An adventure to Malaysia is exciting. There are so many new things to see, taste, smell and do. There’s the beach, exotic foods, great people to meet, hundreds of different ethnic groups to learn about, and amazing nightlife. But there is more to experience in Malaysia than just everyday life. For instance, New Orleans is a great town to visit year-round, but the best time to visit is of course on Mardi Gras.
I’m talking about my favorite times of the year. Festival time.
There are about two festivals a month throughout the year in different parts of Malaysia. Most festivals revolve around culture or religion and since Malaysia is a great blend of religions including Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and Buddhists and hundreds of different ethnic groups there is always something going on.
East and West Malaysia may have separate cultural events and some may have open houses with dancing and lots of food spread out for everyone to enjoy, yet others are a time of fasting and prayer and visiting the temple or mosque.
Here are ten must-see festivals in Malaysia to plan your adventure around.
Chinese New Year
When: Can fall anywhere between lat January to Mid February.
Where: All throughout Malaysia in the Chinese communities.
The Chinese communities transform the entire country into a vibrant, colorful festival of dancing dragons and paper lanterns. Chinese New year is the biggest event of the year for the Chinese communities and everyone gets involved.
Lions and Dragons (not real ones of course) dance in a colorful yearly ritual to bring good fortune and prosperity in the New Year and to chase away any evil spirits or bad omens. The Chinese Malaysians will have people in costume doing these dances in businesses, their homes and some cities have events of traditional music and ceremonies.
Shopping malls and many public places hang red lantern decorations (red is a lucky color) and children are given “ang pow” or a small red envelope filled with money. Another common tradition is giving away oranges to people that visit your home during this time.
Chinese New year is also a time to find good-fortune foods like pineapple tarts, love letters (thin folded wafers) and peanut cookies just to name a few.
Eid (Hari Raya Aidilfitri)
When: Late May to Mid June
Where: All throughout Malaysia, mostly in Muslim communities.
Also called Hari Raya Puasa, this celebration marks the end of Ramadan’s month-long fasting for Muslims and celebrates the triumph of self-discipline and symbolizes rebirth or refinement. The phrase Hari Raya literally translates to “celebration day” and this is one huge celebration day, probably the biggest in Malaysia.
It has no fixed date each year, instead, the religious experts calculate the date according to the lunar Hijri month. For one month, Muslims observe strict fasting from sunrise to sunset. They abstain from eating, drinking and smoking, and strive to resist any bad thoughts or desires.
At sunrise on the last day, they attend the mosque for prayer then return home for a feast and celebration that can last up to a month. The first few days are reserved for catching up with family and many keep an open house where anyone, Muslim or non- Muslim can come and enjoy some good conversation and dive into delicacies like Ketupa, an Eid must-have.
Hari Raya Korban
When: The date varies from late August to October
Where: All throughout Malaysia, mostly in Muslim communities.
This is a public holiday to signify the “almost” sacrifice the prophet Ibrahim was willing to make. In the scriptures, Ibrahim was prepared to sacrifice his only son, Ishmael, as commanded by God. However, at the last minute, God commanded Ibrahim to stop and sacrifice a sheep instead.
People will rise early, attend a sermon at the Mosque then head home for a day-long celebration. This is the time for gift-giving, new clothes and visiting friends. Large meals of goat or sheep which have been sacrificed are prepared and a portion of it, or the monetary equivalent is given to poor families so they too can celebrate.
Mosques are decorated with lights and firecrackers are sometimes set off at night.
This is the ideal time to see the unique architecture of the mosques and see how the meat is prepared in the slaughterhouses. Non-Muslims and even tourists are often invited to meals as a way to introduce them to Islamic culture.
When: Dates vary from mid-October to November
Where: All throughout Malaysia especially in Hindu communities.
Deepavali is the festival of lights, also a public holiday and one of the most colorful festivals in Malaysia. People decorate their homes with red paper and intricate “kolams” which are floor designs made from colored rice and powders.
The background has several different legends in Hindu texts. The most common tells the story of how Lord Rama, who had been banished from the city, returned to take His throne. It was an unusually dark night so the people of the city lit lanterns to light the path for him.
Another one is to honour Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of prosperity. Clay lanterns are lit and placed all around asking the goddess to bless them. The main significance of the “festival of lights” is to signify the triumph of good over evil.
This is an amazing time of lights and celebrations. There are firework displays at night and street food stalls are packed with Indian food, so this is the perfect time to indulge. A majority of the Hindu population is in West Malaysia and the capital Kuala Lumpur has two “little India” districts.
