Better Know A Holiday: Songkran

AKA: Thai New Year, Water Festival, Pi Mai (Laos), Chaul Chnam Thmey (Cambodia), Thingyan (Myanmar), Water-Splashing Festival (Chinese Dai minority)

When? April 13 to 15 officially, though celebrations may last longer

Public holiday in: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar

Who died? Nobody.

Reason for celebration, then? The sun has begun its northward journey into the constellation of Aries. Otherwise known as the solar new year.

Origins: Songkran was originally a pious event. Thai Buddhists would go to temple early in the morning and offer alms to the monks. Then they would sprinkle lustral water on Buddha statues. Young people would collect that water, which was now blessed, and symbolically wash the hands of their elders. The water was intended to wash away bad omens. This still happens today, but the spiritual aspect has largely given way to a party atmosphere, much to the chagrin of certain Thais (see below).

How is it celebrated now? A massive, nation-wide water fight that lasts several days, generally with lots of drinking involved. Everyone in the street is fair game for a soaking.

Other ways to celebrate: Releasing fish back into streams, freeing caged birds, bringing sand to temples to symbolically replace dirt that has been removed throughout the year.

Craziest venue: The northern city of Chiang Mai, where the celebration continues long after the holiday is officially over, is considered to be the best place to carouse.

Watch out for: Elephants and pick-up trucks. Both have a very large carrying capacity and high-pressure discharge.Associated commercialism: Songkran today means big bucks for the tourism industry. The government actively promotes the festival on its party merits, much to the consternation of traditional Thais who think the celebrations have gotten out of hand. What was originally a respectful celebration of family and elders has turned into an excuse to get drunk with friends rather than spend time with family. The hand-wringers will have a difficult time convincing the tourist board to change its tune, though: tourists will spend over $1 billion this year during the Songkran festivities.

Associated food: Khanon tom – sticky rice and mung bean balls; khanon krok – miniature coconut rice pancakes; and of course, the ubiquitous pad thai

Best side effect of the holiday: With the mercury bumping up against 100 degrees in much of Thailand at this time of year, a dousing can be a welcome relief.

New rules this year: During Songkran festivities last year, over 300 people died, and there were over 3,000 road accidents. Drunk driving is a major problem. Police have stepped in to curb the chaos this year. Traditionally, pick-ups roamed the streets with massive barrels of water and a team of bucketeers and gunmen in the back, dousing anyone they came across. No longer. They have been banned, along with overloading vehicles, drinking in certain areas and putting ice in the throwing water. The Bangkok Post has published a helpful “10 Commandments of Songkran” for those who need a media edict from within Songkran jurisdiction.

Likelihood of these rules being followed: Slim.

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Check out more holidays around the world here

[Photo Credit: Flick user Wyndham]

Hong Kong Will Ring In The New Year In Style

Hong Kong welcomes the New Year with fireworksWith the New Year nearly upon us, I’m sure many of you have already made plans for how you will be celebrating its arrival. But visitors to Hong Kong are in for a particular treat this year, as the city welcomes 2013 with an impressive display of fireworks that will also mark the culmination of its annual WinterFest celebration.

Hong Kong’s New Years Eve celebration has become legendary for its festive atmosphere that rivals any other on the planet. Hundreds of thousands of people will line the beautiful and iconic Victoria Harbor in anticipation of the start of another year and to witness an amazing pyrotechnic display that is timed to begin just as the clock strikes midnight. This year, the eight-minute fireworks display will be launched from both land and sea for the first time, giving visitors an experience like none other. That display will be synchronized with a sweeping musical accompaniment that has been written specifically for the celebration.

Obviously if you’re not already in Hong Kong, it will be difficult to join in on the festivities there, but it is not too early to start planning a visit for next year. The city’s New Year’s Eve bash is one of the best in the world and is well worth planning a trip around. I recommend arriving plenty early in order to enjoy WinterFest as well, as that annual event is a fantastic way to enjoy the holiday season. The festival is a mix of world-class shopping and culinary delights that is sure to please.

[Photo Credit: Kroot via WikiMedia]


10 travel resolutions to make in 2012

ecotourism It’s the beginning of a new year and the time when people start thinking of ways to improve themselves in 2012. Instead of just focusing on how to make yourself better, why not think about ways to make your travels more worthwhile? Here are 10 travel resolutions to make this year.

