Combining a Malay Muslim majority with Chinese, Tamil Indian, and assorted tribal minorities might be a fraught issue in many other countries, but Malaysia manages to keep its melting pot of cultures bubbling merrily with a year-long calendar of festivities that celebrate the faith traditions, cultural mores, and artistic expressions that make this country what it is.
Here is a more-or-less complete list of major events and festivals in Malaysia – although times and dates may change without further notice. Time your trip to Malaysia accordingly!
January/February: Chinese New Year
As one out of every four Malaysians claim Chinese ancestry, it’s no surprise that Chinese New Year in the country can be a big, nationwide, multi-day party.
Penang in particular celebrates the New Year with verve, with a few events worth checking out:
the Kek Lok Si Temple Display of Lights with over 200,000 light bulbs and 10,000 lanterns brightening the ancient temple as visitors gaggle at the colorful sight; a Hot Air Balloon Fiesta celebrated in Padang Polo for two consecutive mornings; and a major Chinese New Year Celebration in the Heritage Precinct centered around George Town’s Penang Esplanade, Lebuh Light, Lebuh King, Lebuh Penang, Lebuh Gereja, Lebuh Bishop, Lebuh Pantai and Lebuh Armenian.
Come for the colorful celebrations, and stay for the Penang food scene that gets even more wild during the festive season.
Relative to the Gregorian Calendar, Chinese New Year will begin on the following upcoming dates:
2019: February 5
2020: January 25
2021: February 12
2022: February 1
This annual feast celebrated by Malaysia’s Tamil community honors the Hindu god Subramaniam, or Murugan.
Visit the Batu Caves in Gombak District, Selangor, to watch a scenic procession featuring thousands of devotees bearing sacrifices to the Lord Murugan. If Murugan has granted a wish to a supplicant, he repays the Lord by bearing a kavadi: a portable altar attached by 108 vels, or metal skewers, pierced into the devotee’s skin!
To complete the ceremony, the supplicant – kavadi and all – must set out from Sri Maha Mariamman Temple in Kuala Lumpur to tackle the eight-mile hike on foot, before climbing 272 steps up to the cave opening.
The sound of drums and flutes fill the air, as the procession participants join the music with shouts of "vel, vel, vel". Once the chariot has reached the cave, devotees leave their kavadis and other sacrifices at the feet of the image of the Lord Murugan.
Relative to the Gregorian Calendar, Thaipusam will be celebrated on the following upcoming dates:
2019: January 21
2020: February 8
2021: January 28
2022: January 18
May: Caklempong Xtravaganza
Since 2014, the state of Negeri Sembilan has celebrated a local art form at the D'sury Auditorium for a weekend every May – a Sumatran musical performance that arrived in Negeri Sembilan in the 14th century and transformed into an indigenous craft.
About 20 musicians perform caklempong at the Auditorium and at several shopping centers throughout the capital Seremban – accompanied by other art exhibitions that showcase unique Minangkabau crafts.
Caklempong itself plays a major role in Negeri Sembilan ritual, as its music is played during the crowning of the Yamtuan Besar (elected king) of the state. The music itself is evolving, as the traditional gong ensembles of the caklempong now accommodate stringed instruments and even accordions.
May: Pesta Kaamatan
The Malaysian state of Sabah celebrates the entire month of May as Pesta Kaamatan – its traditional festival season – beginning with Sabah Fest and ending with Tadau Kaamatan one month later.
The three-day Sabah Fest kicks off Pesta Kaamatan, with celebrations that turn a spotlight on Kadazan-Dusun tribal culture. Dance and theater presentations around the Kompleks JKKN Sabah auditorium complement exhibits on Kadazan-Dusun handicrafts and cuisine – before culminating in a cultural show that rocks the auditorium’s roof off.
Tadau Kaamatan’s end-of-festival celebrations mark the end of the harvest season, a two-night event that begins with a “Magavau” ceremony thanking the Padi spirit, and ends with a “Habot” ceremony where a Harvest Festival Queen is crowned as tapai rice liquor goes on free flow.
May: Kelantan Kite Festival
A five-day festival at the end of May that draws kite enthusiasts from all over the world – the Pesta Wau Kelantan celebrates a native art form, painting the sky with both modern and traditional kite forms.
The wau bulan (moon-shaped kite) is a classic Kelantanese art form, considered one of the national symbols alongside the keris sword and the hibiscus flower. (A giant wau bulan marks the entrance to the shopping street beside Pasar Seni in Kuala Lumpur.)
The kite festival is held at Geting Beach near the town of Tumpat – the monsoon’s high winds allow kites to fly untrammelled, as spectators on the sands enjoy stalls set up to sell souvenirs and delicious Kelantanese food.
Expect over 160 local and international kite-flyers to come and show off their best work.
The festival of Ramadan (Ramadhan, or Bulan Puasa in Malay) marks a somber, reflective time for Malaysia’s Muslim Malay majority, with fasting in the daylight hours broken only by communal feasting at home or in one of the pasar malam (night markets) that crop up throughout the country.
Even if you’re not Muslim, you can visit a pasar malam to enjoy traditional Malay dishes cooked right on the spot over open coals.
Hari Raya – the end of Ramadan – begins as the new moon rises at the final evening of the fasting month. The Hari Raya festival is as big as Christmas is in the West – marked by families returning to their hometowns (balik-kampung) and open houses in the city that welcome everyone regardless of faith.
