Bun Snatching At The Bun Festival In Hong Kong

Buns at the Bun Festival, Hong Kong
istolethetv, Flickr

On May 17, a good chunk of East Asia had a day off to celebrate the Buddha’s birthday (Southeast Asia will celebrate it next week). It happens that in Hong Kong the Enlightened One’s birthday coincides each year with a Taoist celebration called the Bun Festival. The culmination of the Bun Festival occurs at midnight of the eighth day of the fourth lunar month, when “bun snatchers” climb a 60-foot tower of buns and collect as many buns as will fit in their bun sack.

Yes, buns. Those doughy things you eat.

The Bun Festival has roots in the Taoist “Jiao” festivals, where communities pay homage to deities in order to foster peace in the coming year. The origins of the Bun Festival itself are vague. The common and possibly apocryphal story is that offerings were made to Pak Tai, the God of the Sea, in order to protect island villagers from pirates. Another history says it began during the days of Hong Kong’s bubonic plague epidemic, when Pak Tai again was asked for relief from the disease.

These Taoist Jiao festivals were apparently widespread before Mao-era suppression brought most religious activities to a screeching halt on the mainland. But the Bun Festival carried on unabated in Hong Kong – that is, until the late ’70s, when tragedy struck.

Bun Towers, Hong Kong
Adam Hodge, Gadling

The new bun towers (lit. translation: “bun mountains”) are steel-reinforced and authorities only allow harnessed, elite bun snatchers to climb them. The old bun towers, pictured above, are traditionally made with a bamboo frame. And in the ’70s and before, there were no harnesses – and no limits on the climbers. A mass of men would swarm at the towers, sometimes shimmying up the inside and bursting through the top, all trying to retrieve the top bun: the bun that conferred the most honor on the bun snatcher’s family; the luckiest bun.

(In case you’re wondering, the buns are blessed. The big red character on each of them means “peace,” which, as you’ll remember, is the reason the gods are being indulged.)

In 1978, one of the towers collapsed. One hundred people were injured and bureaucrats went into action, canceling the festival. It was only revived 27 years later, in 2005, with strict safety measures in place including limiting the number of climbers to 12. Locals complain that the festival has lost its authenticity because the towers are not a death trap and therefore less thrilling. Personally, I agree with this assessment – things are naturally edgier and more exciting when life is on the line. But I would contend, and I think Competitor #2 (in the pink shirt) in the following video will surely agree, that not all changes have been for the worse.

(You’ll forgive my videography, I was mesmerized by #3′s blistering pace.)

Other Attractions
A note on geography: Cheng Chau, where the BF is held, is one of Hong Kong’s Outlying Islands, which generally see far fewer tourists than Victoria Harbour and her famous skyline of hill-scrambling skyscrapers. So when a festival like this comes along, with its quirky competition and photo-op whimsy, it’s almost bound to be exploited to full effect, which it is.

A friend and I arrived with half of Hong Kong on a 30-minute fast ferry from Pier 5 in Central, but the other half of Hong Kong was already there. Spectators were stacked 20+ deep beside the cramped main street for the 2 o’clock start of the Parade-In-The-Air, arguably the most entertaining part of the festival. With a bit of a squeeze, we managed to get within tiptoe viewing distance of the procession, and at that moment it began to rain, so we only saw umbrellas for the next quarter hour. When the sun returned, so did our view, and the first thing that paraded into sight was a small child hovering above the heads of the onlookers, being borne precariously down the street atop a vertical column of bowls and plates.

Hovering Girl at Bun Festival parade
inkelv1122, Flickr

The poor kid looked pretty miserable. After the rain stopped and the sun came out, the temperature soared. You’d be miserable, too – the parade lasts two hours and they’re heavily costumed as figures from Chinese history and mythology and perched (or rather hung up by wire frames) atop a sculpture of some sort. One child was dressed in a finely tailored suit, standing on a sword. I have to wonder about the symbolism of that. On the other hand, a few kids looked genuinely thrilled, as below.

