It’s that time of year once again when we bid farewell to sweltering heat (and our summer tans) and embrace the brisk chill and earthy aromas of fall. One way that cultures around the world honor the changing season is through festivals. Whether celebrating the full moon or a local tribe of macaque monkeys, these commemorations give visitors a glimpse into the lifestyles and traditions of communities across the globe. What better way to usher in autumn than with a visit to these remarkable—and often peculiar—festivals around the world?
Mid-Autumn Festival – China & Southeast Asia
China’s Mid-Autumn Festival, or Moon Festival, dates back 3,000 years to the Zhou Dynasty. Back then, the Chinese believed that offering sacrifices to the full autumn moon would bring plentiful harvests in the coming year. Today the moon is a symbol of prosperity, reunion, and happiness in Southeast Asian culture. The Moon Festival is China’s second-most popular celebration after Chinese New Year. Annual festivities include lantern displays, fire dragon dances, and the eating of moon cakes—traditional pastries filled with lotus seed paste, chocolate, and various other flavors.
Outback Festival – Winton, Australia
If you’ve ever found yourself thinking, “I’d give anything to roll a wool bale or throw a broom competitively,” the biennial Outback Festival in rural Winton, Queensland is your dream come true! This five-night celebration of all things country includes such quirky events as the Outback Ironman, Bush Mardi Gras, and the puzzling World Crayfish Derby Race. The festival’s signature event is the Quilton Australian Dunny Derby—“dunny” being an Aussie term for “toilet.” In this competition, costumed teams of four pull and push rolling outhouses (and their throne-bound jockeys) through an obstacle course for prize money. Fireworks, live music, and a traditional Aussie outback picnic round off the festivities.
Entenrennen – Germany
Every October in the town of Tübingen, Germany, the Neckar River at Alleenbrücke swarms with ducks. Seven thousand strong, these bobbing menaces push and shove their way downstream, clambering for dominance. If you’re there to witness this curious sight, welcome to the rough-and-tumble, never-say-die world of rubber duck racing.
The Entenrennen—literally “duck run”—is an annual contest in which participants purchase rubber ducks (proceeds go to charity) in the hopes that their adorable yellow bathtub inhabitant will be the first to make it to the finish line downstream. The first-place winner—or, more accurately, the owner of the first-place winner—receives a €1,000 travel voucher. The event began in 1999, and its growing popularity has inspired recreations of the festival across the country and the world. Rules enacted over time ban such violations as late-arrivals and waterfowl that enter the river in non-designated areas. In the spirit of fair competition, any bath toy caught using performance-enhancing mechanisms will be automatically disqualified.
White Night – Paris, France
Freshen up your coffee and prepare to see Paris like never before. Begun in 2002, White Night (Nuit Blanche) is an all-night celebration of Parisian art and culture. Over 120 cultural institutions and public sites stay open all night, inviting attendees to explore the city after dark. Participating entities include museums, libraries, cinemas, places of worship, parks, universities, and even swimming pools. Illuminated monuments and buildings beckon attendees all night long, encouraging them to gain a new perspective on the city. In the morning, the city hall in each arrondissement organizes breakfast for those who have lasted through the wee hours.
Abu Simbel’s Festival of the Sun – Nubia, Egypt
Twice a year, thousands of travelers converge on the temple of Abu Simbel to witness a stunning solar spectacle. Just after sunrise on October 22nd and February 22nd, the sun aligns with the temple’s entrance and beams a shaft of light onto the statues of Ramses, Ra, and Amun in the central chamber. Historians believe these dates to coincide with the birth and coronation of King Ramses II. Live Nubian music and dancers in traditional clothing contribute to the celebratory atmosphere.
The two Abu Simbel temples were built in 1244 BC on the west bank of Egypt’s Nile River. They survived for over 3,000 years before a dam project downriver threatened to flood the site in the 1960s. In a remarkable feat of engineering, the temples were dismantled piece by piece and reassembled 200 feet above and 600 feet west of their original site. The new site ensured that the twice-yearly solar phenomenon would still take place on the correct days.
Day of the Deceased – Ecuador
Ecuador’s Day of the Deceased (Día de los Difuntos) is celebrated annually on November 2nd, coinciding with the Catholic holiday of All Soul’s Day. Traditions vary across families and regions, and many date back to before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. Families congregate at grave sites of loved ones, arranging decorations and sharing food as a way to honor the dead and nourish them in the afterlife. Among the traditional offerings is colada morada—a thick, sweet drink colored with berries and blue corn flour. Also popular are guaguas de pan, which are sweet breads shaped like babies and decorated with colored icing. Much like the Día de los Muertos in Mexico, Día de los Difuntos is a time to celebrate, rather than mourn, those who have left this world.
Loi Krathong & Yi Peng – Thailand
For three nights every November, the skies and waters of Thailand are aglow with thousands of paper lanterns. Two holidays—Loi Krathong in the southwest and Yi Peng in the north—celebrate Buddha and his teachings. During Loi Krathong, observers head to waterways to release small banana leaf boats that hold candles, incense, flowers, and coins. For Yi Peng, attendees release giant paper lanterns into the night air in a stunning, luminous display. These countrywide celebrations encourage observers to free themselves of anger and sorrow and embrace the beauty in their lives.
Monkey Buffet Festival – Thailand
Contrary to the title of this festival, monkeys are not on the menu. This celebration, held at the Khmer temple of Phra Prang Sam Yot in Lopburi, honors the local population of 2,000 long-tailed macaques with a fruity feast fit for a king. Citizens believe these simians bring good luck and prosperity to the town, so every November the townspeople lay out 8,800 pounds of vegetarian food, buffet-style, for the monkeys to devour. Local chefs prepare the menu, which includes fruit salad, fruit carvings, sticky white rice, and various other treats. If you visit during the festival, be aware that the monkeys can get aggressive, especially when it comes to food. Keep an eye—and a firm grip—on your valuables.
Bon Om Touk – Cambodia
An extraordinary geological phenomenon is at work each year in Cambodia’s Tonle Sap River. Monsoon rains in the spring and autumn cause the Mekong River to swell and back up into the Tonle Sap—the overflow so immense that the river reverses its course. As the rains subside and the Mekong lowers, the flow of the Tonle Sap reverses again. Bon Om Touk—the Cambodian Water Festival—is a celebration of the end of monsoon season and the return of the Tonle Sap River to its normal directional flow. The festival takes place over three days during November’s full moon. Villages send teams to compete in colorful dragon boat races—a practice dating back to the 12th century. Illuminated floats, traditional dancing, music, and food round out the celebration. Though held all across Cambodia, the most elaborate festivities take place in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.