Penang likes to celebrate, and you will too once you experience some of its one-of-a-kind festivals. The vibrant blend of cultures and religions are reflected in the holidays and events celebrated around the island throughout the year. Penang has more than twice the number of holidays than the US, which in-and-of-itself is something to celebrate!
While your mind will likely be blown by people pierced with giant hooks, spectacular fireworks, tasty food and dancing in the street, what will probably strike you the most is how incredibly welcome you’ll feel at all the events. I’ve had families invite me to watch their sons “get poked” by huge spears during the Tamil-Hindu festival of Thaipusam. We’ve danced and sung German folks songs with lederhosen-wearing Bavarian expats at Penang’s rocking Oktoberfest. And total strangers have offered us Ramadan cookies during Hari Raya. So while the colors, lights, sounds, sights and tastes of these festivals will grab your attention, the warmth of Penang’s people is what will truly captivate you.
As I experience these festivals myself, I’ll do a post on each one to tell you what it’s like to be there first-hand and give you all the details you’ll need to check them out yourself. But first, here’s a highlight-reel of 20 incredible festivals in Penang. They’re listed roughly in chronological order – since many of these events are timed to the lunar calendar, note that their dates change every year. Here goes:
When: Late January/early February. 4am-midnight
(The date changes yearly – it always falls on the full moon during the Tamil month of Thai. If you don’t have your Hindu calendar handy, that’s sometime in January or February).
Where: Penang, Jalan Utama to the Waterfall Hill Temple; Kuala Lampur at the Batu Caves
“Holy cow!” “WOW!” “What the?!” “Oh, ow ow ow!” These are just a few things you will utter after you pick yourjaw up off the street during Thaipusam.
Known best for the incredible and elaborate piercings of devotees, Thaipusam is a vivid, nearly 24-hour long celebration with dancing in the street, eye-popping colors, lights, music, drumming, coconut-breaking, delicious free food and friendly warmth. It’s one of the most memorable and moving experiences I’ve ever had – don’t miss it.
When: Late January/early February
(Based on Chinese lunar calendar, the date changes every year. Each year it falls between January 21-February 20.)
How long: 2 weeks
Where: Throughout Penang
Lights, fireworks, lanterns, traffic! Celebrating Chinese culture, food and traditions, Chinese New Year is a crazy time in Penang and there are different celebrations throughout the two-week period. Kicking it off is a huge open-house celebration thrown by Penang’s governor. For local Chinese, the first night is celebrated with a huge family reunion dinner, but if you’re not Chinese and still want to take in Chinese New Year, don’t worry, there’s still lots to experience.
Be sure to go to Kek Lok Si Temple at night to see the 10,000+ lights and lanterns they put up for the festivities, which is quite spectacular. On the 6th day of the New Year, there’s a celebration at the Snake Temple for the birthday of the Cheng Chooi Chor Soo Kong diety – there’s dancing, food and cultural exhibits. And on the 8th night, head to Chew Jetty at Weld Quay to celebrate a birthday bash for the Jade Emperor God, which is quite spectacular – lion dancers on stilts, bonfires of “hell notes,” food for everyone, performances. It’s quite amazing.
Hot Air Balloon Fiesta
When: Usually late January/early February
(The date changes annually, although it usually happens around Chinese New Year)
Where: Padang Polo Grounds, Penang
About a dozen colorful hot air balloons offer tethered rides throughout the two-day event.
Chap Goh Meh Celebration (aka Chinese Valentine’s Day) – Orange Chucking and Fireworks
When: Usually in February
(Date changes annually, but it’s always on the last day of Chinese New Year
Where: Penang Esplanade, Jalan Padang Kota Lama, Georgetown, Penang
During the Chap Goh Meh celebration, young single ladies go down to the esplanade to throw oranges into the sea with the hope that it’ll deliver them a soul mate. There are also Chinese cultural performances, Baba Nyonya exhibitions, fireworks and yummy street foods.
Songkran Thai Water Festival – Water Fight!
When: April (dates change every year, based on Thai calendar)
Where: Penang Thai Buddhist Temple and Burmese Temple, Lorong Burma, Pulau Tikus, Penang
Finally, a festival to help you cool down during a melting-hot Penang day! Songkran is a celebration of Thai New Year. Buddhist followers believe that splashing water on each other washes away back luck. The more water, the better, so grab your super-soaker and prepare for an epic water fight set to loud music. Watch out for traffic though since the street is often clogged with people and water guns. (Great way to get your car washed for free though!)