Overall, the effect is quite enjoyable. The little human statues are interspersed with loud drums and dancing dragons and lions and flag bearers. The crowd is as photographically enthusiastic as anywhere else in China, with generous and effusive “ooos” and “ahhs” for the suffering children.

Again, I have to wonder what famous figure this was.


As night fell, the elderly locals assembled at a stage between the towers and the Pak Tai temple to watch a Cantonese opera. However, unlike the spectators at the parade, the opera performers’ pentatonic dissonance was appreciated more contemplatively than vocally.

Meanwhile the other side of the island is all day a far quieter place, well enough away from the crowd control barriers and bun sellers. There are several sand beaches, and the eastern cove is actually a great windsurfing venue (it’s home to Hong Kong’s only Olympic gold medalist – a windsurfer).

A stone path takes you out beyond the beaches to some rock formations on the self-described “Mini Great Wall,” which is actually no more than the stone path you’re walking on. The views are terrific, though, overlooking the cargo ship-spotted West Lamma Channel to Hong Kong, Lamma and Lantau Islands. It’s all quite peaceful by the rocky shore, the surf swishing gently over the stones and little scuttling crabs fleeing every which way. So much so that despite the sunset being on the opposite side, we – and many other crowd refugees – chose to linger a little longer before diving back into the madness of the bun tower crowds, who had already staked a place in the ticket queue for a viewing spot beneath the tower.

Better Know A Holiday: Buddha’s Birthday

Laughing Buddha, Singapore
xcode, Flickr

AKA: Vesakha, Vesak, Wesak, Visak, Vixakha and many more derivatives.

When? The second Sunday in May OR the day of the full moon in May OR the Sunday nearest to the day of the full moon in May OR the eighth day of the fourth lunar month OR if you’ve decided all that calendric work is too much hassle, like the Japanese, April 8.

Public holiday in: Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, China, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, India, Nepal, Cambodia, Vietnam, Bhutan, Laos.

Who died? Nobody.

Reason for celebration, then? The birth of the Buddha, of course. Though for many, the Buddha’s birth, death and enlightenment are lumped together in one big holiday. So …

Who died? The Buddha.

Origins: Some 2,500 years ago, Queen Mahamaya of the Shakya Kingdom in modern-day Nepal gave birth in a grove of blossoming trees. As the blossoms fell around mother and child, they were cleansed by two streams of water from the sky. Then the baby stood up and walked seven steps, pointed up with one hand and down with the other – not unlike a Disco Fever John Travolta – and declared that he alone was “the World-Honored One.”

The rest is Buddhist history. The toddler, named Siddhartha Gautama, grew up to become the Buddha and the founder of one of the world’s major religions. He attained Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in what is now Bodhgaya, India. Later, after amassing many followers, he died, either of food poisoning or mesenteric infarction, depending who you ask, and reached Parinirvana, the final deathless state of Buddhism.

How is it celebrated now? Bathing little statues of the baby Buddha with tea or water, hanging lanterns, extended temple services.

Bathing Baby Buddha
Joint Base Lewis McChord, Flickr

Other ways to celebrate: Freeing caged birds, parades with dancers and illuminated lantern floats, temple offerings.

Concurrent festivals: The Flower Festival in Japan, the Bun Festival in Hong Kong.

Associated food: In many places, varieties of porridge, which commemorate the dish that Buddha received that ended his asceticism phase.

Associated commercialism: Certain companies like McDonald’s will even offer solely vegetarian options on Buddha’s birthday to stick with the spirit of the festival. Precious little, in fact. Though sales of lotus lanterns and baby Buddha statues rocket during this time, the celebrations are remarkably uncommercial.

Associated confusion: There is no reliable record for when the Buddha was actually born, thus the wide range of celebratory dates. This in no way puts a damper on festivities, but does result in a bit of awkwardness when there are two full moons in May, which happens regularly enough. Most recently it occurred in 2007, and Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Malaysia decided to celebrate during the first full moon of the month, while Singapore and Thailand celebrated at the end of May.

