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The Man Who Chases Festivals All Around The World!

Abhi Surendran
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Abhi Surendran
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The first foreign country he visited was the beautiful Philippines. That was the turning point in Abhi Surendran’s life. it helped and motivated him to pursue his 3 greatest passions in life: traveling, photography and blogging. Abhi, the man with a bucket list to explore the entire countries and territories in the world map started his travels in 2009. And by now, he has explored 80 countries/territories in the world!! This big-time bucketlister loves to explore culture, which, he believes, is possible by attending their festivals as one of them. 

There is a huge difference between traveling and exploring. People ‘travels’ to see places and things. At the same time, explorers will try to know more about the place, the people, and most importantly the culture of the place they visit. Abhi’s greatest passion is to know more about and explore the cultures all around the globe. And he strongly believes that the highest point of a culture is the festivals celebrated in that place. 
If you want to learn and know more about a place and its culture, you should attend the festivals of that place.
For example, Thaipusam or Thaipoosam is a festival celebrated by the Tamil community on the full moon in the 10th Tamil month, Thai. It is not only celebrated in Tamil Nadu, but also in Southeast Asian countries like Singapore, Malaysia etc., and in Sri Lanka. The interesting fact about Thaipusam is that the Thaipusam celebrated in Tamil Nadu is different from that celebrated outside India. In the Southeast Asian countries, they mutilate themselves by piercing their bodies, which doesn’t happen in Tamil Nadu. The celebrations and the rituals performed has a huge difference from each other. This difference in the celebrations and rituals helps us to know more about the differences in the cultures of these places.
Abhi tries to read and understand the place and the festival before he attends them. Knowing about that festival helps him to blend in easily while attending them. He also tries to have a basic knowledge of the local language, which helps him to interact with the local people. When somebody interacts with the common local people in their local language, that makes him/her one of them.
Rather than attending festivals like a foreign tourist, I prefer celebrating it with the local people, as one of them. Preparations (reading and knowing more about the place and the festival) helps me with that.
For example, people should be in costumes while attending Rio Carnival festival, which Abhi came to know during his preparation. So, he attended the festival wearing a costume, just like the locals! Also, learning about the festivals helps to understand the story behind it. In 2010, Abhi visited Bacolod city in the Philippines, to celebrate the Masskara festival that happens in Bacolod city every October. People celebrate the festival by wearing smiling masks on the face. The studies about the festival helped Abhi to know that it is celebrated like that in the memory of a tragedy that took the life of almost 700 people. 

Abhi feels that his love for festivals started by celebrating the local festivals like Onam and Nehru Trophy Vallamkali as a child. Onam, the annual celebration of Kerala, is a colorful festival which is celebrated for the memory of an Asura king, Mahabali. Apart from that, he has celebrated Krishna Janmashtami, Kumbh Mela and Shillong Cherry Blossom festivals in India. He is currently solo-riding his motorbike through Northeast India exploring the culture through the local festivals. When Woovly caught up with him, he was in Imphal for the 10-day long Sangai festival, and gearing to ride to Kohima, for the hornbill festival, another bucketlist item on his list. 

I want to explore other countries and their festivals. At the same time, I don’t want to miss out anything in India. Every couple of years, I do a long solo motorbike ride through India, exploring local cultures and attending as many festivals as I can.

The man who visited 80 countries by now has attended and celebrated many festivals all over the world. Even though it is difficult for him to remember each of them, The Rio Carnival is Abhi’s favorite of all. The Brazilian festival which is celebrated every year before Lent is considered the biggest carnival in the world with 2 million people per day on the streets. 

Abhi attended the Carnival in March, wearing a costume, as everybody did. The entire festival was so colorful and energetic with music, colorful costume procession, and joy. 
The easiest way to get drunk in a carnival, is what the Brazilians call a 'Sacole'. (Pronounced sa-coal-aye, but I just call it a suck-all). There are these ice cubes which are actually alcoholic. You keep sucking on it, without keeping a track of how much alcohol you've taken.
Abhi has attended the Phuket Vegetarian Festival twice. Also known as Nine Emperor Gods Festival, it is a 9-day Taoist festival on the 9th lunar month of the Chinese calendar, honoring 9 star-lords who preside over interplanetary movements and human life in general. ‘The Vegetarian Festival’, a reference to the fact that the participants in the festival eat only vegetarian meals for the entire 9 days of the festival. 
 
The festival was notorious because of one thing: the pain and self-mutilation that participants inflict on themselves. There was a lot of piercing, impaling, skinning, slashing of limbs, bloodletting and standing over fireworks. All while remaining under the influence of some trance-like state. 
Another beautiful Thai festival Abhi attended was Loy Krathong or the Lantern Festival. Loy Krathong was a traditional Thai farmers festival which happened on the 12th moon of the lunar calendar. The date keeps changing each year, in accordance with the lunar calendar. 
 
