Unusual Ways to Celebrate Christmas

  • catamaran sailing
    Escape the crowds in Bali and sail to Lembongan Island that has many amazing white-sand beaches.
Read what Chris has to say about uniquely enjoying Christmas in Asia:

I decided to spend this Christmas with my extended family up in Maryland. I love them but I’m missing spending this Christmas in Asia, like I did the last several, so much. Can you blame me? I’ve spent the past 7 or so Christmases basking in the tropical sun and relaxing at private islands with paradise beaches. I’ve tried Christmas dinners with turkey curry, and attended Mass with sermons in Tamil followed by King Coconut wine at a communicant’s house. Some Christmases I’ve spent with Tibetan Buddhist monks at hilltop gompas. The list goes on. Read ahead to find out all the weird and wonderful ways I’ve spent Christmas in Asia:

  • Under a curtain of fairy lights in Manila

When it comes to Christmas decorations, no one beats the Philippines, not even the Vatican. Asia’s largest Christian country celebrates the longest Christmas season in the world, which lasts until January. I spent last Christmas in Manila, and I don’t think I’ll ever be the same. During this season, the whole city is quite literally draped in fairly lights. Miles of pulsating LED bulb wires snaked their way around storefronts, school roofs and churches. Vines of psychedelic fairy lights hung down from treetops at public parks and traffic junctions.  It was as if the Disney intro logo had come to life. Adding to these already blinding decorations were “parols,” Filipino Christmas lanterns shaped liked the star that guided the Three Kings to Baby Jesus. Beyond all these unabashedly lavish decorations is the unwavering Catholic faith of many Filipinos, which I found profoundly moving.

christmas parols

Parol Christmas lanterns in Manila

  • Joining the pilgrims to see Adam’s footprint in Sri Lanka

When Adam and Eve were banished from Eden, they landed on a mountain in central Sri Lanka. There’s a footprint at the summit to prove it, according to legend. Couple of years ago, I joined the devout pilgrims to this legendary Adam’s Peak to experience the biblical story for myself. I climbed during predawn hours, and the 5,000 steps up were exhausting. Luckily, there were rest stops and tea shops along the way to refresh. I reached the summit just in time to catch a pure gold sunrise. I didn’t get to actually see the fabled footprint (it was securely barricaded), but I paid my respects to the shrine there.

adam peak

Legendary Adam’s Peak, Sri Lanka

  • Cruising Halong Bay

Vietnam’s Halong Bay is an emerald paradise with staggering limestone cliffs right out of a fantasy novel. Cruising here is famous, and I’ve done it several times. But, my most memorable Halong Bay cruise happened during Christmas couple of years ago. It was the peak tourist season so I was tempted by seasonal discounts. Also, the weather was perfect to smoothly navigate through the karst towers. My cruise stopped for us to go caving, sea kayaking, swimming and sunbathing at an alluring island. All in all, I enjoyed a thrilling Christmas retreat.

halong bay cruise

The famous Halong Bay

  • Discovering a hidden jungle temple

What could be more bizarre than spending Christmas combing through the Cambodian jungle in search of a mysterious temple? That’s exactly what I did one memorable Christmas. About 40km away from the crazy famous Angkor Wat temple complex is the Beng Mealea temple. This site has been so consumed by nature it’s hard to say where the jungle begins and the temple ends. Beng Mealea site is huge, and walking among its ruins covered in dead leaves was the closest I’ve been to becoming a real-life Indiana Jones.  Isn’t that the best Christmas gift ever?

cambodia

Exploring Beng Mealea

  • Swimming at a seven-storied waterfall

I’m not really a person to get excited over waterfalls. Sure they are good for a swim while jungle trekking, but other than that, what’s the point? Well, my disinterest about waterfalls just about flew out the window when I saw the Erawan waterfall in Thailand. It’s befittingly named after a god. When I first saw a picture of the round ponds of Erawan with turquoise water, I thought it was photoshopped. Then I visited the place and I couldn’t believe my eyes. There are 7 stories going up. The bottom levels were hogged by families and picnickers, but I managed to make the hike up to the top level and was greeted by almost secluded watery heaven. There were these black fish in the water who gave me a free fish spa treatment by sometimes nibbling at me. What a way to spend Christmas.

kanchanaburi erawan waterfall

Stunning Erawan waterfall

  • Touring an orangutan hospital

Christmas is the time for compassion. And there’s a lot of that to go around at Malaysia’s Bukit Merah Orangutan Island. I got a chance to visit their incredible in-house infant care unit, which is like a regular children’s hospital, except the “children” are baby orangutans. These infants had been either abandoned or rejected by their mothers, so the staff at the hospital takes care of them until they are old enough to be sent to a development program that teaches them how to survive in the wild. I saw baby orangutans in diapers, snuggled up in cots and naughtily pulling on their IV drips. The place was heart-wrenchingly amazing.

orang outans

Baby orangutan at Bukit Mera hospital

  • Sailing in Bali

Now, this is something I could never have done back home. Come Christmas, everyone runs to Bali’s white-sand beaches. I decided to ditch the crowds on land and instead go sailing to the jaw-dropping Lembongan Island. The trip was not too long, not too short; in other words, perfect. The weather was refreshingly breezy and the waves were gentle. Though a hardcore sailing fan might have found the ride mild, I loved it. Lembongan Island was also an excellent place to relax with an unobstructed view of the sea, and it was much mellow compared to mainland Bali. Basically, it was the ultimate beach Christmas getaway.

catamaran sailing

Sailing to beach paradise

Oh, wow, this Christmas is going to be so boring. Sorry guys.