Water Splashing Festival in Yunnan

Posted on 16. Apr, 2015 by in Culture, festivals, sightseeing, travel

Yunnan province is one of the most ethnically diverse places in China – among the country’s 56 ethnic groups, 25 reside here. One such group is the Dai (傣族 – dǎi zú), who live primarily in the southern region of Yunnan known as Xishuangbanna (西双版纳 – xī shuāng bǎn nà) and are also in neighboring Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Myanmar. As with other ethnic minority groups in China, the Dai have their own unique culture – clothing, language, cuisine, and festivals. As they’re closely related to Thai people, they also celebrate the New Year from April 13th-15th. Known as the Water Splashing Festival (泼水节 – pō shuǐ jié), this is a fun-filled three days with dragon boat races, temple visits, parades, and an epic water fight on the last day. Here are some highlights from this year’s celebration in the city of Jinghong (景洪 – jǐng hóng), capital of Xishuangbanna.

Day One

Hot and noisy on the Mekong River.

Hot and noisy on the Mekong River.

On the first day, the festivities are centered around the Mekong River, known as the Lancang (澜沧江lán cāng jiāng) in Chinese. Along the riverbank, there are various BBQ stalls, make-shift photo studios, carnival games, and souvenir shops. Massive crowds of tourists flock here to take part in the festival, which is one of the most famous celebrations in China.

A parade to welcome in the new year.

A parade to welcome in the new year.

In the nearby gymnasium, Dai people gather in their most colorful clothing for a performance and parade. Singing, chanting, and playing drums, they march through the streets and down to the river for a large ceremony. A group of monks lead the group in prayer and give blessings to the festival before bamboo fireworks are set off, one of which explodes into a colorful sea of streamers.

The ceremony kicking off the celebration.

The ceremony kicking off the celebration.

Dragon boat races go on all afternoon.

Dragon boat races go on all afternoon.

Next up are the dragon boat races (龙舟竞渡 – lóng zhōu jìng dù). Huge teams dressed identically in traditional clothing paddle massive wooden boats up the river racing two at a time. A few people stand on the back, most sit in the middle and furiously row, and a few dance at the front. In the middle, a leader guides the rowers with a drum or gong. The races can be quite intense, not only on but off the water as well – huge crowds jockey for position with selfie-sticks raised high to get that perfect WeChat picture.

In the middle of an intense race.

In the middle of an intense race.

Making new friends is easy!

Making new friends is easy!

When the races finish up, most seek shelter from the intense heat and punishing sun in the many restaurants/bars along the river. Not many foreigners seem to make it here, so I was even more of a novelty than usual and was invited a few different times to sit down to eat and drink with complete strangers. You gotta love the hospitality in China, especially during traditional festivals.

Thousands of lanterns fly up in the night sky.

Thousands of lanterns fly up in the night sky.

At night, the crowds descend on the banks of the mighty Mekong yet again, this time to release hundreds of lanterns into the sky. This is thought to drive away bad luck and bring in the good, and it’s quite the sight to behold. While I’ve seen plenty of lanterns sent off traveling in SE Asia and even at American music festivals, nobody can top China when it comes to sheer numbers.

A panorama of the lanterns being sent off.

A panorama of the lanterns being sent off.

Day Two

Bathing the Buddha.

Bathing the Buddha.

The second day is primarily a religious one. As with Thais, Laotians, and their Shan brethren in Myanmar, the Dai people are Buddhist. Generally, high ranking monks will lead a special ceremony in a local temple in the morning. Throughout the day, people come to the temple to wash the Buddha image, often with scented water. Performing this cleansing ritual ensures good luck and prosperity in the new year.

A local temple in Jinghong.

A local temple in Jinghong.

The park, which looks far more Thai than Chinese.

The park, which looks far more Thai than Chinese.

You’ll also see parades both large and small as the Dai people proudly march through town, singing, banging on drums, and enjoying their most important festival of the year. As for the tourists, the streets are clogged with people heading to the park, window shopping, or going for a meal.

Song and dance performance in the town.

Song and dance performance in the town.

Every evening in Jinghong, you can also catch a performance full of traditional minority clothing, songs, dance, and more. Before the show, Han Chinese tourists are led through a variety of games where they attempt to speak the local Dai language, sing their songs, and pull off their dance moves. It’s quite hilarious, and a good reminder of the many differences across China’s ethnic groups.

Day Three

Time to get soaked!

Time to get soaked!

On the final day of the festivities, everyone hits the streets armed with buckets, squirt guns, and water balloons in what just might be the biggest water fight on Earth. No one is safe on the road, and you can even be hit from above by locals hanging out their window. In Jinghong, revelers gather by the thousands at the Water Splashing Square to get soaking wet. There’s also a bit of a song and dance show going on up front, and even the host, dancers, and police on the stage are all targets for splashing.

One wet lao wai.

One wet lao wai.

Having celebrated Songkran in Thailand last year on the island of Koh Pha Ngan, I thought I knew what to expect heading to Jinghong. Nothing could have prepared me for the madness of this festival in China, though. Once again, the sheer number of people here is just overwhelming. Whereas the water fight was mostly between those on the side of the road and those driving by in Thailand, this was a free-for-all of everyone for themselves. On Koh Pha Ngan, the water fighting is just a part of the party, as there’s also a parade, a DJ, and people selling drinks. In Jinghong, however, the entire focus is on the splashing. It was fun for a while, but after two hours I was drenched, had ears and eyes full of water, and a vicious sunburn. I’m glad I went and got to experience this festive celebration in my new home of Yunnan, but I think I’ll head back to Thailand for it next year.

