One of the significant features of Malaysian culture is the celebration of various festivals and events. The year is filled with colourful, exhilarating and exciting activities. Some are religious and solemn, but others are lively, joyous events. An interesting feature of the main festivals here is the custom of the “open house”. This involves Malaysians celebrating the festival inviting friends and family to their homes to enjoy traditional delicacies and fellowship.
Multicultural Malaysia celebrates a variety of festivals, but the ones to look out for across the country are Islamic holidays, especially the fasting month of Ramadan. During its 29 or 30 days, Muslims abstain from food, drink, smoking and sex from sunrise to sunset. Not all Muslims follow the tradition or keep the full Ramadan fast, but most make a very serious effort. Pregnant, breastfeeding or menstruating women are not expected to fast, nor are the elderly, infirm or travellers. People get up early before sunrise to have a meal (sahur) and set out early to be back home in time to break the fast (buka puasa) at sunset.
At the end of the month is the festival of Eid ul-Fitr, known locally as Hari Raya Puasa or Aidilfitri, when many locals take a week or two off to “balik kampung” or return to their hometowns to meet family and friends. Accordingly, this is one of the many times of the year when major cities like Kuala Lumpur have virtually no traffic congestion.
Another important festival is the Muslim festival of Eid ul-Adha, known locally as Hari Raya Haji or Aidiladha. During this festival, Muslims perform the Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca. Cows and goats are donated and sacrificed by the faithful in local mosques, after which the meat is distributed to all. Family reunions are also celebrated during other important festivals, where locals usually dress up in traditional costumes and robes, as these festivals are an integral part of Malaysian society.
During the month of Ramadan, non-Muslims are expected to show consideration for those who are fasting. Non-Muslims, as well as travelling Muslims (musafir), are exempt from fasting, but it is polite not to eat or drink in public. Public schools also require non-Muslims not to eat in the presence of fasting people. Many restaurants are closed during the day and those that remain open keep a low profile. Business travellers will notice that things move a little slower than usual. The advantage for foreign travellers is the Ramadan bazaars in every city and town are bustling with activity and bursting at the seams with good food. Hotels and restaurants also pull out all the stops to serve up huge quantities of food for the fast-breaking festivities. During the fasting month of Ramadan, the meals at the end of the breaking of the fast are usually considered a big feast. The global fast food chain McDonalds is known to host several all-you-can-eat feasts during the month of Ramadan.
Other important holidays are Chinese New Year (around January/February), Deepavali or Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights (around October/November), the Buddhist holiday Wesak (around May/June) and Christmas (25 December). During Chinese New Year, Penang and Ipoh are the most important cities as many Chinese working and living in KL are from there. However, this situation is gradually changing as more and more people are making Kuala Lumpur their hometown. When visiting during such festivals, travellers can experience many wonderful celebrations, but the downside is that many ethnic shops/restaurants are closed then. The best option is to visit during the period immediately after the first two days of the big festival (Hari Raya/Chinese New Year), when shops are open and the festive mood has not yet subsided.
Another major festival is Deepavali, which is celebrated by Malaysian Hindus as the festival of light originating in classical India and is one of the most important cultural festivals. In Malaysia, locals practice this tradition by wearing new clothes and receiving symbolic gifts of money. This practice has been adopted by all Malaysians, regardless of their religion. They distribute red packets or ang pow during Chinese New Year, green packets or “duit raya” for Hari Raya Aidilfitri and multi-coloured packets during Deepavali.
Special Malaysian festivals include the Harvest Festival at the end of May and the “Pesta Gawai” in early June, both harvest festivals celebrated in East Malaysia.
Thaipusam is a Hindu festival that falls in January or February and is one of the must-see events. The largest procession in the country takes place in Batu Caves, north of Kuala Lumpur. Male devotees carry decorated altars or kavadi up a staircase of 272 steps to the temple, while simultaneously having religious spears and hooks pierced through the outer surfaces of their bodies. This ability is attributed to divine intervention and religious zeal. Female devotees join the procession carrying pots of milk on their heads instead