A travel tell-all with Kate Springer.
Sometimes heading to a country just in time for a national holiday is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, like Holi in India, Ice Lantern Festival in Harbin, or Rajashtan’s Pushkar Camel Fair. Other times? It just means extra crowded streets, overpriced hotels and jam-packed trains.
Last year, I bought a super cheap flight to Osaka in May, taking the price as a sign that it was a great time to go. Alas, I landed in Japan on the first day of Golden Week without lodging for most of the week. In search of a place to stay I was hit with a ridiculous HK$3,000 a night bill at a mediocre business hotel and nowhere to sleep — except a capsule hotel — for a night.
Just as I was about to book another flight to Japan this spring, I recalled my Golden Week excursion and thought it wise to wait it out. If you’re not up for the hassle and hustle that often comes with national holidays, then here are a few key times to avoid in Asia.
Holiday: Golden Week
Japan; April 29-May 5 2016
What’s the Deal? Golden Week combines several holidays back to back, including Showa Day, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Greenery Day and Labor Day. The week means a vacation for pretty much everyone in Japan, so expect tons of domestic travel, double-priced hotels, packed trains, and impossible traffic.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; January 24, 2016
What’s the Deal? One of the most important Hindu ceremonies in Kuala Lumpur, Thaipusam centers around the Batu Caves where a gleaming gold statue of Murugan (aka Lord Subramaniam) stands at attention. Starting from Murugan statue, the procession sees nearly 1 million people each year climb the 272 stone stairs and give thanks for answered prayers at the shrines inside. The procession continues through the city and covers about 9.5 miles in total, finishing around China Town. While most hotels shouldn’t be affected during this time, the Batu Cave will be completely congested and transportation can be more difficult than usual.
Bali, Indonesia; March 9, 2016
What’s the Deal? A Balinese day of silence, Nyepi is not so much crowded as it is, well, quiet. The Hindu holiday celebrates the new year on the Balinese calendar when Hindus devote the day to silence, meditation and fasting. Since the whole idea is about self-reflection, distractions are prohibited, and Balinese people — even those who are not Hindu — do not travel, entertain, go out, swim, talk, work or eat. That means Bali becomes a bit of a deserted island for a day. Even the airport is closed and it can be hard to find hotels, shops and restaurants open for business during the holiday.
Holiday: National Day & Golden Week
China, Japan, Thailand; October 1-7, 2016
What’s the Deal? National Day has been celebrated since the days of ancient China. However, the more recent incarnation commemorates the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It’s a favorite time of year for domestic travel and last year alone 100 million people hopped on trains throughout the holiday week, which is also known as Golden Week.
Destinations like Hangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai see skyrocketing hotel prices and it’s also a popular time to travel internationally. In 2015, nearly 750 million Chinese travelers took the opportunity to visit their favorite destinations including the likes of Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Kyoto and Tokyo.
Holiday: Chinese New Year
China; February 8, 2016
What’s the Deal? The term “The Great Migration” in reference to China can only mean one thing: the mass of people flocking home to celebrate Chinese New Year. One of the busiest times of year for domestic travel, Chinese New Year saw an estimated 2.8 billion trips within the country last year alone, with 2.4 billion on the road and 295 million traveling by rail. The cities themselves aren’t overly crowded, however domestic transportation can be a nightmare. Most Chinese families spend time together and close up shop over the holiday, meaning some cities might be quieter than usual.
Indonesia, India, Malaysia; June 6-July 5, 2016
What’s the Deal? Ramadan is a month-long abstinence period where Muslims fast every day until nightfall, swearing off tobacco, food and water. During this time, many restaurants and shops close for rest so it’s not the easiest time to get the feel for a city. On the other hand, the night markets at this time of year really come alive.
Holiday: Hungry Ghost Festival
Everywhere; August 3-31, 2016
What’s the Deal? It’s considered extra risky to travel during the Hungry Ghosts Festival or Ghost Month, where Taoist communities around the world, including those in Hong Kong, give offerings of food and burn fake money and paper household items to make the afterlives of their ancestors more comfortable. So next time your friends ask when they should come visit you, keep these dates in mind!
Of course, if you can sort through budget and logistical issues — and don’t mind a crowd — these are also arguably some of the best times of year to get a feel for Asia’s most important cultural celebrations, religious holidays, and festivals. So don’t write them off completely, unless of course there’s no chance in hell you’d be able to spend the night in a capsule hotel when you can’t afford a place to stay in Japan.