A Quick Guide to Malaysian Festivals

The island of Penang, where I live, has more festivals than any other town in Malaysia. Over 500 festivals take place every year in Penang’s capital, George Town alone. That’s almost two a day!

I love Malaysian festivals… the colour, the noise, the smell, the multitudes of people– they’re all-encompassing.

Malaysia has a multi-ethnic, multi-religious population. There are Malay’s, Indians, Chinese, Orang Asli and Asal (indigenous peoples), and of course, expats like myself. We number in the tens of thousands meaning Christian festivals are popular here too– none more so than Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

The legends and stories behind the festivals are what make them so exciting–and the history, some are over 5,000 years old. Over time, and sometimes far from where they originated, those conducting the ceremonies and celebrating the festivals have developed subtly different understandings and practices meaning little about each festival and its rituals is rigidly fixed.

That means that no matter where you see a particular festival in Malaysia, even if you see the same one twice, you will always witness something different. Here’s a quick guide to my five favourites…

1. Holi: Hindu Spring Festival

Holi is an excuse for Indians throughout Malaysia to shed their inhibitions and enjoy a day of spring fervour and lots of fun. Teenagers spend the day flirting in the streets, adults extend the hand of peace and everyone chases everyone else around, throwing water and brightly coloured powder–called gulal–over each other.

Holi celebrations start with people gathering to sing and dance around a Holika bonfire, the night before Holi. The next morning is a free-for-all carnival of colours, laughter–and gulal.

Water pistols and vibrant, water-filled balloons are part of the fun and everyone is fair game. Friend or stranger, rich or poor, man or woman, children and elders. Groups of people carry musical instruments from place to place singing and dancing as they go. In the evening, people dress up and visit friends and family to laugh and chat over a meal.

2. Thaipusam

This Hindu festival is one to observe from the sidelines…and not one for the squeamish.
Thaipusam is an annual procession by Hindu devotees seeking blessings, fulfilling vows and offering thanks to Lord Murugan. To them he is the ultimate destroyer of evil and a manifestation of valour, beauty, youth, vitality, masculinity and happiness. The festival of Thaipusam celebrates the very essence of Lord Murugan and the struggle of good over evil.

Devotees prepare for the celebration through prayer and fasting for approximately two months before the actual festival takes place. On the day of the festival devotees shave their heads and undertake a pilgrimage along a set route while engaging in various acts of devotion. At its simplest this may entail carrying a pot of milk, but piercing the skin, tongue, cheeks or other parts of the body with vel skewers or hooks is also common.

Malaysian Festivals

Another act of devotion is carrying various types of kavadi or burdens. Some can weigh hundreds of pounds and are supported by the shoulders, while others weigh very little and are usually hooked through the skin.

Insider Tip: Apart from the amazing spectacle, the colours and the music, what no one tells you about is the food. It’s just delicious. And its free! So, at the end of the festival, follow the devotees…they know where they are going…and you will be led to a banquet where you can as little or as much as you like.

3. The Hungry Ghost Festival

This festival marks the month when Chinese people believe that a door to the underworld opens allowing restless spirits to wander the earth. To appease the spirits, people burn fake money and paper representations of luxury items. Cars and houses are favourites. Once burned they pass into the underworld for the dead relatives to enjoy.

The streets of Penang are decorated with paper lanterns and incense is lit to keep ghosts at bay. Large bonfires take place in the middle of the streets and fireworks displays abound.

Malaysian Festivals

Don’t wear red and don’t get drunk because that’s attractive to the ghosts…and you don’t want to encourage them!

Insider Tip: One of the great things about The Hungry Ghost Festival is its street opera. It’s free and you will never see or hear the likes of it anywhere else. You’ll notice that the first two rows of seats are empty. Don’t sit there. They are always reserved for the ghosts.

4. Songkran: Thai New Year

You’ll find the Songkran Festival quite refreshing as it takes place in April, one of Southeast Asia’s hottest months. This is an important event on the Buddhist calendar, marking the beginning of the traditional Thai New Year.

Songkran is the essentially the world’s biggest water fight and it’s celebrated with wild abandon by everyone! Friends and strangers splash each other with hoses, water balloons and even water guns.

Originally the sprinkling of water was more ceremonial, but it’s since become a wet and wild celebration that lasts three to 10 days, depending on where you are in Malaysia.

Insider Tip: If you visit any Songkran festival anywhere in the world there is no escaping the madness that takes place. And that means that you will get covered in powder and you will get soaked. Take a plastic bag for your camera and phone and carry a washcloth and wet wipes. Both will come in super handy once you decide you have had enough and are ready to head back to your hotel. (This goes for Holi too!)

5. Hari Raya Aidilfitri

Hari Raya Aidilfitri, the breaking of the fast, is a joyous occasion that marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting. Families and friends seek forgiveness from each other, ancestors’ graves are visited and relatives and friends gather together to feast on traditional Malay delicacies.

Malaysian Festivals

My favourites are satay, ketupat (rice dumplings), rendang (a spicy meat dish) and lemang (a rice dish, cooked in a hollowed bamboo stick).

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