Visiting a predominantly Muslim country during the holy month of Ramadan may seem daunting for a first-timer. Are all shops closed? Can you eat in public? Is it a good idea to visit?
This article will tell you everything you need to know about visiting Malaysia during Ramadan, including the best places to find food, the benefits of visiting during this time, and some insider’s tips on what to do and what to avoid, so that you’ll get the best out of your trip without unintentionally disrespecting the local culture.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, during which Muslims worldwide have to fast from dawn until sunset. Yes, that means no eating or drinking during the day, for an entire month! Not even a drop of water.
Like in many other religions, fasting is meant to instill self-control and inspire self-development. When fasting, Muslims not only abstain from food and drinks, but also from smoking, engaging in sexual relations, and committing sinful acts, such as lying and fighting.
Fasting during Ramadan is compulsory for all Muslims once they reach puberty, as long as they’re not currently ill, breastfeeding, or menstruating. There are also a number of other conditions that may exempt someone from fasting.
Although young children before the age of puberty are not obliged to fast, they are encouraged to try, as much as they can.
The annual observance of Ramadan is to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to Prophet Muhammad and lasts twenty-nine to thirty days, from one sighting of the new moon to the next.
In 2021, Ramadan in Malaysia is predicted to start on 13th April, ending with the celebration of Eid on 14th May.
What is Ramadan Like in Malaysia?
Muslims in Malaysia make up 60% of the population. Therefore, Ramadan is a big yearly event in the country.
However, this doesn’t mean that everything will come to a complete stop during the fasting month. On the contrary, business will continue as usual — tourist attractions are open, people still go to work, and students still go to school.
In fact, unless you’re the one fasting, you may not notice any changes at all, especially in bigger cities like Kuala Lumpur and Georgetown or in Borneo, where there are lower percentages of Muslims.
The only food outlets closed are the ones that are privately owned by Muslims. The rest — including international food chains, non-Muslim restaurants, and the ones in shopping malls — will stay open.
However, in Muslim-majority states such as Kelantan, Terengganu, and Kedah, the difference is more noticeable, with most eateries closed and the cities appearing almost deserted during the day.
But that’s not a reason to avoid these places altogether. It’s still possible to find food with a little more effort, and whatever they lack during the day, they more than make up for it at night, when the cities burst into life again.
As early as 4 p.m., restaurants will open and start selling food for iftar (breaking the fast). Most major restaurants and hotels will compete with each other to have the best “Ramadan Buffet”, which allows you too eat as much as your heart desires for a fixed price.
Have a peek at any restaurant just before sundown, and you’ll see a unique spectacle: the tables are fully occupied, the food is on the table, but nobody is eating. It’s only when the call for prayer starts that you will begin to hear the clinks of cutlery and the typical din of a restaurant.
Another unique feature during Ramadan in Malaysia is the Ramadan bazaar — a street market selling exclusively food and drinks. Unlike night markets, which are a weekly affair that starts from around 6 p.m. till late, Ramadan bazaars are open daily during the month of Ramadan, between 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Can You Eat in Public in Malaysia during Ramadan?
During Ramadan, Malaysian Muslims are not allowed to eat in public (even if they’re exempted from fasting due to health reasons), and restaurants are prohibited by law from allowing Muslim customers to dine in their premises.
This law does not apply to non-Muslims and you will have no problem eating in public. However, you may choose not to, out of respect for those who are fasting. This is of course entirely up to you.
One thing to keep in mind is to avoid going to restaurants at sundown, unless you like being stuck in long queues and having to wait longer for your meal. Have your dinner slightly earlier or later to make way for the Muslims to break their fast. You’ll be doing them and yourself a favor.
Why You Should Visit Malaysia during Ramadan
Despite any doubt you may have about visiting Malaysia during Ramadan, there are actually a few benefits of doing so. Here’s why visiting Malaysia during Ramadan may be better than other months:
1. Most attractions — especially the ones outdoors — are typically quieter during the day, as people who fast will prefer to stay indoors. It’s not easy being under the hot sun when you can’t drink any water!
It’s also not much fun to go on outings with friends or family when you can’t bond over food, as Malaysians usually do. So, they tend to save those activities for after Eid.
What this means for you is that you’ll get to visit these attractions at daytime without having to deal with as much crowd as usual. Even activities that are notorious for always being overbooked months in advance like Mount Kinabalu is possible to book at the last minute during Ramadan.
2. Less waiting time at restaurants. Not a fan of long queues and being kept waiting for your food? Dining out at peak hours like 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. is usually a stressful occasion, particularly in shopping malls or places near office buildings, as all office workers will go out for their lunch break.
This is not the case at all during Ramadan. You can breeze through any restaurant without a reservation and immediately get a table. The waiter will also be more attentive to you as you will be one of their few customers.
3. Ramadan bazaars. Probably everyone’s favorite part about Ramadan are the bazaars. Ramadan bazaars sell all sorts of takeaway food, including some that aren’t typically available in other months, such as bubur lambuk (rice congee with beef/chicken, potato, carrot, coconut milk, and fried shallots).
Food sold at the bazaars is very cheap. For less than RM10 (USD 2.50), you should be able to get a decent meal with a drink and possibly dessert. They’re usually prepared fresh on the spot. The bazaars are open for everyone, regardless of religion.
If you’re staying in Kuala Lumpur city center, the nearest Ramadan bazaars are in Kampung Baru, Bangsar, Jalan Masjid India, and Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman.
4. Communal meals. In the month of Ramadan, Muslims are encouraged to do good deeds as they believe the spiritual rewards are multiplied during this time. Mosques usually give out free food for the predawn meal and iftar.
If you’re Muslim, you can join these communal meals before/after the congregational prayers. It’s also quite common for people to invite each other for dinner at their homes. Who knows — you might get an invitation too!
5. If you stay on till the end of Ramadan, you’ll have the opportunity to witness the biggest cultural festival in Malaysia: Eid. Eid — or locally known as Hari Raya Aidilfitri — is a 2-day national holiday, but is typically celebrated for a whole month. (After fasting for an entire month, it’s only fair to celebrate for a month too, right?)
The spirit of giving continues on during Eid and people will organize ‘open houses‘, where everybody is invited to come and eat. In the beginning of Eid, you could be invited to multiple open houses in a single day. As per tradition, the country leader will also open his house to members of the public.
If you get the chance, don’t miss the opportunity to visit an open house. It’s a great way to experience the local culture and special Eid delicacies.
Additional Tips for Visiting Malaysia during Ramadan
- When traveling in rural areas that are predominantly Muslim, pack some snacks with you, in case you can’t find any restaurant open during the day. Otherwise, go to grocery / convenience stores, as those usually operate as usual.
- Apart from not eating in public, it’s also polite to dress modestly during the holy month, as a sign of respect.
- Some companies/government offices may change their operation hours during Ramadan to allow their employees to go home early for iftar.
- Shops all over the country can be very busy on the week leading up to Eid, as families stock up on new clothes, household items, food, and baking supplies, in preparation for the big celebration.
- Muslims in Malaysia will travel to their hometowns to visit families during Eid. Avoid traveling interstate during this time if you don’t wish to be stuck in massive traffic. Additionally, public transports also tend to be fully booked, so plan your trip accordingly.
Final Thoughts on Visiting Malaysia during Ramadan
Is it a good idea to visit Malaysia during Ramadan?
YES! While there are a few things to consider, traveling in Malaysia during Ramadan is not as hard as you may think. In fact, there are several advantages to it. To skip visiting Malaysia during Ramadan is to miss out on a unique cultural experience that you won’t see at any other time of the year.