Best place to enjoy the festivities: Seoul really takes it up a notch, planning a week of events and celebrations in the lead-up. It kicks off with the Lotus Lantern Festival the weekend prior to Buddha’s birthday, when tens of thousands of Korean Buddhists parade through Seoul’s main roads under colorful lanterns, bringing the city to a standstill. The municipal government really pulls out all the stops, offering music, dance and theater performances in public places that are jammed with revelers. Take a look at the celebrations in Seoul and elsewhere around the world in this gallery:

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5 Countries That Are Great Alternatives To Their Crowded Neighbors

It’s the great hypocrisy in the mind of every traveler that they want to tour a place free from other tourists. Grumbling that a place is overcrowded isn’t without grounds, though. Who hasn’t wanted to pull a Dr. Manhattan on the tour groups that take group photos with every single person’s camera? And boy, what we wouldn’t give to disappear the backpackers pretending to make out with statues of the Buddha.

We can overlook these indignities as necessary evils most of the time. In reality, tourists are going to be present at the big attractions everywhere, and the penalty of avoiding tourists would basically be staying at home permanently.

That being said, for those who just can’t take it anymore, we’ve compiled a list of some less infested options. These five countries offer up similar attractions to their neighbors, but see far fewer visitors to the nooks and crannies, which will make any tourist-weary tourist breathe a little easier.

Montenegro (Crowded Neighbor: Croatia)

Croatia’s attractive coastline is a magnet for tourists. The attendant income from droves of foreigners was one of the reasons Serbs attempted to include it in their “Greater Serbia.” The subsequent Croatian War of Independence ended in 1995, and the current crowds milling about Dubrovnik are the spoils of victory. Little Montenegro, which declared independence from Serbia only in 2006, shares the same coastline and a lot of history with its more famous neighbor. The country currently sees far fewer tourists (1.2 million vs. 9.9 million) visiting its excellent beaches, like the superb spits of sand at Sveti Stefan and Petrovac. Nor do many tourists hike and cycle around Montenegro’s untouched forests at Biogradska Gora and Skadar Lake National Parks. Montenegro’s comparative anonymity provides an experience that can’t be matched in Croatia.

Cambodia (Crowded Neighbor: Thailand)

Cambodia’s main attraction, Angkor Wat, certainly doesn’t dwell in obscurity. This single attraction saw over a million visitors last year, which accounts for more than a third of all visitors to the country. Some of Thailand‘s other neighbors, like Laos and Myanmar, can barely achieve those numbers on a national level. However, when it comes to pretenders to Thailand’s tourism throne, Cambodia is the only one in the region that can offer attractions that go tit for tat with Thailand’s best. Beaches? The empty white sands of Koh Rong and Ream National Park beckon, as does the party-centric seaside town of Sihanoukville. Ruins? Cambodia rolls deep; Angkor Wat is backed up by Koh Ker, the former capital of the Khmer Empire now overgrown in the jungle, and Sambor Prei Kuk, a pre-Angkorian temple complex. Interesting capital? Phnom Penh, the “Pearl of Asia,” boasts French colonial architecture and a park-strewn riverfront. Food? A taste of amok trey or lok lak will make you forget all about pad thai.

Estonia (Crowded Neighbor: Sweden)

Sweden is a huge Scandinavian tourism juggernaut. Estonia? Just a scrappy little Baltic state. What’s the appeal then? A lot, actually. Estonia, like Sweden, is a nature-lover’s paradise. Soomaa National Park, the “land of bogs,” is one of the best canoeing destinations in Europe and is home to wolves, bears, elk and other wildlife. Estonia’s crumpled Baltic coastline contains a mind-boggling number of shallow soft-sand beaches, especially in the summer capital of Pärnu. Estonia’s past is also worth a look. While its Soviet experience is visible in some of the less adventurous architecture, the medieval castles are well preserved and atmospheric. Tallinn, the capital, is flooded with tourists, but island life on Saaremaa is quiet and isolated. Saaremaa boasts a 13th-century castle fortress and other curios like the 100-year-old Angla windmills and a Gothic church bearing symbols of the occult.