Relative to the Gregorian Calendar, Hari Raya will begin on the following upcoming dates:
2019: June 5
2020: May 24
2021: May 13
2022: May 3
Gawai Dayak is a festival held on June 1 to honor the indigenous people of Sarawak state. Gawai Dayak translates to "Dayak Day"; the Dayak ethnic group that encompasses the Iban, Bidayuh, Kayan, Kenyah, Kelabit and Murut tribes.
For the Dayak, the holiday is more than just a show for tourists – families celebrate the day with as much joy and aplomb as a New Year celebration, with reunions, weddings, and parties going on all around.
At the Sarawak capital Kuching, parades and demonstrations lead up to major festivities held at the Sarawak Cultural Village. The next day, Dayak homes hold an open house for tourists, where visitors can do traditional activities like shoot blowpipe guns or dress up. Expect to be welcomed with a shot of rice wine – mind you, it’s rude to say no!
Every year in July, thousands of strangers gather in the rainforest of Borneo to dance in the mud and tropical rain to music by performers from all over the world.
The Rainforest Music Festival – one of the largest music festivals in Southeast Asia – is an exciting culmination of culture, workshops, and live entertainment held every year just outside of Kuching, Malaysia. In 2010, more than 22,000 people attended the three-day festival to experience music and traditional instruments from nearly every continent.
The Rainforest Music Festival is held annually at the Sarawak Cultural Village, a sprawling resort surrounded by lush rainforest. The two main stages come alive in the evening, however workshops, cultural demonstrations, and miniature shows fill the afternoon with exciting activities.
For 2018, the Rainforest Music Festival takes place from July 13 to 15. Visit their official site for information on performers, schedules and venues.
George Town, Penang becomes the world’s avant-garde stage all August every year, thanks to a festival that pairs the world's cultural up-and-comers with Malaysia's most accomplished modern artists.
A dizzying slate of music acts, dance performances, photography exhibitions, film programs, and theater stagings fill George Town Festival's month-long schedule. Some of these require paid admission (the hottest among these sell out weeks before the actual festival launch), but the majority of acts in the Festival can be seen for free, either in George Town's historic buildings or in public spaces along the George Town streets.
The Festival itself might be viewed as a work of art on its own, albeit a massive one that uses the whole city as its canvas, from the narrow kaki lima (five-foot-way, or sidewalk/arcades) to modern theatrical venues like the Penang Performing Arts Centre.
For a complete calendar of events, visit their website: www.georgetownfestival.com.
Malaysia gained full independence from Great Britain on August 31, 1957. Ever since, Malaysians have come in force to Dataran Merdeka (Freedom Square) on that day to celebrate their most patriotic national holiday with fly-bys, fireworks and flag-waving.
“Hari Merdeka” (Independence Day) is celebrated all throughout Malaysia, though Kuala Lumpur offers the most bombastic celebration on that day. The government bestows a new logo and theme on each year’s festival, one that celebrates the nation’s multicultural Malay, Indian, and Chinese roots.
Stay for the Merdeka Parade, which includes a royal procession, cultural performances, military demonstrations, intricate floats, sporting events, and other interesting diversions centered around Dataran Merdeka and nearby spots.
Malaysian Chinese believe that the gates of Hell open on the 7th lunar month, allowing the spirits of the dead to visit the living. To keep the dead from pestering them, Chinese Malaysians entertain the unseen ghosts with Chinese opera and puppet show performances.
The stages (getai) take more modern tastes into account, with karaoke and dance contests increasingly held alongside the traditional performances.
Visit local Taoist temples to see the Hungry Ghost Festival at its most authentic, with food offerings for the spirits called Taai Si Wong. Penang offers the largest Taai Si Wong in Malaysia at Market Street on Bukit Mertajam.
Relative to the Gregorian Calendar, the Hungry Ghost Festival will begin on the following upcoming dates:
2018: August 25
2019: August 15
2020: September 2
2021: August 22
2022: August 12
September: Citrawarna (Colours of Malaysia)
A celebration of Malaysia's culture in parade form, Citrawarna (Colours of Malaysia) gives tourists a close look at the cultures and traditions that make Malaysia what it is today.
With a different theme every year, Citrawarna kicks off every September at Dataran Merdeka, in the capital of Kuala Lumpur - featuring a massive parade of hundreds of costumed performers walking down the broad avenue in full costume!
But it’s not just about the parade – hotels and restaurants all around Kuala Lumpur hold their own celebrations on the year’s theme, with food, shopping and other cultural experiences that reflect the festival’s multicultural spirit.
December: Dragon Boat Festival
Dragon boat racing, despite its roots in ancient tradition, are as exciting a sport as they come. Two or more dragon-shaped boats, crewed by 20 paddlers each, compete against each other in heats spanning distances of about 1 1/4 mile (2000 meters) or less.
The region's first dragon boat race was held in Penang in 1956, on the occasion of the 100th founding anniversary of Georgetown. Today, the Penang International Dragon Boat Festival attracts contestants from around the globe, including teams from Europe and the USA.
Contestants from over 60 countries will contend at the Teluk Bahang Dam, Penang. In two days, a number of races are staged, including races for men, women, and mixed teams.
For 2018, Penang International Dragon Boat Festival takes place from December 8 to 9.