Go green

Eco-tourism is a hot topic in the world of travel right now, and for good reason. There are myriad global issues facing the planet right now, from climate change to resource depletion to land pollution and damaged ecosystems. Instead of just wandering through a region and potentially having a negative impact on the land, educate yourself a bit and participate in environmentally-friendly travel. There are tons of Eco-friendly accommodations, tours, and even entire cities, such as the new Yoyogi Village in Japan. Find a destination and try to educate yourself on how to travel while leaving as small a carbon footprint as possible.Learn a new language

Instead of using obscure gestures and stuttering your way through a translation dictionary, why not take the time to actually learn a new language? Going to Spain? Take a cultural immersion class and learn Spanish. Taking a trip to Ghana? You’ll feel a lot more comfortable interacting with Ghanians if you can speak Twi. Locals respect you more when you speak their language, and it opens up the chance to have more meaningful interactions.

romeKnock something off your bucket list

Most people have bucket lists, even if they only exist in their minds. “I would love to go skydiving one day” or “I wish I could take a trip to see the Colosseum and learn about Roman history”. What are you waiting for? This year, instead of just letting that bucket list grow, why not scratch some things off. Don’t let work and family hold you back but instead, use your vacation days and include your family in your plans. Also, certain activities, like extreme sports or taking a romantic getaway, don’t always require long-distance travel.

Visit an endangered site

Don’t expect sites like the Belize Barrier Reef, the Tropical Rainforest in Honduras, or the crystal glaciers of the Swiss Alps to be around forever. If you want to see them, go now before it’s too late. Just recently, in October 2011, the beloved Cinque Terre in Italy was damaged by flash floods and landslides, and while it is currently being rebuilt at a swift pace, it is a good example of the unexpected disasters that can happen. You can also check out the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites that are in danger to learn more.

volunteer Volunteer abroad

I’m a big fan of volunteering abroad for many reasons. For one, you get to help people in need as well as support a cause you’re passionate about. Moreover, it gives you a unique perspective into the culture, especially since many times you get the chance to live with locals. Each time I’ve volunteered abroad, I’ve used International Volunteer Headquarters as a middle man and found them extremely reliable and affordable. You can also contact NGO’s abroad directly using SE7EN or go on a trip with an international volunteer organization from your home city that plans trips abroad, for example, Habitat for Humanity or UNICEF.

Go out of your comfort zone

You can learn a lot about yourself and what you’re capable of when you try something that’s out of your comfort zone. Are you afraid of heights? Try bungy jumping. Scared to visit a city where you don’t speak the local language? Buy a plane ticket to Brazil (unless you speak Portuguese…then buy a ticket to China). Think you can’t handle the “strange” foods in Asia or Africa? Go there and eat as many new dishes as possible. It may sound crazy, but it’s really inspirational when you realize you can handle uncomfortable situations, as well as eye-opening to people, places, and situations you may never have experienced. I am actually terrified of heights, and when I was in Australia my friends made me go bungy jumping. Literally, they pulled me screaming and crying. While the jump itself was terrifying, I also realized it was a lot of fun. By the end of that year, I’d gone bungy jumping (again), skydiving, and cliff diving, all things that I didn’t think I would ever do but now love.

hiking Take a staycation

By taking a staycation, you can actually add to your vacation time. Instead of waiting until you’ve saved up enough money for a plane ticket somewhere far, you can enjoy a budget-friendly trip for the weekend. Not only that, but it can help you experience your own city and nearby towns, places that often have a lot to offer but many people take for granted. For example, while I often try to hike as much as possible while traveling, I barely go outside when I’m home. Last summer, I decided to change that and began going on local hiking trips around my home state of New York. It’s not only helped me make new friends, but has also helped me to explore a lot of areas that I didn’t even know existed.

Turn off the technology

Thinking about it, this could actually go under “Get out of your comfort zone”. People are literally addicted to technology nowadays. Not that it’s their fault, it’s the world we live in. Business is conducted via Skype and teleconferencing, singles meet their future spouses online, and people post their entire lives on social media. However, turning off your smartphone, ditching your laptop, and turning off the TV can be a really powerful experience. You will learn about a city in a deeper way, without distractions, and will be able to focus on exploration instead of wondering who texted you in the last five minutes. If it’s something you could lose your job over, try doing it for just a day, or even a few hours, and learn what it feels like to be completely disconnected from the rest of the world while being in tune with yourself.

