Idul Fitri, Hari Raya Puasa, Eid, Lebaran. A multitude of names but the premise is same – the irresistible urge to mark the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. Throughout Southeast Asia, be it the scattered tropical islands of Indonesia or the ordered metropolis of Singapore, you can almost feel the collective sense of relief among 250 million Muslims. After a long hot month of abstinence (no eating, drinking, smoking or ‘carnal’ activities) from dawn to dusk, it is time to let the hair down.
There is a small window of opportunity – on the final evening of Ramadan (known as Takbiran), when a little festive lunacy occurs. In Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei, towns and villages become a heaving mass of people setting off firecrackers or carrying lanterns and there are ear-splitting ‘drummers’ using any household implement they can get their hands on, often drowning out the muezzin’s call to prayer. It is arguably the noisiest event and most fun you can have while staying sober. It’s a fascinating spectacle for curious outsiders.
While these ‘happenings’ are an excuse to let loose, Idul Fitri is generally a respectful occasion and all about the family. Millions of people return home to their childhood villages to give thanks, visit graves of deceased relatives and make up for a month of fasting by virtual non-stop eating. It is a time for forgiveness and reconciliation and an excuse to give and receive gifts. It is Christmas, Thanksgiving and the Return of the Prodigal Son all rolled into one. It is the chance to impress each other with that brand new outfit that may well have cost a month’s salary and regale them with tales of success in the big city.
Although much less pronounced in multicultural Singapore, there are some restrictions that simply cannot be avoided during Ramadan when traveling around the region. Most local street cafes in smaller towns are usually closed during the daytime and then become a chaotic free for all at sundown as hungry workers stream in to break the fast. If traveling off the beaten path, you may well find a cold bottle of beer in short supply or simply non-existent and bars will either close early or may not be permitted to open at all during the whole month. This all depends on the whim of the local authorities or police force.
Most importantly, don’t even think about long distance travel in the region as Idul Fitri approaches. Plane tickets skyrocket in price, ferries are dangerously overloaded and roads quickly disappear under the weight of cars, motorbikes and buses. In Indonesia alone, over 15 million people take to the roads to head home within a 48 hour period. Sit tight, relax and just enjoy the fun.
Across Southeast Asia, Islamic customs and Idul Fitri festivities are remarkably similar with a few notable regional variations. Here is the lowdown on what to expect in each country:
Lebaran in Indonesia
As the world’s largest Muslim nation, Indonesia literally grinds to a halt. The pre-Idul Fitri traffic jams are legendary; this is a mass exodus on a biblical scale. They are packed in like sardines on economy buses, trains, cars and trucks along with millions of other homesick travelers. In among all the pandemonium you’ll see four or five people perched on a motorbike with a grueling 500 kilometer journey home ahead of them. Hindu Bali is the one place to escape all the mayhem where life generally carries on as normal. Interestingly, this is the one time when frantic Jakarta is actually quite bearable. A mind-boggling 8 million residents leave the city to return home for Idul Fitri.
In typical Indonesian fashion, many communities in Java and Sumatra get a little greedy, by celebrating not once but twice. ‘Lebaran Ketupat’ takes place one week later and is more of a communal event with fewer religious overtones. Whole villages get together to share food, dance and listen to cheesy Indo-pop music. It is a surprisingly lively affair with market stalls and mini funfair rides for young kids. The time honored game of Panjat Pinang (climbing up a slippery pole to grab prizes such as a new TV or video games) is played to the sound of much hilarity. On the island of Lombok it is known as ‘Lebaran Topat’ and intriguingly involves special ceremonies by both the Muslim and Hindu communities together with prayers and ritual bathing in the sea.
Hari Raya Idul Fitri in Singapore
Idul Fitri is a public holiday in the Lion City (banks and government buildings are closed for the whole week) even though resident Malay-Muslims are outnumbered by the straits Chinese majority. Not that Idul Fitri is celebrated with any less enthusiasm – if anything it is a livelier happening attended by all creeds and colors. It is also the most accessible opportunity for inquisitive visitors.
It all kicks off in the traditional Malay enclaves at Kampong Glam and Gelang Serai (check out the supersized Ramadan Bazaar) with the ‘Great Hari Raya Light Up.’ Expect twinkling lights, lanterns and deafening firecrackers. It is well staged managed in typical Singaporean style but a great opportunity to mingle and the street snacks (glutinous sticky rice and super sweet cendol) are to die for.
Hari Raya Idul Fitri in Malaysia
Similar activities exist in the towns and cities of Malaysia. There is a worrying trend for the largest, loudest and most dangerous fireworks imaginable. Most are homemade, using hollow bamboo tubes filled with kerosene and mishaps are common. The celebratory music after nightfall – drums, whistles and cheap ghetto blasters in unison are enough to wake the dead. This is the moment kids across the nation have been waiting for all year. There is a tradition of every family member to give money to the little ones (known as ‘duit raya’) and there is always a seemingly endless procession of long lost relatives showing up through the day.
Hari Raya Idul Fitri in Brunei
Throughout the state of Brunei, it is ‘open house’ fever where every household receives guests for copious eating and good old fashioned gossip. This extends even to the Royal Palace where local Muslims and visiting tourists are permitted a sneaky look at lifestyle of the super rich. Streets are overflowing with locals showing off dazzling new outfits and exchanging goodwill and gifts at hastily set up food markets.