Mozambique (Crowded Neighbor: South Africa)

South Africa is head and shoulders above its Sub-Saharan neighbors when it comes to tourist numbers. Its famous game reserves, coastline and unique heritage attract almost 10 million visitors a year. Mozambique can’t match the tourist infrastructure that its neighbor to the south has meticulously erected, but it can offer other competitive attractions. Before its large mammal population was decimated by the civil war, Gorongosa Park was considered to be Africa’s Eden. Efforts to revive the park are underway, and all of Africa’s Big 5, save the rhino, can be seen here. Maputo, the capital, is small and friendly and features Portuguese colonial architecture and an extremely laid-back vibe. Mozambique’s true attraction, though, is its coast, where surfers (of the kite and wind variety) enjoy the unspoiled beaches at Vilanculos and divers explore pristine coral without the crowds at Pemba and Tofo Beach.

Iran (Crowded Neighbor: Turkey)

Turkey sees some 27 million tourists a year and Iran, well … not nearly as many. Official mouthpieces assert some 3 million tourists visited Iran in 2011, though less than 1 percent of those were traveling for nonreligious reasons. Those few tourists had historical sites like Persepolis and Imam Square all to themselves. They experienced Iran’s outstanding natural attractions – lush forests and beaches on the Caspian Sea in the north and deadly deserts and sunny Persian Gulf coastlines in the south – without the crowds that bog down these landscapes in Turkey. Those travelers were also some of the only foreign tourists in Tehran, enjoying its multitude of parks and museums, and were alone again in Yazd, a city of compacted sand reminiscent of Tatooine. Then they joined Iranians on the empty slopes of Dizin, one of the best value-for-money ski resorts in the world, and one of the few spots where Iranians are able to pull back the veil and let loose.

[Photo Credits: Kumukulanui, ecl1ght, (flicts), VilleHoo, F H Mira, Adam Hodge]

Adventure Meets Cruise Ship On Extreme Shore Excursions

adventureIt’s not often that we write about adventure travel and cruises in the same story. It’s more like kayaking and Costa Rica, or cruises and buffets. But some extreme shore excursion offerings by a few cruise lines have raised the bar so high, others may not catch up for a good long while.

Forget the stuffy tour bus and all the challenges of moving 50 or 60 people at a time around an iconic destination; that’s not what these are. We’re talking combat aerobatics, Korean monks and the Holy Grail.

Crystal Cruises
has what they call “experiential cruising” that features far-flung, destination-inspired adventures that are not the fare of a normal shore excursion menu and include hiking, trekking, hot-air ballooning, dog sledding and mountain climbing.

G-Force 4 Combat Aerobatics invites guests to take adrenaline-filled flight in a fighter trainer jet to experience G-Force 4 thrills as an expert pilot teaches combat aerobatics, including a wing over, loop, barrel roll, stall turn and flyby over the ship.

Crew on America’s Cup Winning Yacht- Auckland is home to Team New Zealand, the famed sailing team that won two consecutive America’s Cup challenges. Become a member of the crew for the day, sailing aboard Team New Zealand’s America’s Cup yacht.

Spend the Day as a Korean Monk has guests experiencing a day in the life of a Korean Monk discovering the ancient culture still alive in the country’s many temples. After a tour of a temple’s architecture and history, learn a Korean-style meditation or partake in the tradition of wish writing, all ending with a traditional tea ceremony.

Rescue Endangered Marine Animals in Barcelona
As part of Crystal’s “You Care, We Care” complimentary voluntourism program, visit the Barcelona Rehabilitation Center to participate in a dolphin rescue drill and learn how to manage the floating stretcher, handle the animals and introduce them to the support swimming pool.

Sail an Underground River with Millions of Glow Worms
The Waitomo Caves’ soaring ceilings and low passages have created breathtaking formations and, when one looks up, millions of luminous, blue-green worms decorate the ceiling. Guests float in pitch darkness and absolute silence (so as to not disturb the worms) along an underground river to observe.

