Malaysia has a high population of Muslims citizens, more than half the country, making the month of Ramadan a special time nationwide. Many tourists find this as the ideal time for their Malaysian getaway. Some have friends who they visit on Hari Raya, and others just want to have the rich experience of visiting Malaysia during the month of Ramadan.
Some may get the idea that by traveling to Malaysia for vacation during Ramadan month, that they ‘ll be an intrusion as a non-muslim. This is not the case. In fact, Malaysia is a multicultural melting pot with many different types of religions, beliefs and ethnic people that live together. Here in Malaysia, we do more than just tolerate one another, we live in harmony and respect of each other and share our best traditions. So even as a non-muslim, there is still plenty to do and enjoy during Ramadan month.
There may be a few slight restrictions to consider when you come during Ramadan month, however. For instance Muslim restaurants and some businesses and shops will be closed. But again, don’t let that dissuade you from coming and enjoying the great things Ramadan month in Malaysia has to offer.
What exactly is Ramadan?
Ramadan (also known as Ramadhan or Ramzan) is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar and is a holy month observed by Muslims worldwide. The word Ramadan comes from the Arabic root ramiḍa or ar-ramaḍ, which means scorching heat or dry ground without food or water.It commemorates the month during which Muhammad received the initial revelations of what would become the Quran and is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. This is what Muslims call “the best of times”.
During the month of Ramadan, Muslims abstain from eating or drinking dawn and sunset. This fasting is a way to attain taqwa, fear of God. The goal is to bring oneself closer to Allah, or God. It is believed that God explained to the prophet Muhammad that fasting was an obligatory practice that should be observed by those who wish “oneness” with Him.
Ramadan is also the special month for spending time with family and friends, reaching out to the poor and other charities in the community, but most importantly, Ramadan is a time of spiritual reflection.
Three parts of Ramadan
There are three parts to the month of Ramadan. Ramadan begins, The night of Power, and Eid (or Hari Raya in Indonesia and Malaysia). Each have their own special observances and meanings. For non-Muslims, Hari Raya is an exciting time to join with your Muslim friends and marks the end of Ramadan.
Ramadan begins typically about a day after the new moon, marking the new month. Islamic scholars calculate the day each year, so it does fall on a different date. Take note: In Johor, Kedah, and Malacca, Ramadan begins is a public holiday and is a day off for the general public. Schools and most businesses are closed.
The Night Of Power
This is considered the most holiest of nights throughout the year. According to Islamic belief, it’s the night in which the first revelation of the Quran was given to Muhammad saying that this night was “better than one thousand months [of proper worship]”, as stated in Chapter 97:3 of the Quran.
Hari Raya Aidilfitri The End Of Ramadan
This is the first day of the new month, Shawwal and marks the end of Ramadan. This is a day of feating and celebrating for having successfully endured an entire month of abstaining from food, water, smoking and intimacy and represents the returning back to a normal routine.
Hari Raya Aidilfitri is considered one of the two most important celebrations for Muslims, the other is Hari Raya Haji which is also a festival that commemorates Abraham’s sacrifice.
We’ll talk a little more about Hari Raya later on. This is a time when our tourists come back and rave about the food and fun they enjoyed.
How is Ramadan Observed?
Our Muslim communities, as well as Muslim communities world wide, take Ramadan very seriously and follow all of the practices and observances required. As mentioned, Ramadan is a month of fasting. During daylight hours, Muslims fast from food, water, sexual activity and smoking. This is obligatory for all adult Muslims except those who are sick, travelling, elderly, pregnant, breastfeeding, diabetic, chronically ill or women who may be menstrating. Although eating during daylight hours is permitted for those mentioned, they still will not eat in public.
Prayer and spiritual reflection is an important part of Ramadan. Many immerse themselves into studying and reciting the Quran, and vow to recite the Quran in its entirety by the months end.
This is how the fast is observed:
Sahur- The Pre-dawn Meal
This fast begins right after Sahur, or the pre dawn meal. This gives them energy for the long day ahead. Normally, sahur is served around 4:30 am, but this depends on which state because in Sabah and Sarawak the break of dawn is earlier compared to the Peninsular of Malaysia. The Sahur time will also be earlier. Once the dawn breaks, no food is taken for the rest of the day until sundown. Malaysia is fortunate that the days are not as long as in some other areas of the world. But it doesn’t matter, Muslims take this sacrifice very seriously and accept it piously.
