Laos New Year celebrations (Steve Davey)
Interview Words : Peter Moore | 29 November

The world's best 500 festivals

Steve Davey, author of Around the World in 500 Festivals, on the little-known festivals you must see

Steve Davey, is a self-confessed festival junkie. As an author and photographer he thrives on the chaos, excitement  and deeply-rooted culture of traditional celebrations and often schedules his trips to coincide with some of the most iconic festivals on the planet. He talks to Peter Moore about what makes festivals so special. And how he chose the ones to include in his new book, Around the World in 500 Festivals.

Why are festivals so special to you?

Festivals are so often the time that define a place; the time that fills the postcard stands and are when people and places come alive. Visit outside of festivals times, and many towns can seem somehow lacklustre and disappointing. Venice is a somewhat empty shell without the carnival, Pamplona uninteresting without the fiesta, and even Luang Prabang is quiet without the chaos of the Lao New Year.

What was the first festival you attended?

The first full festival I travelled to deliberately was the Venice Carnival, but when I was a kid I was often taken to the West Country Carnival, an offshoot of the historic Bridgwater Carnival, which happened around Guy Fawkes night in the West Country. It was usually damn cold and wet, but I was fascinated by the floats and the lights and the conviction and enjoyment of those taking part.

How did you decide which festivals to include in the book?

The main reason was whether I wanted to go to the festival! I have been to almost 70 of the festivals in the book, but with a listing of 500, there was quite a lot of research involved! We set some rules right from the start: no commercial festivals – we were looking for festivals with some sort of cultural significance, and history. Some had originated as commercial or PR events, but have subsequently been hijacked by, and reclaimed by the people! We specifically wanted to avoid the sort of faux-cultural festivals conceived in a committee meeting at a tourist board. Things like the Singapore Food Festival or the Dubai Shopping Festival!

You have listed them by country rather than by date. Why?

I think that people are more likely to decide that they want to visit a certain country and try to see when there is a good festival, rather than decide that they are going to travel at the last weekend in July, and hunt around for a festival to go to. Also, there is often a large variance on dates of festivals – especially those that are held on the Lunar calendar, and some festivals happen twice a year.

Why should people attend festivals rather than avoid the associated traffic and crowd chaos?

For the same reason that I am addicted by travelling to festivals: in a homogenised world, many societies are losing their individual identities. Festivals are often the last surviving examples of the preservation of culture. They are also crazy, unpredictable and a time and a place to feel truly alive. It is also the best time to get to know and engage with the locals, who may be far more reserved at other times of the year.

What makes a good festival?

Some great cultural background and significance. Wild events, devotion and a sense of the locals being involved, engaged and united by their shared cultural heritage.

Do you have a favourite festival?

I love the Indian festivals, they are on a massive scale, with incalculable numbers of people, all sharing a single intent – to get to a certain holy place and bathe. The Kumbh Mela is the most famous, but I love the Sonepur Mela in Bihar. This is billed as the largest livestock fair in Asia, and as well as the religious bathing that attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, the mela is noted for the Haathi bazaar where dozens of elephants are traded. I also love the Pi Mai Lao in Luang Prabang – the Lao New Year festival which turns into the most exuberant water-fight!

What is the weirdest festival you have come across?

Some of the Japanese festivals are crazy. We think of Japan as being a very reserved nation, but they have a number of festivals that involving fighting and running around in the winter, all but naked, clad only in a loincloth!

What is the most obscure?

Some of the African festivals seem quite obscure and were very difficult to research. Probably the most of all of these was the Fête du Dipri in the Côte D'Ivoire. I had heard rumours about it and it sounded incredible, but trying to find out the facts took a lot of time and a lot of very obscure sources.

As a distinguished photographer, what tips do you have for taking photos at festivals?

Travel light, carry the minimum of equipment so that you can move fast and throw yourself in at the deep end. Be in the middle of the action and get involved. Your pictures will be more atmospheric the closer and more engaged you are with the action. Incidentally, this is the same way that I like to photograph riots and demonstrations!

Finally, is there a festival you haven't been to that is top of your must-see list?

I have been trying to schedule a visit to the Burning Barrels at Ottery St Mary for years, but I am either abroad or have something on! One day I will get there – it looks crazy – the perfect festival.

500 Festivals by Steve DaveySign up for a Christmas gift subscription to Wanderlust magazine and get a copy of Steve's book, Around the World in 500 Festivals, for FREE. More details here.