VIP at the Monaco Grand Prix- Car lovers experience the fast cars and glamorous events of the Monaco Grand Prix. They can watch the world’s most prestigious automobile race from either the driver/team-prep paddock area, a residence above the famous Casino, or the best seats in the grandstands near the start/finish line.

Rub 100 Buddha Bellies has guests traveling much farther into Asia than the Bangkok port-of-call, including a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage city of Luang Prabang, home to the famed Pak ou Caves. One hundred steps above, voyagers will find hundreds of Buddhas – all illuminated by candles. They say rubbing one Buddha Belly brings good luck, wealth and prosperity. One hundred Buddha’s? All the better.

These over-the-top experiences and other offerings by Crystal Cruises, Azamara Club Cruises and Disney Cruise Line are typical of what is happening right now in cruise vacations. Cruise lines are taking advantage of their mobile nature and addressing a traveler-charged desire to see more than the standard tours at destinations around the world.

Disney Cruise Line, masters in storytelling already, take that same ability to craft off-the-ship experiences that travelers are not apt to forget anytime soon. How about taking your children to a puppet show? … at the Villa Borghese in Rome. In Venice, visit textile and marble workshops where artisans create items for the Vatican and Dolce & Gabbana.

“On shore, we just take our storytelling skills and work with the locals to help tell our guests why we are bringing them to Venice or Croatia or Turkey,” Arnaldo Zanonato, Disney’s shore excursions manager said in a great, in-depth Travel Weekly report. “And when it’s appropriate we try to make it more fun, make it hands-on for the kids, make it a learning experience for everybody.”

At the ruins of St. John’s Basilica, the Apostle John is said to be entombed. Exclusive to Disney guests, an “archaeologist” leads them in a competition to find scattered pieces of a sacred symbol.

Travelers who have been to Rome before want something different and more experiential. Disney delivers with a San Clemente Basilica trip where guests can descend to the bottom of the three-tiered complex, which dates back to the first century.

No discussion about extreme shore excursions would be complete without mentioning Azamara Club Cruises, the tiny two-ship boutique cruise line that specializes in destination immersion like no other.

On board Azamara ships – just the right size to be comfortable ocean-going vessels but small enough to get to places big ships can’t touch – its all about the destinations. Rarely repeating itineraries, Azamara offers once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to experience the world in an up close and personal way that no stock tour bus can deliver.

Example: A 14-night sailing in April 2013 titled The Spice Route Voyage features three overnights in port and six days at sea allowing passengers to see how various cultures and customs merged along trade routes. The experience is entirely customizable too.

If exploring Singapore’s cuisine and shops is not enough, join a night safari at the zoo. Take a rickshaw ride through the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Georgetown or in Sri Lanka, explore Buddhist monasteries, cave temples, rainforest preserves and elephant sanctuaries. In India, check the Kerala backwaters near Kochi, the beaches, colonial architecture and spice plantations of Goa, and the boundless energy of Mumbai. This one even has an optional overland tour to Taj Mahal.

Look for other cruise lines to pay more attention to the quality and depth of their off-the-ship options too … but a wing over, loop, barrel roll, stall turn and flyby over the cruise ship? That’s going to be hard to top.

[Photo Credit- Flickr user Defence Images]

Art On The Rhode: Take A Creative Vacation In Providence

New England is known for its captivating coastline and rural charm, but it is also a great retreat for artists and art lovers. Sure, big cities such as Boston have thriving art scenes, but there are several smaller-sized cities with artsy vibes throughout the region. One such place is Providence, Rhode Island, a city recently tagged “The Creative Capital” that has become a magnet for cultural action. Spend some time in Providence and you might agree the city could very well be the next Austin, Texas, or Portland, Oregon. Below are just a few of the ways you can immerse yourself in the arts while in the city.

Check Out A Gallery Show or Performance at AS220
Downtown Providence is home to AS220, a community arts center with multiple exhibitions spaces, a performance space and artist workshops spread throughout several buildings. The galleries are worth a peek, especially if you are interested in scoping out some up-and-coming talent. There is also an AS220-run bar and restaurant, Foo(d), that uses locally-sourced ingredients and has plenty of menu options for vegetarians and vegans. Adjacent to the restaurant, the organization runs a venue hosting live music most nights of the week. If you come early or a band isn’t scheduled, check out the locals-only jukebox in the restaurant for a true taste of Providence. In the summertime, AS220 puts on Foo Fest, a block party featuring music, performances, art installations and more – but year round anyone can check out great art in their public spaces or sign up for a workshop to create some art of their own.


