One of the best reasons to travel is the resulting opportunities to experience a new country and culture; there's no better way to better understand a foreign culture than through one of its festivals. From fire dancing to flesh piercing, there are some experiences that seem extremely strange to the uninitiated. However, once you've either seen it firsthand -- or taken part in it -- you'll never be quite the same.
From the religious to the wacky, here are some of the world's strangest festivals.
La Tomatina (Spain)
Last Wednesday of August
If channeling your elementary school self is on the agenda, head to Buñol, Spain for La Tomatina. This "largest food fight in the world" is believed to have been started with a tomato -- but it certainly didn't end with just one. Now, more than 50,000 people pack the streets of Buñol, Spain, armed with cheap tomatoes, ready to pelt friends and strangers alike. Gloves and safety goggles are suggested attire as the battle can get quite heated, even though it lasts just an hour. While past years allowed anyone and everyone to participate, the large numbers of attendees prompted town officials to require tickets. No ticket, no tomato tossing. Consider yourself advised and prepare to get messy.
For another fruit-based festival, check out the Battle of the Oranges in Ivrea, Italy.
Held on the full moon in the 10th Tamil month, usually mid-January
Thaipusam is perhaps one of the most uncomfortable festivals to watch for those who aren't particularly fond of needles. Though it may look masochistic to outsiders, Thaipusam, a Hindu festival, is a time of celebration in Singapore. On this day, devotees demonstrate their piety by carrying milk pots and wooden kavadis (large wooden structures which are attached to the body through steel piercings) 2.8 miles (4.5 km) in honor of the Hindu god Subramaniam (Lord Murugan). It looks extremely painful, but due to days of fasting, participants often enter a transe-like state and say they feel no pain.
If piercings aren't your thing, check out the Holi festival in India, a Hindu festival which only involves getting marked with bright colors.
Hadaka Matsuri (Japan)
Exhibitionists, take your mark. A not-quite-nakedfestival, the Hadaka Matsuri has been celebrated for thousands of years in several cities across Japan, but the most famous is Saidai-ji Eyo Hadaka Matsuri in the city of Okayama. Now grown to epic proportions, this particular Hadaka Matsuri has 10,000 loin-clothed men trying to catch the shingi, or lucky sticks. It's not over once the shingi are secured -- the lucky man must then defend himself against the other contenders to place them in the proper container. It's a battle, but he's well rewarded with a cash prize and, best of all, bragging rights for the next year.
Prefer being clad in paint rather than clothing? Attend the World Bodypainting Festival, which takes place each year in Portschach, Austria.
The Anastenaria (Greece and Bulgaria)
If you think it's getting hot in here, well, it's not just you. The Anastenaria, which is celebrated in parts of Greece and Bulgaria, honors the feast day of Patron Saints Constantine and Helen, who believers hold to have powers of protection, purification and healing. The festival is full of rituals, symbolism and sacrifice, culminating in the Anastenarides running backwards and forwards across burning coals when moved by the saints.
If dancing around a fire instead of over it seems more your speed, head to Edinburgh, Scotland for the Beltane Festival.
San Gennaro Feast Day (Italy)
Those with an aversion to blood might want to sit this one out. Each year, on the morning of the feast day of San Gennaro, thousands of people throng to Naples Cathedral to see San Gennaro's desiccated blood liquefy. Known as the "miracle of San Gennaro," this is an extremely important happening in Naples: If the blood turns to liquid, then San Gennaro has blessed the city for another year; if the blood does not liquefy, it's a sign that something terrible is going to happen to Naples. Local lore holds that the last time the blood did not liquefy, Vesuvius erupted. So cross your fingers, listen for the church bells ringing and join in the resulting celebration through the streets of Naples.
Looking for a festival to celebrate the entirety of a dead guy? Check out Frozen Dead Guy Days in Nederland, Colorado, which celebrates the cryogenically frozen Grandpa Bredo.
National Beer Day (Iceland)
It's no secret that Icelanders are fond of a bit of partying. After all, when there are days when the sun won't stop shining, it makes sense to throw a few back to celebrate. However, it wasn't that long ago (1989) that Iceland was still under a form of prohibition and unable to sell beer. When the laws were passed to make beer legal on March 1, 1989, Icelanders rejoiced and have since celebrated National Beer Day each March 1 with pub crawls and other celebrations that last until the early hours of the morning. Beer has since become the most popular drink in the country.
Love beer? Check out the beer can regatta in Darwin, Australia where contestants make boats out of recycled beer cans and take to the high seas.
Lopburi Monkey Banquet (Thailand)
Last Sunday in November
If you've ever come in close contact with monkeys, you know that they're often a bit grabby, snatching a sandwich from your hand without warning or breaking into your hotel minibar if you forget to lock the patio doors (true story). However, in 1989, in Lopburi, Thailand, a local innkeeper decided to feed the monkeys a lavish banquet as they're also believed to bring luck and good fortune along with their mischievous behavior. Thus, a tradition was born and the banquet has grown each year. As the monkeys tuck into the sumptuous spread, they soon get a bit giddy and start dancing on the tables and throwing food. For spectators, it's a unique and highly entertaining sight -- just be sure to wear clothes that you don't mind having decorated by the monkeys.
Not that into monkeys? Celebrate all things chicken at the Wayne Chicken Show in Wayne, Nebraska with chicken costumes, chicken games and chicken dancing culminating in, what else, a chicken dinner.
El Colacho (Spain)
Sunday after Corpus Christi, usually in May or June
Known locally as "El Colacho" by to the world as the "baby jumping festival," this somewhat scary festival involves men dressed up as devils, jumping over babies that were born the previous year. The festival started back in the 1600s, when jumping over babies was believed to bless the newborns and remove original sin. Nowadays, though traditional baptism is also usually given, Spaniards flock to the small town of Castrillo de Murcia to bundle the babies up on mattresses and have "devils" jump over them. Don't worry, though -- most babies seem to think that this is a funny event and end up giggling throughout the ordeal.
Try running from another entity with horns at the famous Encierro, or Running of the Bulls, in Pamplona, Spain.
World Bog Snorkeling Championships (Wales)
This particular festival, which entails donning a mask or goggles, snorkel and fins and traversing a 60-yard (60-meter) trench cut through a peat bog, is one of several interesting events that take place in the tiny town of Llanwrtyd Wells in Wales (another is the Man versus Horse Marathon). The goal is to go as fast as possible in muddy, murky water that is most likely inhabited by bog monsters; costumes are encouraged.
Take it a step further and compete in the World Alternative Games, which are also held in Llanwrtyd. The Games consist of approximately 60 unique events including worm charming and chariot racing.
These are just a few of the wild and wacky festivals that take place around the world. Be sure to keep your ears open on your next trip. You never know: you may end up rolling a cheese down a hill in England or immersing yourself in mud in South Korea.
-Contributed by Katie Coakley