at a set time and revealed the location of the hidden treasure? Well fact isn't that far removed from fiction when it comes to the engineering genius of the ancient Egyptians. Twice a year, the magnificent east facing temple of Abu Simbel's inner chamber is illuminated by the sun: coinciding with the anniversaries of its owner, Ramses II's birthday and succession to the throne. If you happen to be in Egypt on this day, take the trip south to Abu Simbel to witness this spectacle that has occurred for several thousand year. After you've been awed by the shafts of light, join the festival celebrations held outside the temple with a fair and musical performances.
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