(Date changes each year, but it’s usually held at the end of April)
Where: Penang Times Square, Jalan Keramat, Georgetown, Penang
Vaisakhi is a Sikh harvest festival, which usually attracts around 3,000 people. There’s bhangra dancing, free henna body painting, delicious free food, singing and cultural exhibits.
The Buddha’s Birthday – Wesak (aka Vesak) Day
When: May (exact date changes each year). 6pm
Where: Procession starts at the Malaysian Buddhist Association, 182 Jalan Burma, Georgetown, and goes down Jalan Pangkor, Kelawai Burmah, Peel, Macalister, Anson and Madras.
Commemorating the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha, Wesak Day is celebrated in the evening with a procession of about 15 lighted floats. About 10,000 people with flowers, candles or flags in hand line Burma Road to watch the floats pass, and the monks following along chanting prayers for peace and sprinkling holy water.
Last year, the Hindu community celebrated Wesak Day kind of like a mini-Thaipusam, with stalls set up near the Waterfall Hill Temple (intersection of Jalan Utama and Gottleib) and there were even several people who got pierced for the occasion. If this occurs again this year, avoid driving in that area as traffic is a nightmare when stalls are set up and people are roaming around in the street. We got stuck for 2 hours trying to get to the Botanical Gardens and another 2 trying to return – I still have flashbacks every time I drive near there!
Penang International Dragon Boat Festival
When: Usually in December and May – dates change each year
(Race dates vary each year)
Where: Teluk Bahang Dam, Penang
Celebrating the Chinese “celestial dragon,” international teams of rowers come to Penang to battle it out on the water. The boats themselves are often works of art, with intricately carved and colorfully painted dragonheads at the helm. Chinese drums beat out a hypnotic rhythm during the races, giving the event a really unique feel.
When: Usually in June or July (Dates change every year)
Where: Queen Street, Georgetown, Penang; Komtar, Penang; and multiple other locations
Every year during the Muslim month of fasting, known as Ramadan, various streets are lined with stalls selling traditional Malay and Arab-influenced foods. If you’re a healthy vegetarian, you won’t be able to eat the damn thing. But if you like chicken and deep-friend delicacies, you’ll be in heaven. A particularly unique Ramadan Bazaar is on the narrow Queen Street in Little India where the food is predominantly Indian-Muslim, featuring murtabak, samosas, chapatti and roti cenai.
Penang International Lion Dance on Stilts Championship
When: early June (exact dates change each year)
Where: Han Chiang Stadium, Georgetown, Penang
Lion dancing is cool and all with the big kettle drums beating out a steady rhythm, but add in the element of height and guys hopping and dancing from one tall pole to another while dressed as Chinese lions, and you’ve got yourselves a spectacle. Multiple teams from throughout Southeast Asia and Malaysia come together for this competition. Admission is free the first day.
When: Usually around early July (dates change every year)
Where: In Muslim homes throughout Malaysia
The official end of Ramadan, Hari Raya is a Muslim celebration during which people invite friends and family to their homes to break the fast together. If you’re invited to an open house, be sure to bring some Ramadan cookies (sold in most stores) and an empty stomach.
Georgetown World Heritage Day
When: Early July
Where: Throughout Georgetown
Celebrating the induction of Georgetown as a UNESCO World Heritage City, there are multiple attractions throughout town during this day-long festival. From traditional dances and martial arts demonstrations to food festivals, tours and historical exhibitions, there’s a lot going on in a lot of places throughout town. And in typical Penang fashion, it’s nearly impossible to find out where everything is happening. But if you just wander the streets of old town, you’ll stumble upon lots of great experiences.
Penang Japanese Bon Odori Festival
When: Usually mid-July
Where: Penang Esplanade, Georgetown
Remember that vaguely racist 80s song “I think I’m turning Japanese?” Well, you might just hear that song in your head as you cruise around the esplanade for the Bon Orodi Festival. It’s a Japanese-Buddhist event that honors the spirit of their ancestors, and the esplanade is transformed with Japanese food stalls, big booming drums, dancing, fireworks, games and Japanese gifts.