Don’t forget to stop in and visit the amazing Hindu temples while you enjoy Deepavali.
When: late January/ early February
Where: Batu Caves on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Waterfall
Temple, Penang, and other shrines and locations nationwide.
This is the most unique festival on this list, but I have to warn you, it’s not for the squeamish person. This Tamil celebration is held during the full moon and commemorates Lord Murugan (Hindu god of war) defeating an evil spirit called Soorapadman.
As a tourist, this is something you will most likely not see again in your lifetime so I highly recommend this festival. Many on our tours have been skeptical about attending, but after they were happy they did.
This celebration involves a parade through the streets of Kuala Lumpur led by a chariot that with a statue of Lord Murugan. Now here is where it may get a little outlandish. Devotees then make a barefoot walk to the Batu caves carrying jugs of milk and ornate frames called kavadi. The kavadi actually pierce the skin of their chest and backs as a symbol of penance. Some even put a spike through their cheeks.
Not all devotees pierce their skin, though. Many just make offerings of fruit or flowers or other gifts. Batu caves are the most popular and largest shrine, but there are shrines all throughout Malaysia that celebrate Thaipusam.
According to my friend Shoba, Penang Waterfall temple is the best place other than the Batu caves to experience Thaipusam.
When: End of September or early October
Where: All over Malaysia in the Chinese communities with the most popular celebrations in Thean Hou Temple in Kuala Lumpur and Penang.
I just got an email this morning from a tourist family that was here last year for the Mooncake festival. They said they had been craving mooncakes ever since and wanted to know exactly when next year’s festival was. That’s when they are planning their vacation.
I also look forward to this mid-autumn festival every year. The mooncake festival celebrates one of the most delicious Chinese delicacies ever made, the mooncake, and includes lantern parades, mooncake tasting and the lion and dragon dancing in the streets. Georgetown puts on a great event as does Nibong Tebal, Butterworth, Kepala Batas, and Bukit Mertajam.
Hotels and shopping malls hold events and serve all kinds of mooncakes. Best to come and try all the various recipes and see for yourself. You’ll never look at the full moon again without getting hungry.
When: August 31st
Where: Most events take place on Merdeka Square in Kuala Lumpur, however it’s celebrated nationwide.
This celebration commemorates our independence from the British on August 31st, 1957. It starts with fireworks right at midnight and continues on into the next day with parades, live concerts, food, and performances by civil servants and school children.
The Harvest Festival
When: May 30-31
Where: Sabah and Labuan
Traditionally, this festival is a time for farmers and their families to thank the spirits and God for the year’s rice harvest. This is a bit like Thanksgiving day in the US, but instead of turkey, the main course is rice. Rice is considered sacred and is a staple of our diet.
Nowadays, it’s a celebration of food, fun, dancing and music. Expect a lot of Tapai and Lihing, or rice wine, to be flowing. Other favorites include hinava (fermented fish) and bambangan (a kind of pickled fruit similar to mango).
In Unduk Ngadau, an annual beauty contest is held and the winner is announced at the end of the festival, and in other parts of the state, there are exhibits, public events. Most tourists love traditional dances and ethnic clothing. Not an experience to pass up.
The Dragon Boat Festival
I never miss this festival and it’s definitely a tourist favorite. The Penang International Dragon Boat Festival is a two-day event where boat racers come from all over Malaysia, China, Singapore and Hong Kong to Teluk Bahang Dam to race in traditional boats to the sound of drum beats.
Besides the boat races, there are local performers and of course my favorite, lots and lots of food available.
Nine Emperor Gods Festival
Where: The Nine Emperor Gods Temple, Butterworth, Penang
This Taoist festival in Penang is not one to miss. Like Thaipusam, it’s a nine-day event that features devotees performing firewalking and piercing their cheeks with long rods. They are awaiting the arrival of the nine Taoist gods and the temple is brilliantly lit and packed with followers dressed in white and carrying incense. It ends with a long procession on the ninth day from the temple to the beachfront to send the goods back home.
The temple, also known as Rumah Berhala Tow Boo Kong, was started as a small shrine in 1971 which has grown into an elaborate and ornate temple completed in 2000. Many of our tourists ask about it and do visit year-round, but to really get a powerful experience you have to come and see the festival.
So there are ten popular festivals to plan your vacation around, however, there’s a ton more to discover depending on where and when you visit.
Some others include Wesak Day (May), Rainforest World Music Festival, Kuching, Sarawak (mid-July), Prophet Muhammad’s Birthday and of course Christmas.
I’d love to hear about your favorite festival to visit in Malaysia, drop me a note in the comments below.