No, you won't stay hungry while traveling in Asia during Ramadan!
Non-Muslims aren't expected to refrain from eating during the daylight hours of Ramadan; however, you should certainly be considerate of people around you who may be fasting.
Regardless, Ramadan could have an impact on your trip in several different ways. Some businesses may close or become busier than usual. Mosques are probably extra busy and become off limits to tourists for a while. Restaurants are busier at night, but numerous specials and sales can be found at malls that promote special Ramadan buffets and events.
Most importantly, you should know how to conduct yourself when traveling during Ramadan by following a few simple rules of etiquette.
A Little About Ramadan
Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, is when all capable Muslims are expected to refrain from sex, eating, drinking, and smoking from dawn until sundown. After sundown, people often meet in large groups to break fast, socialize, and enjoy the occasion. Of course, rules on specifics vary from country to country.
Although energy levels—and sometimes, patience—during the day may be low, Ramadan is actually a festive time in Asia with night bazaars, family gatherings, games, and special sweets. There's no good reason at all to avoid traveling in Asia during Ramadan. To the contrary, malls and restaurants offer sales and discounts. Tourists are often welcome at gatherings and feasts in the evenings. Locals may invite you into their homes for tea and sweets (after sunset, of course). Rather than avoiding travel during Ramadan, take advantage of the timing and enjoy some of the cultural festivities!
The Duration of Ramadan
Ramadan lasts for 29 to 30 days, depending on the sighting of the new moon. Start dates for the event are also based on the moon and therefore change annually.
The finish of Ramadan is a celebration known as Eid al-Fitr "Festival of Breaking of the Fast." The occasion is celebrated by visiting family, giving gifts to children, and of course, feasting!
What to Expect in Asia During Ramadan
Depending on where you are traveling in Asia, you may not even notice that Ramadan is in progress. Muslim-majority countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia have such a mix of religions and ethnic groups that you'll always find restaurants open during the day. The region in which you are traveling often makes the difference (e.g., the south of Thailand has a larger Muslim population than Northern Thailand).
Many Muslims travel home to be with their families during Ramadan. Some small shops and independently owned restaurants may be closed until sundown. Others could be closed for consecutive days while the proprietor is away traveling. Long-haul transportation might run on a modified schedule due to less drivers and more demand. Traveling locals typically stay with family members, so accommodation is rarely affected during Ramadan. No need to book further ahead than usual.
As the sun nears the horizon, large groups of Muslims meet to break the day's fast with a festive meal known as iftar. Special desserts, performances, and public gatherings are often open to the public. Don't be shy about wandering into a tent in a public space to say hello and interact with locals, just be dressed appropriately.
Discounted prices for gifts, sweets, and souvenirs can be found in Ramadan bazaars. Large shopping malls organize special events, entertainment, and sales for Ramadan. Look for the small stages then ask about a schedule of performances.
The most important rule for traveling in Asia during Ramadan? Be courteous! Locals observing Ramadan who haven't eaten all day may understandably have a little less energy for handling complaints or inquiries. Refraining from smoking all day sometimes puts a strain on nerves. Be a little more patient with service staff, especially if expressing a grievance about something.
Indonesia During Ramadan
Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world, has the largest Muslim population of any nation. Islam exists in varying degrees throughout the archipelago. Places such as West Sumatra are extremely devout. Afternoons during Ramadan are punctuated with numerous prayers broadcast from the mosque, particularly on Fridays.
On the other hand, Bali Indonesia's top destination—is predominantly Hindu. The only indications that Ramadan is in progress could be that some of the Muslim-operated rumah makans (restaurants) may not open until later. There will still be plenty of top-notch restaurants to enjoy.
Ramadan Elsewhere in Southeast Asia
Brunei, the small, independent nation separating Sarawak from Sabah on the island of Borneo, is the most observant of Islam among countries in Southeast Asia. Muslims make up more than two-thirds of the population. Although many local restaurants may be closed during the daylight hours for Ramadan, Chinese-owned eateries and those that cater to tourists will remain open.
Some predominantly Muslim islands in the south of the Philippines such as Mindanao are also particularly observant.
Eating Out in Asia During Ramadan
Non-Muslims are not expected to fast; however, many shops, street-food carts, and restaurants may be closed throughout the day. In places such as Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Penang where large Chinese populations exist, good food is never hard to find.
Chinese and non-Muslim-owned eateries remain open for daytime meals. Only in very small villages well off the usual tourist trail will you struggle to find daytime food. Survival workarounds include preparing food and snacks that can be eaten cold during the day (e.g., hardboiled eggs, and sandwiches). Nuts and fruit are almost always available to hold you until sundown. Quick-fixes such as instant noodles (available along with hot water at any shop) can also save the day.
Don't eat, smoke, or drink in front of people who are fasting! Be discreet, and don't create unnecessary temptation for others.
Hotels and restaurants may organize special Ramadan buffets and meals. Plan ahead a bit for dinner; many people opt to eat out and socialize at sundown during Ramadan. Restaurants get busier and go later than usual.
How to Behave During Ramadan
Ramadan is about more than just fasting. Muslims are expected to purify their thoughts and focus more on their religion. Mosques get very busy. As a traveler, you may find yourself the recipient of random acts of kindness and charity.
Make an extra effort to be considerate of others while traveling during Ramadan. Here are a few ways to be polite:
- Avoid eating, drinking, smoking, and chewing gum on the street in public during the daytime.
- Wear conservative clothing. Cover shoulders and legs whenever possible. Avoid tight-fitting "workout" clothing such as yoga pants.
- Avoid wearing clothing with religious themes.
- Never photograph people during prayers or performing their ablutions before prayer. Photographing worshipers queuing up to go inside of a mosque is rude.
- Mosques are normally open to visitors but may be closed to the public during Ramadan. Ask first before wandering inside.
- Don't play loud music or party near mosques.
- Don't drink alcohol in public.
- Ramadan is considered an auspicious time to give to charity or do good deeds.
- Be patient. People who are fasting may not be moving too quickly after no food or water. Smokers may be irritable after refraining all day.
The Dates for Ramadan
The dates for Ramadan are based on the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. The start date "walks" backwards each year, getting a little earlier. Dates are not fixed to any day or month on the Gregorian calendar.
The start of Ramadan depends on the traditional sighting of the crescent moon by eye. Predicting the dates for Ramadan with complete accuracy is impossible in advance; sometimes the dates also vary a day or two between countries.
Ramadan in 2020 will begin around Thursday, April 23, and conclude Saturday, May 23.