Hungry Ghost Festival (Aka Month-Long Karaoke)
(Dates change every year)
Where: Every Chinese temple and many wet markets throughout Penang
It’s believed that during this period, hungry ghosts roam the earth in search of food. And apparently really bad karaoke chases them back to the nether world, or least that’s what I gather since if I were a ghost, the squealing voices blaring through the huge speakers set up at the wet market would make me fly far, far away. But hey, the little old ladies belting out Chinese power-ballads seem to be having a lot of fun!
If you’d like to see some really beautiful Chinese opera and puppet shows during this festival, wander down the streets of Georgetown near the temples and clan houses to look for temporary stages and ask people nearby when the next show will be – performance times vary every day. The performances are meant to entertain the ghosts, and the massive pink joss sticks and piles of food are to appease them. It’s all quite ethereal and can be really beautiful.
When: End of July through August
Where: I’m going to let you guess. (If you can figure out “what religion are Buddhist monks?” you should figure out the location pretty easily)
Head downtown to wander the streets of Georgetown during this month-long celebration of heritage, architecture, culture and performance arts. The venues and acts are updated often, so be sure to check out their website GeorgetownFestival.com for details about locations and times.
When: August 31, 8am-11am
Where: Light Street, Penang
Floats, flags and tanks. If those are your things, head on down to Light Street to celebrate Malaysian Independence Day.
Mid-Autumn Festival – It’s Moon Cake Time
When: Mid September
Where: In your belly
While the festival is supposed to be about friends and family getting together to admire the full moon, I think it’s really all about the Moon Cakes, which only come out around Mid-Autumn Festival time. You’ll find the beautiful moon cakes all over the wet markets and in shops, filled with either red bean or lotus seed paste, egg yolks, or sometimes tea leaves. Definitely worth a try!
Nine Emperor Gods Festival – Vegetarians Rejoice!
When: Early October
(Date changes every year)
Where: At Chinese temples throughout Penang. And on the last day, a procession at night down Jalan Tanjung Bungah
This is one of my favorite times of year in Penang. Throughout the island, look for yellow flags with red writing, which indicates a Chinese vegetarian food stall. During this 9-day festival to honor the Emperor Gods, devotees adhere to a strict vegetarian diet and so you’ll find all kinds of incredibly tasty veggie food everywhere a yellow flag flutters. This is when all the weird fake meats come out, most of which are made from mushrooms or gluten. My carnivorous friends swear that the fake versions taste just like the real deal (but since I have no desire to taste a kidney – fake or real – I cannot vouch for it). There are also lots of rituals going on during this time, like fire-walking ceremonies. Locations change all the time, but just walk into a temple and ask someone if they know where the fire-walking is taking place and they’ll point you in the right direction. Don’t be shy – everyone is super friendly and welcoming here.
On the last day, there’s a procession of brightly colored, illuminated floats, some in the shape of boats. Many of them carry a particular temple’s Emperor God in it. They cruise down Jalan Tanjung Bungah after dark. Some of the floats squirt water at people, but I have no idea why and no one has been able to give me a straight answer on that one yet. You’ll also see some devotees in trances during the procession. But really, the best part is just seeing bewildered tourists scratch their heads as they wonder why a glowing boat is driving down the street.
When: mid-October (dates change each year)
Where: Penang Malaysian-German Society, 250 B, Jalan Air Hitam, Taman Goh Guan Ho, Penang
Yes, you read that right – Oktoberfest in Penang. Last year’s event was one of the most fun night of our lives! The festival was packed with hundreds of revelers dancing to an authentic oompha band flown in from Germany, lots of ladies wore dirndls (yes, I’m one of them, and no, I’m not German, and yes, it was awesome), plenty of dudes wore lederhosen, there were chugging and arm-wrestling contests, everyone sang together, and there were real German pretzels. Who knew that Penang could throw one of best Oktoberfests in the world?! Wow, that’s a not-to-miss party!
Deepavali (aka Divali) – Hindu Festival of Lights (and Food!)
When: Late October
(Dates vary each year)
Where: Your Indian friends’ homes
If you have Hindu friends, you are going to love Deepavali! It’s an important Hindu festival celebrating the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil. People light up their homes with candles and colorful bulbs, and invite friends over for an open house with insanely delicious foods. Since we’re lucky enough to have lots of really close Indian friends, we got to house-hop on Deepavali and stuff our faces with divine curries, crispy naan, gol goppa and other delicacies. It’s a really happy celebration and a great excuse to go out and buy that sari you’ve always wanted but didn’t think you’d ever have an occasion to wear – this is it, for sure!