Loy Krathong is celebrated across Thailand by floating a basket. The baskets are made of buoyant materials, and decorated in bright colors, with some food materials and a coin placed inside it and a candle stuck on top of it. The candle is then lit, and the Krathong is released into the river or the sea as the person who releases it makes a silent wish. 
People of Lannas (one of the most culturally important populace of the Northern Thailand region) included a twist to the ceremony. As Loy Krathong coincide with Lanna festival, Yi Peng, they came up with the idea of releasing sky lanterns into the sky. Called Khom Loi, these lanterns are made with rice paper, and a candle is attached at the center of it. The hot air trapped inside the lanterns after lighting up the candle, caused the lantern to lift and fly off. 
It was a bittersweet culmination of a dream I had harbored for many years. To see the Loy Krathong Festival, which is also known as Lantern Festival.
Amsterdam Gay Pride or Amsterdam Pride was one of the festivals that taught him to be open to cultures, people, and the life. It is a citywide gay festival held annually at the center of Amsterdam during the first weekend of August. Abhi participated the fest in 2016.
Since I am a straight person, I was taken aback a bit when I saw the sexual affections being expressed openly there during the fest. Soon I realized another fact. That I neither have to do it, nor be a part of what they do. But I can be an observer by honoring their culture!
Songkran is Thai New Year. And if you are wondering why the name seems so familiar, it is because it’s borrowed from ‘Makar Sankranti’, the Hindu harvest festival of India. The festival lasts for three days. And those 3 days were one of the craziest 3 days of Abhi’s life. Street parties were a very rambunctious and boisterous affair, but a street party with water involved; it is almost like the whole atmosphere is jacked up on steroids. They believe that the sins would be washed away with the usage of water.
In 2014, Abhi celebrated another New Year festival. It was the Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival. But he attended the ‘Spring Festival’ at the Chinatown in Singapore. He could see the 2000 giant ancient coins, left hanging over the roads, stretching almost entirely over Chinatown. The whole stretch was created by 55 artists and took over 15000-man hours to put it together.
In Japan, there is a big festival in November called Tori no Ichi, which Abhi attended in 2016. The word tori means bird, and the bird is a symbol of one of the Japanese deities named Yamatotakeru No Mikoto. Nowadays people come to the festival to buy Kumade", a talisman in the shape of a small pitchfork, wishing to have some fortune.
Galungan is a Hindu festival celebrated in the Indonesian island, Bali. Interestingly, Galungan is celebrated every 210 days (the Balinese calendar which only has 210 days)! It celebrates the victory of good versus evil and lasts for three days. Abhi attended the festival in 2014.
Galungan remains a very beautiful occasion, and is unmistakably noticeable throughout Bali thanks to the colorful offerings, even-more-colorful costumes, and elaborate temple ceremonies.
Another festival which was rated highly by Abhi is the month-long festival celebrated every February in Baguio, Philippines - Panagbenga Flower Festival. It was in 2010. Abhi reached Baguio early in the morning. After checking in a motel, he slept for some time. Since he had a street dancing parade to catch, he dutifully woke up in a couple of hours and headed to Burnham Park, where the parade began.
The moment I stepped out of the hotel, the dimensions of this festival started to sink in. There were SO MANY PEOPLE!! Everywhere!!
After a little walking, he reached the origin of the parade, where the participants were almost ready to start. And they cut the most rainbow-like image that he has ever come across. There were flowers everywhere on their body. Some had it in their hair, some in their ears, some in their hands. There were scepters and crowns and tiaras, all made of flowers. There were people from the mountainous regions of Kalinga, with badass tattoos, and spears and shields covered with, well, flowers. It was raining flowers all around! And from that point on, Abhi’s camera wept a silent tear at being overused.
Abhi have celebrated Mid Autumn Festival (Singapore), Clark Hot Air Balloon Festival (Philippines), Namaste Indian Festival (Romania), and many more during his travels.

These festivals helped me to acquire an open mentality towards the world. We, Indians, are very close with our culture. But when you start celebrating festivals of other lands, it helps you to break your comfort zone. And it teaches us that, we don’t have to adopt other cultures, but we can always observe them and become tolerant of other cultures.

Abhi, who has explored 80 countries so far, has the bucket list to explore the countries and territories remaining on the world map. He is already working on a photo-book based on his Southeast Asian countries’ travels and festivals. The next festival bucket list of Abhi is to attend the Day of Dead-festival in Mexico, Hornbill festival, Thrissur Pooram, and Theyyam. And he has already booked tickets for the 2018 Football World Cup in Russia.
The perspective about travel should be changed. Don’t travel for the sake of traveling and sight-seeing. Travel to explore the culture. It can be explored by eating local food, drinking the local alcohol, listening to their local music etc. And obviously, festivals too!
Bucketlister ABHI SURENDRAN

Abhi has been traveling from 2009. What started out exploring the beautiful islands of Philippines, took him to the rest of Southeast Asia. And then, other parts of Asia, middle-east, Europe, and Africa. He loves checking out unexplored countries of the world, more than the touristy fare. These include offbeat locations like Bureni, Timor Leste, Vanuatu, and Bhutan. And even backpacking to Maldives. It is never easy as he is not supported in any way. So, he does what the ants do: he save, then travel, and this cycle repeats forever. And he follows a very budget-oriented travel plan, by using resources like couch surfing, hitchhiking etc. But regardless of this, he has met, and keep meeting, some awesome travel companions on the way. 
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