With so many ethnic groups and religions represented in Malaysia, you’ll be unlucky if your trip doesn’t coincide with some sort of festival. Religious celebrations range from exuberant family-oriented pageants to blood-curdlingly gory displays of devotion. Chinese religious festivals are the best times to catch free performances of Chinese opera, or wayang, featuring crashing cymbals, clanging gongs and stylized singing. Secular events might comprise a parade with a cast of thousands, or just a local market with a few cultural demonstrations laid on.
Bear in mind that the major festival periods may play havoc with even the best-planned travel itineraries, and that some festivals are also public holidays.
The dates of many festivals change annually according to the lunar calendar. The Islamic calendar in particular shifts forward relative to the Gregorian calendar by about ten days each year, so that, for example, a Muslim festival that happens in mid-April one year will be nearer the start of April the next. We’ve listed rough timings; actual dates can vary by a day or two in practice depending on the sighting of the new moon.
Ponggal (mid-Jan) A Tamil harvest and New Year festival held at the start of the Tamil month of Thai. Ponggal translates as “overflow”, and the festival is celebrated by boiling sugar, rice and milk together in a new claypot over a wood fire till the mixture spills over, symbolizing plenty.
Thaipusam (late Jan/early Feb) Entranced Hindu penitents carry elaborate steel arches (kavadi), attached to their skin by hooks and skewers, to honour Lord Subramaniam. The biggest procession is at Kuala Lumpur’s Batu Caves.
Chinese New Year (late Jan/early to mid-Feb) At which Chinese communities settle debts, visit friends and relatives and give children red envelopes (hong bao/ang pao) containing money; Chinese operas and lion- and dragon-dance troupes perform in the streets, while markets sell sausages and waxed ducks, pussy willow, chrysanthemums and mandarin oranges. The major towns of west-coast Malaysia see Chingay parades, featuring stilt-walkers, lion dancers and floats.
Chap Goh Mei (Feb) The fifteenth and climactic night of the Chinese New Year period (known as Guan Hsiao Chieh in Sarawak), and a time for more feasting and firecrackers; women who throw an orange into the sea at this time are supposed to be granted a good husband.
Easter (March/April) Candlelit processions are held on Good Friday at churches such as St Peter’s in Melaka.
Qing Ming (April) Ancestral graves are cleaned and restored, and offerings made by Chinese families at the beginning of the third lunar month, signifying the start of spring and a new farming year.
Vesak Day (May) Saffron-robed monks chant prayers at packed Buddhist temples, and devotees release caged birds to commemorate the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and attainment of Nirvana.
Sabah Fest (late May) A week of events in Kota Kinabalu, offering a chance to experience Sabah’s food, handicrafts, dance and music; right at the end comes Rumah Terbuka Malaysia Tadau Kaamatan, a harvest festival in Kota Kinabalu.
Yang di-Pertuan Agong’s Birthday (June) Festivities in KL to celebrate the birthday of Malaysia’s king, elected every five years by the country’s nine sultans or rajahs from among their number.
Gawai Dayak (June) Sarawak’s people, especially the Iban and Bidayuh celebrate the end of rice harvesting with extravagant longhouse feasts. Aim to be in a longhouse on the Rejang or Batang Ai rivers, or around Bau.
Feast of St Peter (June 24) Melaka’s Eurasian community decorate their boats to honour the patron saint of fishermen.
Dragon Boat Festival (June/July) Rowing boats, bearing a dragon’s head and tail, race in Penang, Melaka and Kota Kinabalu, to commemorate a Chinese scholar who drowned himself in protest against political corruption.
Sarawak Extravaganza (Aug) Kuching hosts a month of arts and crafts shows, street parades, food fairs and traditional games, all celebrating the culture of Sarawak.
Festival of the Hungry Ghosts (late Aug) Held to appease the souls of the dead released from purgatory during the seventh lunar month. Chinese street operas are staged, and joss sticks, red candles and paper money are burnt outside Chinese homes.
Ramadan (starts second week of July in 2013) Muslims spend the ninth month of the Islamic calendar fasting in the daytime, and breaking their fasts nightly with delicious Malay sweetmeats served at stalls outside mosques.
Hari Raya Puasa/Aidilfitri (falls in July or August) Muslims celebrate the end of Ramadan by feasting, and visiting family and friends; this is the only time the region’s royal palaces are open to the public.
Malaysia National Day (Aug 31) Parades in KL’s Merdeka Square and other cities mark the formation of the state of Malaysia.
Moon Cake Festival (Sept) Also known as the Mid-Autumn Festival, this is when Chinese people eat and exchange moon cakes, made from sesame and lotus seeds and sometimes stuffed with a duck egg. Essentially a harvest festival.
Navarathri (Sept–Oct) Hindu temples devote nine nights to classical dance and music in honour of the consorts of the Hindu gods, Shiva, Vishnu and Brahman.
Thimithi (Oct/Nov) Hindu firewalking ceremony in which devotees prove the strength of their faith by running across a pit of hot coals.
Deepavali (Oct/Nov) Also known as Diwali, this Hindu festival celebrates the victory of Light over Dark: oil lamps are lit outside homes to attract Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, and prayers are offered at all temples.
Hari Raya Haji/Aidiladha (late Oct) Muslims gather at mosques to honour those who have completed the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca; goats are sacrificed and their meat given to the needy.
Christmas (Dec 25) Shopping centres in major cities compete to create the most spectacular Christmas decorations.