Malaysia’s impressive multicultural society means the country is forever playing host to different cultural festivals and celebrations. With many faiths living alongside each other, at any one time there is usually something – or more than one thing – to celebrate, and up and down the country there are numerous chances to see local traditions play out in front of you. Here are five of the less well known ones that you should not miss.
In February, the Malaysian Chinese celebrate Chap Goh Mei, or the fifteenth day of Chinese New Year. Prayers and offerings mark the end of the two weeks of celebrations. But, before that, there is time for houses to once again be decorated and, perhaps most mysteriously to the outsider, for young unmarried women to throw tangerines into the sea in the hope that this will bring a husband her way.
Also linked to the Chinese lunar calendar is the Moon Cake Festival, which takes place half way through the eighth month and is centred around the Chinese moon cake, a savoury pastry filled with sweet red bean paste, lotus nut paste, and salted egg yolk. Along with the hanging of lanterns, the eating of moon cake is a way of celebrating the successful Chinese rebellion against the then Mongolian ruler in the fourteenth century. By distributing a secret plan for his overthrow hidden inside moon cakes, the Chinese were able to get the word out. Lanterns were used at night for signalling, and so their role in the celebrations continues today – lantern processions and competitions are often common too.
Superstition and strong belief doesn’t stop with the throwing of tangerines for the Chap Goh Mei festival – Buddhists and Taoists join in with the Hungry Ghosts Festival, known locally as Yu Lan, as part of which they burn joss sticks and food to appease dead spirits. It is believed that, at this time of year, spirits are able to leave hell through an opened gate, and go in search of both food and revenge. Among the ghosts believed to be active at this time of year are two childhood sweethearts whose parents stopped them from getting married – they committed suicide by jumping from the Yu Lan bridge.
Of course, no round-up of Malaysian festivals can go without mentioning Ramadan, perhaps the most widely noticeable and colourful of all. During this holy month, Muslims fast from dawn to dusk each day in a sign of commitment to Allah. The country’s already strong reputation for good food takes on a whole new meaning at the end of each day when, as the sun goes down, the bazaars open up onto the street with even more choice of dishes than usual – sweet, sour, spicy, savoury, salty, snacks and more filling meals abound, and Malaysians fill up with as much as they can manage to last them through the next round of fasting.
The real celebrations, though, come at the end of the month when Eid arrives, known locally as Hari Raya Puasa, the fast is over and the festivities can begin in earnest. Things are ushered in gently with prayers at the mosque and remembrance of loved ones who have passed away. The rest of the festival, during which family members reunite after periods of time apart, has a joyous atmosphere to it, and plenty of delicious special festival food is eaten. Houses and other buildings are decorated and lamps hung at the entrance to the home.
In Penang, the annual Dragon Boat Racing Festival is also a feisty affair. The roots of dragon boat rates are traced back to ancient times in China, and they have been taking place in Penang’s waters since 1934. The festival was founded in 1956 to celebrate the hundred-year anniversary of the Georgetown municipality, of which the island of Penang is a part. The celebrations and race were revived in 1979 to become an annual event as it is known today. This three-day race now attracts thousands of visitors from as far away as the United States, Japan, South Africa and the Netherlands.
Dragon boats are human-powered and traditionally made from teak wood in southern China’s Pearl River delta region. The tradition of dragon boat racing as an amateur water sport harks back to an ancient Chinese folk ritual of contending villagers held over the past 2000 years. The colour, noise and huge excitement that surround the festival make it what it is today. Twenty-two participants on each team eagerly watch the drummer at the front of their boat give the signal for paddling. It is a high-octane race to the finish, and well worth the trip to see.
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