Take a Peek Inside Nazo Lab
Crammed with sci-fi stage props, larger-than-life puppets and other bizarre creations, Nazo Lab is the workshop of a local performance art troop called Big Nazo. The lab has an “open door” policy, meaning passersby are welcome to pop in and check out what creatures the local visual artists and masked musicians, who call the lab home base, are working on. Past projects have include masks and body parts for Broadway shows and props for television commercials and Mardi Gras celebrations, while puppets made at Nazo Lab have been spotted on stage with the Flaming Lips, George Clinton and more.


Partake in a Workshop at the Steel Yard
If you’d like to pick up a new skill or hone a talent you already have, consider planning your trip around a weekend workshop at the Steel Yard. Once a contaminated industrial wasteland, the Steel Yard is now a fully functioning, community-based space focused on technical training in the industrial arts. Individuals, couples or even entire families can take classes that range from blacksmithing to jewelry making. No matter what you choose, it’s guaranteed you’ll always walk away with a unique reminder of your trip. Free public tours are also available at the site every Wednesday at noon.

Browse Art at the Rhode Island School of Design’s Museum of Art
With more than 86,000 works of art that range from ancient artifacts to contemporary pieces, the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design has a little something for everyone interested in the arts. Just a few of the famous names you’ll find hanging in the museum include Picasso, Monet, Warhol, Koons and Twombly. Don’t miss the enormous 12th-century Buddha, the largest historic Japanese sculpture in the United States. On Sundays, museum admission is pay-what-you-wish (normal admission is $10 for adults).

Watch WaterFire
What is WaterFire? Well, I guess it’s exactly what it sounds like. In 1994, artist Barnaby Evans began lighting bonfires that burn just above the surface of three rivers that converge in the middle of downtown providence on fire. Part performance art, part urban festival and part public art installation, the work forever transformed downtown Providence and has become known nationally and internationally. The event’s symbolism can be interpreted however you choose, but one thing is certain: with an average attendance of 40,000 people per night, everyone seems to love the spectacle. WaterFire can be seen on select Saturdays from May through October, plus some additional dates on special occasions.

Shop for Goods by Local Artists
With so many artists around, it’s natural that Providence would have a great collection of local shops, coffeehouses and restaurants. Take a stroll down Westminster Street and you’ll pass by several shops worth peeking into, including Craftland (pictured above) where you can purchase shirts, prints and jewelry by local artists. Across the street is Symposium Books, where you can check out zines made by locals (while also browsing through beautifully-bound art books, a great collection of comics and more). Near to Symposium you’ll also find Queen of Hearts, a locally owned fashion boutique where you can purchase pieces by the shop owner and designer, Karen Beebe.

Celebrate Locally Made Foods
You’ll probably be hungry after all that shopping, and what the heck – food is art, too. Take a break at Flan y Ajo (also on Westminster Street), a cute bohemian eatery with pictures of bullfighters on the walls and a pinball machine that serves up small bites in the form of tapas. As their website advertises, they only have four stools and do not take reservations, but the wait is worth it. If, instead, you’d like to talk a walk around the Rhode Island School of Art and Brown College campuses, consider first stopping at Duck and Bunny, a cozy “snuggery” with an unassuming pink facade. The white vinyl booths, lace window treatments and marble table tops will have you feeling like you stepped into Alice in Wonderland. Order afternoon tea and some finger sandwiches or go for dessert with a locally made cupcake or ice cream sundae. If the cafe sounds a little too ladylike, remember that the Duck and Bunny isn’t all soft – there’s also a beer and cigar menu. Ship Street Farmers Market (pictured at the top of the page) and other area markets also make for a great lunch option.

[All images by Libby Zay]