Ramadan can be a mystery for many travellers passing through predominantly Muslim terrain. Messages of ‘everything will be closed’ are often passed along the backpacking word-of-mouth trail, but rest assured, besides a few inconveniences of finding some businesses closed or perhaps a ferry schedule changed, it’s not too big a deal. The cultural experience alone is worth the extra effort of working your schedule around any minor inconveniences.
The ‘official’ beginning of Ramadan varies from year to year, depending on location and the sighting of the new moon by that particular area’s religious leaders. Dates are based on the Islamic calendar and will generally fall 11 days earlier than the previous year. So if heading to a specific destination, don’t rely on a past year’s calendar. Although the widespread guestimation was July 9 this year, Ramadan began July 10 and will continue through August 7.
Ramadan is the most important time of the year for most Muslims and it is eagerly embraced as a special time to do good deeds and generally put more effort into being a better person. With this comes daily fasting from sunrise to sunset. That may not seem like a lengthy period of time, but the fast includes abstaining from water for many. And after a couple of weeks of strict fasting followed by late night festivities, a definite shift in energy levels and daytime enthusiasm occurs. If you think someone has a “bad attitude” during this time in the world of customer service, cut them some slack!
Many businesses will shorten their operational hours or schedule fewer hours for their Muslim employees. Some will indeed not be open at all during the day if they themselves or their main customers are Muslim. But there will be plenty of other businesses willing to pick up the slack and gladly provide services, especially if a cross-section of religions/races are part of the community. But do double check with transportation schedules, because they will most likely have some Ramadan holiday schedule changes in departure times and availability.
Though Muslims will fast during the day, many cafes and restaurants will still be open, though their shutters will be lowered or curtains drawn in order to avoiding offending (or tempting) fasters. Muslims are permitted to eat when they are travelling during Ramadan; so long as you aren’t munching on the street but are circumspect, it’s okay to eat when those around you are fasting.
But for the traveller, the real cultural experience starts after sunset, because the daily breaking of fast (berbuka puasa) includes food, and lots of it. Just prior to sunset, night market stalls set up and sell every sort of delicious delicacy possible and special Ramadan bazaars can be counted on for one stop smorgasbord shopping. Locals will also set up roadside stands and take advantage of the festive month to make a few extra bucks; in addition to Ramadan being the season of sharing with the less fortunate, it also leads to Hari Raya (in Malaysia) or Idul Fitri/Lebaran (in Indonesia).
When fasting officially ceases at sunset on August 7, the following two days will see celebrations — and yes, more food! You’ll want to avoid travelling either side of these two days if you can, when transport systems will be overloaded with people getting to or from their homes.
You can expect some businesses and government offices to be closed for this major holiday, which this year will be August 8 and 9 — though the number of closed days may extend to a week or sometimes more unofficially.
You may want to plan your budget accordingly during this time, because during Hari Raya invitations to locals’ homes are given and money is passed to the children of the household and to local children in general; small denominations work just fine and are appreciated. You may also get a knock on your guesthouse door by little people dressed to the nines wishing you a Happy Hari Raya/Idul Fitri.
If you’re not a Muslim but you’ll be passing through areas that mostly are, remember that this is a cultural experience to be enjoyed. Embrace the pace and bon appetit!
Where to go, how long to stay there, where to go next, east or west, north or south? How long have you got? How long do you need? Itinerary planning can be almost as maddening as it is fun and here are some outlines to help you get started. Remember, don't over plan!
Burma lends itself to a short fast trip with frequent flights thrown in or a longer, slower trip where you don't leave the ground. There isn't much of a middle ground. Ground transport remains relatively slow, so be wary about trying to fit too much in.
Roughly apple-shaped, you'd think Cambodia would be ideal for circular routes, but the road network isn't really laid out that way. This means you'll most likely find yourself through some towns more than once, so work them into your plans.
How long have you got? That's not long enough. Really. You'd need a few lifetimes to do this sprawling archipelago justice. Be wary of trying to cover too much ground - the going in Indonesia can be slow.
North or south or both? Laos is relatively small and transport is getting better and better. Those visiting multiple countries can pass through here a few times making for some interesting trips.
The peninsula is easy, with affordable buses, trains and planes and relatively short distances. Sabah and Sarawak are also relatively easy to get around.The vast majority of visitors stick to the peninsula but Borneo is well worth the time and money to reach.
So much to see, so much to do. Thailand boasts some of the better public transport in the region so getting around can be fast and affordable. If time is limited, stick to one part of the country.
Long and thin, Vietnam looks straightforward, but the going is slow and the distances getting from A to B can really bite into a tight trip plan. If you're not on an open-ended trip, plan carefully.
This is where itinerary planning really becomes fun. Be sure to check up on our visa, border crossing and visa sections to make sure you're not trying to do the impossible. Also, remember you're planning a holiday -- not a military expedition.