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5 bewitching versions of Halloween from around the world

It's almost time to get your Harry Potter or Wonder Woman costumes ready for Halloween. Nearly every culture has a festival that's similar to it, from the Festival of the Dead to the Hungry Ghost Festival. While most people these days associate Halloween with scary costumes and candy, this festival, Irish in origin is not just about pumpkin carving, but marks the time of the year when the spirits of the dead were believed to return to earth and became especially active. This tradition was not unique; in fact, cultures all over the world have similar beliefs and traditions. Here, Skyscanner has collected some of our favourites.

1. Japan – Obon

Obon, also known as the Festival of the Dead in Japan, is held every year in August. This is when the souls of the dearly departed get to come back to the world of the living to visit their loved ones. Japanese families use this time to gather together, so many people return to their hometowns. A variety of foods such as vegetables and fruits are offered to the spirits of ancestors, some shaped in horses and other animals. The streets of the towns come alive with music and dancing; ladies in authentic kimonos sway gracefully to percussive rhythms and voices raise in harmony to sing songs of old Japan. In the evening, families hang lanterns up to help the spirits return home. The celebrations then end with families sending colourfully lit lanterns down the rivers and out to sea. They believe this will guide the spirits back to the realm of the dead.

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Lanterns lit up in front of a Japanese castle

_Lanterns lit up to help the spirits return home during Obon, a time of calm and reflection. Photo credit: The World Festivals_

2. Singapore / Malaysia – Hungry Ghost Festival

The Hungry Ghost Festival, beginning on the fifteenth night of the seventh month in the Chinese lunar calendar, is a tradition upheld in countries like Singapore and Malaysia. During this month-long festival, it is believed that ghosts are able to roam the earth, where they seek food and entertainment. Locals caution that an ignored or disrespected spirit may get up to mischief. Throughout the month, boisterous public shows are staged, and offerings are made to the deceased, such as the burning of joss paper or hell bank notes. You might also catch the burning of huge paper houses and luxury sports cars. After the festival, people light water lanterns and set them free in lakes or rivers to help lead the hungry ghosts back to where they came from.

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The burning of paper effigies and joss sticks on a street in Penang

_Hungry Ghost Festival is a tribute to the departed. Photo credit: Visit Penang_

3. Mexico – Dia de los Muertos

Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead Festival, shares some of its origins with Halloween, and falls on the same day as well. Los Dias de los Muertos might be one of Mexico’s best-known events as a blending of the European traditions brought by the Spanish, the Aztecs and the Mayan people. Sugar skulls, the most recognisable symbol of this festival, are full of significance. Each skull, moulded from clay, is decorated and finished with the name of a departed loved one on its forehead. Placed on the departed’s gravestone, these commemorative pieces are meant to encourage the spirit to return on the Day of the Dead. Extended families will often meet at the cemeteries in the evening, and may keep vigil all night while eating the foods they have made in preparation for the fiesta, praying for everyone both alive and dead.

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Dia de los Muertos is a holiday where skulls appear everywhere

Dia de los Muertos is a time where these colourful sugar skulls appear everywhere

4. Cambodia – P’chum Ben

In the tenth month of the lunar calendar, usually around September, Cambodian Buddhists celebrate P’chum Ben, or the Festival of the Dead. During this 14-day stretch, they will wake before dawn each morning to prepare offerings of food and other gifts to monks and their ancestors. On the 15th day, villagers visit the pagoda with offerings of special treats, such as sweet sticky rice and bean treats wrapped in banana leaves. These offerings are for their relatives who have passed on and are offered with a prayer. Also, batches of rice mixed with sesame seed are prepared each morning, placed along the pagoda ground where it is left for the hungry ghosts or spirits who don’t have any living ancestors to take care of them.

This festival is a day when people wear their best outfits, get together, listen to music and speeches by monks at their local pagoda, and chow down on the specially-prepared food. This is a great opportunity for respectful tourists to see Cambodia’s spiritual side; pagodas in the capital open their doors, so if you happen to be there during this time, put on a white top, donate a little money, and bring a plate of food.

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Cambodians prepare tempting feasts for the spirits of their ancestors during P’chum Ben. Photo credit: ivyannecxt / Flickr

Cambodians prepare tempting feasts for the spirits of their ancestors during P’chum Ben. Photo credit: ivyannecxt / Flickr

5. Nepal – Gaijatra

Gaijatra, also called the Festival of the Cows, is a Nepalese festival celebrated for eight days in August and September. During this time, a procession of cows marches through the centre of town, led by family members who have suffered the loss of a loved one within the last year. If a cow cannot be found, a boy dressed as a cow will replace it. In Hinduism, cows are believed to be holy, and they are believed to guide the recently deceased to the afterlife. Gaijatra is a light-hearted celebration of death, which helps ease the suffering of both those who have passed on and those who have remained on earth.

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The streets of Nepal come to life with parades and festivities during Gaijatra. Photo credit: Frances Ellen / Flickr

The streets of Nepal come to life with parades and festivities during Gaijatra. Photo credit: Frances Ellen / Flickr

Planning to check some of these festivals out? Book cheap flights, hotels and car rental via Skyscanner today, or download our free mobile app for easy browsing and booking on the go.

Intrigued? Check out our other articles here:

7 best towns in Japan to feel like a samurai: a travel guide
10 amazing festivals you don’t want to miss
7 creepy places to visit this Halloween
5 ways to experience Penang that you might not have known about

Originally published in September 2015 and updated in October 2018. Any prices are lowest estimated prices only at the time of publication and are subject to change and/or availability.