Malaysia's Year Of Festivals 2015

31 January 2015
Read Time: 4.6 mins

Hardly a month goes by without a colourful festival that ignites the nation and generates goodwill among the various peoples of multicultural Malaysia.

2015 is a special time to visit Malaysia as it’s MyFEST 2015 with more than 100 recognised festivals being celebrated throughout the country.

Festivals are a great time to visit Malaysia if only to try specific foods associated with many events. Feel free to drop in on many gatherings as these are the basis for what Malaysians call ‘open house’. Foreigners are warmly received in homes as local hosts are honored to welcome foreign guests.

Many festival dates change from year to year as some are linked to celestial cycles rather than fixed dates. Closer examination of these holidays reveals that most are connected to religious, royal or agricultural celebrations such as harvest festivals.

 It's carnival time

Malaysians celebrate religious holidays for Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists and other Chinese religions and some pertaining to Malaysian Borneo cultures.

While some ceremonies are sombre, they usually involve festivities. Many families celebrate in the house which they open to friends and neighbours. Even political leaders open their houses so it’s possible to meet the Prime Minister at his open house!

Be warned that many businesses and offices close during the main festivals and city residents balik kampung or go back home.

The main holiday festivals are Hari Raya, Chinese New Year, Deepavali and Christmas and specific themed carnivals organised by Tourism Malaysia like mega sale carnivals. sports, music, theatre

Thaipusam

February 3

Thaipusam is one of Malaysia’s more unusual festivals. (Thai is the name of the month in the Hindu calendar and pusam means festival). It commemorates the victory of Lord Subramaniam over the demon and is a lively occasion filled with rites, penance and thanksgiving.

Thaipusam is a Selangor public holiday. For devotees, it’s a three-day festival staged around Chinatown’s Sri Mahamariamman Temple and Batu Caves.

 A devotee displays his faith

The highlight of the festival is the carrying of kavadis by devotees in order to fulfil their vows. Devotees climb the 272 steps to Batu Caves to show their devotion. They pull sacrificial offerings in gratitude to Lord Murugan for carrying out their wishes and sinners endure this to seek forgiveness.

For many, carrying a heavy kavadi is not enough and skewers, hooks and spikes are used to inflict pain.

Chinese New Year

February 19-20

Chinese New Year is celebrated over 15 days beginning on the first day of the lunar calendar in late January or early February (the date changes from year to year).

A huge spring clean up occurs before the New Year to sweep away bad luck. Debts are settled and prayers and offerings are made. Family members gather on New Year’s Eve for a sumptuous reunion dinner and then to play cards, mahjong or, more commonly, watch Chinese variety shows on television.

On the first day, older people give ang pow (red packets) to children and unmarried adults. They’re a symbol of luck for both recipient and giver.

Visitors will gain many Chinese friends by obtaining new bank notes and distributing ang pow (a few ringgit is all that is needed).

 Lanterns hang in the street for Chinese New Year

Another tradition, which seems to be practised in Malaysia more so than other countries, is yee sang. This is a colourful raw fish dish that involves diners communally tossing and mixing the dish as high as possible with chopsticks for good fortune. It’s a lot of fun and local Chinese restaurateurs make a small fortune from perpetuating this custom.

It’s often associated with yum sing (toasting with alcohol).

Lion dances are performed in the streets to encourage auspicious beginnings for the year. A vegetable called sang choy with an ang pow tied to it is hung from a vantage point and boys inside the lion guide it in a simulated lion performance to get the red packet. Meanwhile, a musical troupe makes a raucous noise bashing gongs and drums to drive away evil spirits.


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Borneo Jazz Festival

May 8-9

The oil city of Miri in northern Sarawak (Borneo) gets an injection of energy with the Borneo International Jazz Festival staged over two nights in the tropical gardens of the ParkCity Everly Hotel.

There’s usually at least one leading international performer backed up by several superb regional and local jazz musicians.

 On stage at Miri

A liberal interpretation of jazz is taken by the organisers so there’s a chance that blues, fusion or boogie woogie musicians could also perform.

Past performers have included James Cotton, Maria Muldaur, John Hammond and Lluis Coloma.

Ka’amatan or Harvest Festival

May 30-31

Growing crops, especially padi or rice, has always been important for many Malaysian farmers.

Sabah’s local Kadazan and Dusun communities offer thanksgiving in May for a bountiful harvest. Being a holiday, the people relax, eat, drink tapai (alcoholic beverage made from rice) and visit friends.

Dancing, buffalo racing, arm wrestling and crowning of the harvest queen also occur.

Gawai Festival

June 1-2

Gawai held in June in neighbouring Sarawak marks the end of the harvest for the Iban, Orang Ulu, Bidayuh and some other ethnic groups.

A successful harvest makes it easier for everyone to survive. Copious amounts of alcoholic tuak made from rice are drunk and it’s rude to refuse any offers.

Hari Raya Aidilftri

July 17-18

This Moslem celebration marks then end of the fasting month or Ramandan with the actual day determined by the sighting of the new moon by religious leaders (Government calendars provide specific dates though).

The festivities start on the 20th day of Ramadan and are normally ushered in with morning prayers and remembrance of deceased family members.

People dress in bright new clothes and there is a general air of happiness. Moslem homes are opened for friends, relatives and visitors to drop by for snacks and drinks.

 Lion dancers are a major attraction

Rainforest World Music Festival

August 7-9

Ranked in the top 25 music festivals in the world by the prestigious Songlines Magazine, the RWMF provides a good reason to travel to the island of Borneo and the East Malaysian state of Sarawak.

This hugely successful festival is staged in the pleasant and semi-natural sounds of the Sarawak Cultural Village near the beachfront.

Workshops are staged during the day and there’s a great carnival atmosphere with drinks tents, delicious local snacks, local handicrafts and the chance to get a tattoo from an Iban community.

The stage ignites each evening with an eclectic range of leading world music exponents and there is a fun vibe between acts.

Port Dickson International Triathlon

August 8-9

Triathlon is a growing sport in Malaysia with this race by the beach just south of Kuala Lumpur sees almost 1,500 athletes from 35 countries strive for the podium or simply to beat their ‘pb’.

Now in its 11th year, there are events for age-groupers, Olympic distance open, sprint and relay teams. There is an abundance of accommodation in Port Dickson.

National Day

August 31

Malaysia celebrates Merdeka Day on August 31 to mark its independence and the birth of the nation in 1957.

Ceremonies showcase national pride and achievements and cars, houses and buildings are adorned with flags. National parades are held with the main one through in the centre of Kuala Lumpur.

Organisations, companies, government departments participate along with marching troupes.

Deepavali

November 10

Deepavali or the ‘Festival of Lights’ symbolises the triumph of good over evil and is celebrated by Hindus in November.

It’s a national holiday and Hindus visit temples to offer thanksgiving prayers while homes are decorated with lights and oil lamps.

They also invite their friends to share in the festivities of open house.

Christmas Day

December 25

Many Malaysians celebrate Christmas with the December festive mood culminating in Christmas Eve.

While many activities are commercialised, it’s still a religious ceremony for Christians. Many Malaysians have adopted the practice of giving presents and shopping malls and hotels are brightly decorated with Santa on hand.

Hotels prepare special menus so visitors to Malaysia can celebrate as if they were back home.

David Bowden

David Bowden is a freelance photojournalist specialising in travel, food and the environment. While Australian, he has been based in Asia for over two decades. He is the author of several books including many in the Enchanting Asia series and his Globetrotter’s Guide to Taman Negara is the definitive guide to Malaysia’s largest national park. Articles he has written have won him awards for the best travel article in South East Asia in both 2008 and 2010.