Some stay up after Sahur and take the time to reflect and pray, while others will grab a little more sleep. Both are accepted.
Tourists can experience sahur at any mosque and also many Muslim restaurants do prepare a meal for Sahur, then close afterwards. Sahur can be a variety of foods like coconut pancakes or BBQ chicken wings, or just a simple baked macaroni or corn coconut pudding.
Buka Puasa- Break fasting meal at sunset
This is the best time of the day. After fasting the whole day all Muslims will celebrate the day by breakfasting. Here the term “breakfast” does not refer to the morning meal as it has been come to be recognized, but the meaning is the same. Buka Puasa is “breaking the fast”.
Traditionally, dates are the first thing eaten to break the day’s fast. This is remembrance of how Muhammad broke his own fast by eating dates. After that they generally gather for the Maghrib prayer, the fourth of the five daily prayers, after which the main meal is served.
Its all about sharing and giving. There are no restrictions for non-Muslims to join the breakfasting. Everyone is welcome in the feast, so if you perhaps meet a Muslim family while on vacation, don’t be surprised if they invite you to eat with them after sundown.
Depending on some city councils, they do organize public breakfast meaning they will sponsor food for the public or even anyone to come and join the breakfast. And you will sit together will the locals and enjoy the meal at that particular area. You have to just find out if there are any in your area.
During the month of Ramadan, it’s very common to see the mosques occupied with people 24/7. Many of our tourists are amazed to see this type of devotion and dedication. What’s unique about visiting the mosque during Ramadan month is its the only time throughout the year you will hear the Tarawih Prayer being recited. However it’s not obligatory to recite them.
Usually after the prayer, there will be some religious lectures that is also open to the public. If you are visiting one of the beautiful mosques during Ramadan month, you may even be invited inside to experience it first hand.
Charities and Charity Work
In the Muslim faith, a great importance is placed on charity and charity work. In fact, one of The Pillars Of Islam is a certain percentage of one’s wages should be donated to the poor. However, during Ramadan, it is believed the rewards for giving charity are greater, so many take this opportunity for Sadaqah, or voluntarily giving more than what is normally required which will maximize their reward at the Last Judgement.
Experiencing Ramadan Month as a Tourist
For the non- Muslim traveling to Malaysia during Ramadan month, you may not notice much of a difference if you are not interested in visiting the mosques or enjoying the Muslim Ramadan traditions. Some attraction places might close earlier so the Muslims can get themselves ready for breakfasting. They will need to buy food, cook and make preparations for the sundown meal. This usually will affect certain specific states like Kelantan, Terengganu ,Johor and Kedah. Just check on the timing to reconfirm.
Traffic in Ramadan will be a bit more congested than normal in the afternoon. Most of the office workers will leave work earlier so they can get home and prepare So, if you need to catch a bus, train or flight ensure you plan ahead for your journey. Just to avoid the heavy traffic.
Pasar Ramadan (Ramadan Bazaar)
If you find yourself in Malaysia during Ramadan month, you will not be able to miss the Pasar Ramadan, or the Ramadan Bazaar. This is a month long bazar set up in many cities and Muslim communities, almost everywhere throughout Malaysia, that sells an enormous amount of food. And when I say big, I mean big. The Ramadan Bazaar in Kuala Lumpur,Kampung Baru Ramadan Bazaar has over 200 stalls selling just about anything you can imagine and has been known to be almost two kilometers long.
Different kind of rice from other states, different colours and tastes. Here you can find foods like kerabu rice, dagang rice, nasi lemak, nasi briyani, and nasi ambeng, just to name a few popular dishes. You can choose anything you fancy. The bazaar is not reserved only for Muslims observing Ramadan. Anyone can can enter and eat. I recall a tourist group last year that made a point to visit the bazaar everyday of their stay for breakfast. There was no reason to go to a restaurant, everything they wanted was right there.
