One of the best things about backpacking and travelling is all the crazy festivals that you end up going to. You may be meandering your way through the side streets of Varanasi before being pelted with coloured dye at Holi festival in India, or running alongside several rampaging bulls at the Pamplona bull running festival in Spain. Wherever you are in the world there’s something going on around you. Maybe even right now.
Malaysia, famous for being a melting pot of culture, can serve up some sumptuous festivals of its own. Here are some of the craziest and best festivals in Malaysia to show you what’s in store for your gap year.
Chinese New Year
Malaysia is made up of three main nationalities; Malays, Indians, and importantly, the Chinese, which is why the country is one of the best in the world to celebrate Chinese New Year. It’s traditional for families to cleanse the house in order to sweep away any ill-fortune and to make way for good incoming luck. Spanning a 15 day period between January and February, you’ve got a good chance of catching it if you time your trip right (the place to be is in Penang), so join in the celebrations and bring in the New Year with a bang.; there are more fireworks here than at a Disney 4th of July parade!
Thaipusam is a Hindu festival celebrated mostly by the Tamil community in January / February. In Malaysia, it takes place in the Batu Caves (which are a sight in themselves and a must see in Malaysia) and attracts over one million devotees each year. It all kicks off in the centre of the capital Kuala Lumpur and the procession walks 15km to the caves. You can’t be blamed if you meet them there; after all, it takes about eight hours to walk! Many fanatical devotees go to such extent as to torture their bodies to appease the Lord, so a major feature of Thaipusam celebrations is body piercing with hooks, skewers and small lances called ‘vel’. Be warned; this festival is crazy.
Malaysia Water Festival
If water is your thing then you’re going to want to go to the Malaysia Water Festival on your gap year. Things kick off at the beginning of April in Kuantan and end in a climactic finish towards the end of April in Labuan. There are a number of activities to choose from, namely an international fishing tournament, a kayak sprint challenge and most importantly a sandcastle building competition. However, you might be more interested in the ‘pillow fighting challenge’; either way there’s something for you! The best thing about the Water Festivals in Malaysia is its open to everyone.
Celebrated around May by Buddhists, Wesak Day marks three momentous events in Buddha’s life – his birthday, enlightenment, and achievement of Nirvana. As the most important figure in Buddhism his life is celebrated and revered. The celebration begins at dawn when devotees gather at the temples to meditate on the Eight Precepts. The ‘Bathing the Buddha’ ceremony is often part of Wesak celebrations. Water is poured over the shoulders of the Buddha and serves as a reminder to purify the mind from evil. Donations, giving food to the needy, offerings of incense, joss sticks, releasing of pigeons, ordination of monks and the offering of flowers normally takes place in temples. Chanting and praying are an important part of the Wesak celebration. At night, processions of floats parade the streets, with devotees carrying candles. If you can be in Malaysia for Wesak Day you really won’t regret it.
Tadau Kaamatan (Harvest Festival)
In Sabah, the aboriginal tribes of Kadazan, Dusun and Murut come together to commemorate their harvest festival in May. At the occasion, offerings are made to the spirit of paddy, Bambaazon. Expect lots of dancing and some cracking food. Oh, and Tapai (rice wine). Everyone drinks the stuff like it’s going out of fashion. Partying usually involves agricultural shows, exhibitions, cultural programs, buffalo races and other customary games. And a beauty pageant.
Hungry Ghost Festival
Hungry Ghost Festival is said to be the day when the gates of hell open to release all the hungry ghosts who wander to seek food on Earth; that is according to the Chinese belief. It is observed on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month (so July) by the Buddhists and the Taoists. On this day, people remember their deceased family members and make offerings to ward off bad luck. Sacrificial offerings are made by burning fake money notes, which are also known as ‘hell money’, so pick up some notes and get fired up.
Hari Merdeka, which is also known as Independence Day, is celebrated on August 31st each year and is the day that Malaysians celebrate, well, their independence. They threw off the yoke of British colonial rule in 1957 and Hari Merdeka signifies that date.