A Psy-Trance Festival in China – Spirit Tribe

Posted on 13. Apr, 2015 by in Art, Culture, environment, festivals, music, music festivals

We came. We saw. We got our bodies painted, tried spinning poi, and danced the night away under a lunar eclipse.

Dancing under the full moon.

Dancing under the full moon.

Over the Tomb Sweeping/Easter weekend, a group of 250 revelers descended on a small village outside of Kunming for the inaugural Spirit Tribe festival. Thrown by Beijing’s Goa Productions, this two-day psytrance party attracted a solid mix of locals, expats, and travelers drawn by the idyllic location and intimate vibe. We didn’t sweep any tombs or paint any eggs, but we sure had a good time.

Hiking into the festival.

Hiking into the festival.

It being the first time, no one quite knew what to expect. A crowd gathered in Kunming’s city center to board the buses that festival organizers provided. With tents, sleeping bags, and perhaps a few tucked away bottles of liquor in tow, we got dropped off on the side of the road and hiked into the festival site.

Great place for a small festival.

Great place for a small festival.

Surrounded by mountains with a natural lake, this proved to be the perfect setting for a weekend of music, art, and so much more. There was plenty of space to set up camp; most pitched a tent while some chose simply to hang a hammock. With music scheduled to go on for nearly 48 hours straight, no one planned to do much sleeping anyways.

The bigger Dance Stage.

The bigger Dance Stage.

With just two stages – Dance and Chill – moving around the festival was a piece of cake. Both stages were decorated in a colorful mix of tapestries and string art, adding a bit of eye candy to the continuous beats.

Kickin' back at the Chill Stage.

Kickin’ back at the Chill Stage.

The festival was about more than just the music, as there were also daily yoga sessions and workshops on topics ranging from Tibetan Buddhism to improv comedy. This already sets Spirit Tribe apart from other festivals in China, which rarely feature anything other than music. Also making this festival unique was the fact that the local farmers and goat herders went about their business just like it was any other day.

Even the goats were gettin' down!

Even the goats were gettin’ down!

All in all, it was an incredibly successful event. Aside from some light showers early on the last morning, we were blessed with perfect Yunnan weather. The small size made it easy to move around and make new friends, who came from all over China and the world to be a part of this special event.

Nothing like a game of frisbee in the afternoon.

Nothing like a game of frisbee in the afternoon.

Days were spent tossing around the frisbee, playing hackey sack or jian zi (毽子), practicing poi spinning, hiking in the surrounding area, or just lounging by the lake in a bean bag.

The many colors of a psytrance party.

The many colors of a psytrance party.

The place lit up in a sea of neon and came to life at night, with a mass of bodies grooving as one under the colorful canopy of the main stage. The sun went down behind the trees, the stars and the moon filled the night sky, and the party continued until the sun peaked its head over the hills again.

The night time is the right time.

The night time is the right time.

Day turned into night and then back again, and all of a sudden it was time to go. They say time flies when you’re having fun, and that old adage sure rang true at this festival. In just two days, a small community was formed, came together, and then had to dissipate; such is the fleeting nature of music festivals. Here’s to hoping that the first incarnation of this one was exactly that – the first one – and that there will be more of its kind in the years to come.

A festival-goer letting loose and feeling the music.

A festival-goer letting loose and feeling the music.

A Brief Review

Music festivals are a passion of mine and I’ve been to dozens of them back home in the US as well as others in the Netherlands, Mexico, Jamaica, and China. Even though I’m admittedly not the biggest psytrance fan – I’d rather see a band than a DJ – this was one of my most enjoyable festivals in years. It was by far the best I’ve experienced in China for a variety of reasons. The location was perfect, they did a great job decorating and with the sound, and it was for the most part very well run. It was amazing to be at a show in China with no curfew and no police presence – two things every other festival I’ve been to has had.

Thanks for a good time, Goa Productions!

Thanks for a good time, Goa Productions!

That being said, there were of course a few things that a first-time festival could improve on in its sequel. Namely, the issue of food and drink. Attendees were told not to bring any of their own, but then the small kitchen and overworked staff had a hard time keeping up with orders. On the last morning, they were completely out of food and drinking water. This is just not acceptable for a music festival that told people not to bring any food or water. Also, while there were indeed some people who wanted to party all night, not everyone was thrilled about the loud and high energy music blasting from the Dance stage at all hours. It would have been much nicer to have the Chill stage closer to the tents so that those who wanted to at least try to get a few hours of sleep could do so.

Here's to hoping for more gatherings at this beautiful site!

A few slip-ups, but a great festival for the most part.

All in all, though, Spirit Tribe was an awesome experience. I’ve never seen such a like-minded community of art and music lovers get together at the same place in the same time here, and it was a magical thing to be a part of. Here’s to hoping for more gatherings at this beautiful site in the province I now call home.

Shenzhen Craft Beer Festival

Posted on 09. Apr, 2015 by in Beer, Culture, Drinking

Beer fest!

Beer fest!

Chinese beer is, for the most part, watered down and tasteless. Thankfully a craft beer revolution is taking the Middle Kingdom by storm. Check out some highlights from the inaugural Shenzhen craft beer festival to and join the beer-volution!

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