You’ll also find local delicacies ranging from sweet to savory. Try popia goreng, kuih puteri mandi, pulut panggang. These are some dishes that you won’t be able to find normally. Cold drinks are also served. The Bazaar normally opens at 4:30 am then closes around 7:30 am. It will re-open as early as 4pm so people can gather what they need for breakfasting.
If you are fortunate enough to be in Malaysia for Hari Raya, prepare for an amazing experience. This is the end of Ramadan month and the end of the fasting. As soon as the new moon is seen on the last day of Ramadan, the fasting is over and the celebration begins.
However, most Muslims have already been planning and preparing for Hari Raya way in advance. They stock food, buy new clothes and gifts and really let the excitement build. On the morning of Hari Raya, the men perform prayers at the mosque while children ask for forgiveness from their parents. The children also receive small green packets stuffed with cash. After prayers, it’s time to eat and visit with friends.
Traditionally the first three days of Hari Raya are to be spent catching up with relatives and close friends, however many families open their homes throughout the month for anyone, Muslim or not, to come and enjoy food, fun and laughter with them. Hopefully, you will be fortunate if you had visited one of the mosques or even met some locals at the bazaar to be invited to an open house. Not an experience you’ll want to pass up. Thsi is actually a common practice and believed that by invited non-Muslims and/or foreigners into their homes for Hari Raya, they will receive extra blessings.
Here in Malaysia, the first two days of Hari Raya are public holidays, so many things will be closed and the cities may look a little deserted as a lot of Muslims will travel to their hometowns to visit their families and spend time celebrating with them. Even once they return to the cities and back to work, the celebrations don’t end. For the rest of the month you’ll still find them throwing parties and having open houses. One month of fasting, followed by one month of festivities.
Foods To Try During Hari Raya
The delicacies offered during Hari Raya are not to be passed up.Just like pumpkin pie and Thanksgiving in the US, some of these delicacies go hand in hand with Hari Raya and can only be found during this time.
Ketput is one such food item that everyone looks forward to and to be honest, it wouldn’t be Hari Raya without it. Ketput is compressed rice wrapped in coconut leaves in the shape of a diamond then cooked.
It’s usually served with beef rending (beef cooked with coconut milk and malay spices) and satay (skewered grilled meat), or just with cool slices of cucumber.
Another one of Malaysia’s signature Hari Raya delicacies. Lemang is glutinous coconut rice wrapped in fragrant banana leaves, then stuffed into hollow bamboo sticks and roasted over a fire. I like this best with my rendang or even chicken curry.
Doldol may seem tame given the ingredients are only coconut milk, cane sugar and rice flour, but ask any local and they will tell you this is a difficult one to make. It takes nine hours of constant stirring over a hot fire to come up with the finished product. When you give this a try, remember the work that went into it. It will taste even better.
This is a soup that is also quite popular during the Ramadan month as well as Hari Raya. Anise, cardamom, cinnamon and black pepper, among other spices are simmered along with certain vegetables and meat depending on what region or part of Malaysia you are in
Lontong is an amazing Hari Raya dish that has its roots in Indonesia. It’s a coconut soup that’s a combination of nasi impit, vegetables and meat, served in a savoury coconut milk base. Again depending on where you are, there will be variations. Some cooks put peanut sauce in the soup while others add tempeh or a hard-boiled egg. Its served with rice cakes.
Some Quick Pro Tips About Travelling During Ramadan
• Take note that shops and malls will be pretty packed the week before Ramadan. People like to stock up, especially on dates, which is served every night at breakfasting
• As the sun goes down, traffic can get quite heavy as everyone rushes home for breakfasting. If you plan to go out to dinner, might want to try and go a little early before the sun goes down.
• In country flights, busses and trains can be crowded or all booked up since many Muslims will be traveling to see their families. Make sure to reserve way in advance if you plan to travel around the country.
• If traveling during Ramadan month, try and find hotels near or around Indian or Chinese communities. Some hotels restaurants may be closed during the day if they are Muslim owned and operated.
• Pack some snacks if you plan to travel in areas where restaurants and shops may be closed.
If you are planning your vacation to Malaysia, and it happens to fall within Ramadan month, don’t reschedule, but consider yourself lucky to be able to experience this wonderful culture and religion at such a great time of the year for them. And if you have extra vacation days, stick around for Hari Raya. You won’t be disappointed.