food Stop being cheap

There’s a difference between being budget-conscious and cheap. You don’t need to stay in a 5-star hotel to have a great trip, however, you do need to experience the culture, and that means spending a little cash. If there’s something you want to do or see remember that you’re only a visitor in the city, meaning you only have limited time to see the sites. Don’t let cash, or lack of, ruin your entire trip. If you’re really having issues with money but still want to travel, visit a budget-friendly destination, like Thailand or Ghana, and help stretch your dollar further. When traveling through Germany, I was with a girl who was so cheap she would literally hoard bread from the hostel breakfast and eat it for the entire day, and wouldn’t enter anything, a church, castle, museum, or park, if there was any kind of charge. In the beginning I felt bad leaving her, but eventually decided that just because she didn’t want to spend money didn’t mean that I should miss out on great food and interesting museums. We ended up parting ways, and I ended up having a more worthwhile experience.

Attend a major festival

Burning Man, the Full Moon Party, the New York Film Festival, Calgary Stampede, the Winter Music Conference. Whatever you’re into, find a festival that celebrates it and go. I’ve gotten to attend numerous festivals, from Mardi Gras in Sydney to Carnival in Sitges to Crankworks in Whistler, and they’ve all allowed me to be part of enormous celebrations. You meet all kinds of interesting people and get to attend something that people fly from all over the world to attend, sometimes returning year after year. This year, add being a part of something really big to your to-do list.

Send a holiday greeting from above the clouds

holiday greeting

Procrastinated on sending Christmas cards this year? It’s not too late to send a holiday greeting to say “Happy New Year” (or Mutlu Yillar in Turkish) with a travel theme. Turkish Airlines has a fun website for generating a virtual holiday greeting with a view of the wing. On Above the Clouds, you can choose a cloud image like a snowflake, Christmas tree, or angel and add a brief message (limited to 40 characters), accompanied by a jaunty version of Turkish Airlines’ theme song, and it will generate an e-card from your window seat.

Make your own greeting at www.newyearclouds.com and Happy New Year!

Five hotel holiday deals in New England

Are you looking for a winter wonderland for the Christmas season? New England is a natural destination. There are plenty of deals to be found, with packages that won’t force you to choose between your trip and the number of presents under the tree. Check out the inns below from New England Inns and Resorts to see for yourself what await!

1. The Stepping Stone Spa, Lyndonville, VT
The Kingdom Trails Winter Adventure package at The Stepping Stone includes two nights at this bed and breakfast, daily breakfast, two adult tickets for snowshoeing or cross country skiing at Kingdom Trails and a $50 voucher for dinner at Jupiter’s Restaurant. Rates start at $157 per person, based on double occupancy, and the deal runs from December 17, 2010 to March 20, 2011.

2. The Wentworth, Jackson, NH
Take a look at this property for the Jingle Bells Chocolate Tour. For a rate that starts at $208, you’ll pick up a night at the Wentworth, an hour-long sleigh ride through Jackson Village (with actual jingle bells and chocolate snacks), a four-course candlelit dinner for two and a full breakfast the next morning. The deal runs from November 27, 2010 to December 18, 2010.3. Cranwell Resort, Spa and Golf Club, Lexington, MA Feeling the urge to hit the slopes before the end of the year? Check out the Berkshire Ski package at this property. For $140 per person midweek or $185 on the weekends, you can score a night at Cranwell Resort, unlimited cross country skiing, a $20 credit at any Cranwell restaurant and full use of the spa. The deal runs from December 1, 2010 to March 31, 2011.

4. The Beachmere Inn, Ogunquit, ME
Ring in the new year at the Beachmere. The New Year’s Eve by the Sea package is pulled together to make the last night of 2010 memorable. The last dinner you’ll have this year includes appetizers, buffet and dessert, not to mention dancing and party favors. Start fresh with a lavish breakfast the next morning. Two-night packages range from $530 to $595, with three nights ranging from $625 to $675.

5. Inn at Ormsby Hill, Manchester, VT
Visit the Inn at Ormsby Hill on the first two Saturdays in December for open tours of the inns in the Manchester area. Stay either the night of December 3, 2010 or December 10, 2010, and receive dinner in the evening, followed by a performance of “A Christmas Carol” at The Dorset Theatre. Open house tours run from noon to 4 PM the next day, with the $15 ticket price going to Habitat for Humanity. On your way home, you’ll have the chance to stop by a local nursery and pick up a Vermont Christmas tree to bring home!