Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, will begin soon so we thought we’d provide a little guide to Ramadan and the experience of Ramadan around the world for those of you travelling in Islamic countries during the period.
Ramadan Around The World — Our Guide to Travelling During Ramadan
Ramadan around the world is observed in diverse ways in different Islamic countries and Muslim communities, however, one thing that is common that can be challenging for travellers is the daily fasting from dawn to sunset, which can affect travellers.
This is a guide as to how to cope as much as it is a guide as to how to enjoy Ramadan around the world. It’s based on almost a decade of experience, living in and travelling around the Arabian Peninsula, the Middle East and North Africa, and other countries with Muslim communities. We came to love Ramadan and we hope you will too.
Ramadan in the United Arab Emirates and Arabian Peninsula countries
In our former homes of Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, and the other Arabian Peninsula countries such as Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman, Ramadan is a very devout period of religious observance for Muslims with strict guidelines for everyone, non-Muslim and Muslim alike, despite expats comprising sizeable percentages of the populations (some 80% of the UAE population is foreign).
The days are quiet with no eating, drinking, smoking, or intimate contact allowed in public, the only exceptions being pregnant women, the elderly, ill and children. There are considerably shorter office, school and university hours (which is wonderful if you’re a non-Muslim expat; I loved the shorter work days), and Muslims spend much of their time in prayer. My students at the women’s college I taught at would often spend their breaks in a quiet room praying, and as we tried not to give them projects that were physically demanding the TV studio became a place of prayer and meditation.
Many restaurants close during the day, not opening until Iftar — some restaurants and bars even close for the month — although hotels will always have restaurants reserved for non-Muslim expats and tourists. Live music, other than traditional oud music, is banned, so dance clubs close. While many restaurants in the UAE don’t serve alcohol during Ramadan, there are many that do. However, in Doha, no restaurants offer alcohol during the holy month. Kuwait of course is dry, and you won’t find a drink there, no matter what time of year it is.
On the positive side, if you make it home alive — driving is erratic during Ramadan; there were a few times we almost got ran over going for late afternoon walks in Abu Dhabi — evenings take on a festive air. The fancy five star hotels hold special Iftar buffets (read: extravagant feasts) and Ramadan tents, decorated with Oriental lanterns and Bedouins kilims and cushions, set up for the month.
Expats who have worked in the Gulf countries for years and have Muslim colleagues and friends relish the nightly Ramadan rituals. Everyone, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, head to the posh hotels for Iftar to sit in the gardens and courtyards, where palm trees are illuminated by fairy lights, peacefully listening to an oud player while puffing on fragrant sheesha pipes.
Eid al Fitr, the three-day celebration at the end of Ramadan, is a festival with a lively, family-focused, party spirit. Gulf Arabs buy sweets (chocolate coated dates are a favourite) and new clothes and gifts for loved ones, women get their hands decorated with henna, and they spend the Eid visiting family and friends.
Ramadan in Egypt and the Levant
Ramadan days are spent in much the same way in Egypt and the Levant (Lebanon, Jordan and Syria) as they are in other Islamic countries during Ramadan around the world — they begin with sohour, the early morning meal before the dawn prayer, and end with Iftar, the breaking of the fast after sunset prayer.
As in the Arabian Peninsula countries, Muslims in Egypt and the Levant work shorter hours and spend some time of each day in prayer and quietly reading the Quran. They make an effort to live piously, refraining from eating and drinking during the day, and giving up smoking for the entire holy month.
After dark, Ramadan nights in Egypt and the Levant, as in the Arabian Gulf, take on a festive spirit, with delicious long meals shared amongst family and friends, evenings passed by watching entertaining quiz shows and dramatic Ramadan serials on the television, and late nights spent very leisurely with loved-ones and friends.
The main difference is that the code of conduct expected for Non-Muslims and visitors is more relaxed in Egypt and the Levant than in the Arabian Gulf countries.
I will never forget being in Syria one Ramadan and exploring the streets of the old town in Damascus… we passed by a baker who was pulling a tray of piping hot bread from an oven. Spotting us, he passed us a piece, insisting we try it. I discretely did and it was delicious. That wouldn’t have happened in the UAE or elsewhere on the Arabian Peninsula.
Ramadan in Turkey
Perhaps because it straddles East and West, Asia and Europe, Turkey is one of the easiest places to travel during Ramazan, as Ramadan is called here. As tourism is such an important industry and the Turkish people on the whole are very tolerant and incredibly hospitable, they appreciate that non-Muslim foreigners need to eat. While food might be available during the day, alcohol most probably won’t be – or it will be available much later in the evening.
As a result, most restaurants in cities and big towns stay open during the day, especially in Istanbul, although they tend to close in smaller towns and spiritual centres such as Konya. Some may pull their curtains across or screen off a section of the restaurant for diners. While you are welcome to eat and drink, do it discretely. Even if they have outdoors tables in the sunshine, it would be more considerate and respectful to opt for one indoors and choose a quiet corner.
Iftar is wonderful in Turkey. While many restaurants offer simple spreads of flat bread and olives or pickles – the equivalent of the tradition of dates in the Arabian Peninsula – there are more generous banquets available later in the evening at restaurants.
As in Malaysia (below), there is a festive spirit with mosques, buildings and trees illuminated by fairy lights and stalls setting up in the evenings on squares and parks selling traditional Ramazan snacks. The three-day Eid holiday, called Ramazan Bayrami in Turkey, is a great celebration, with everyone dressed up and out and about socialising.
Ramadan in Morocco
Ramadan in Morocco doesn’t have the same festive atmosphere until Eid begins. Ramadan nights are not necessarily longer. Evenings are often spent quietly at home instead.
While Moroccan Muslims still fast and pray during the day, due to the huge number of foreign tourists in Morocco and large communities of foreign residents, the rules for eating, drinking and smoking for non-Muslims are much more relaxed than elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa.
The differences were between city and country. It was possible to find more restaurants to dine at in the cities and in the evening it was also possible to find wine in tourist destinations such as Marrakech and Essaouira. In smaller towns coffee shops and tea houses were shut during the day and alcohol wasn’t available, even at hotels.
During the day, work hours are only slightly shorter in government departments and banks, while those working in tourism might work as long as they normally would.
Eid, however, is when the place really comes alive. Moroccans travel from all over the country to spend the national holiday with their loved-ones, dress in their smartest clothes, visit family and friends, and feast every day. Eid is not a good time to travel — trust us, we’ve done it — trains and buses are absolutely jam-packed that you won’t get a seat. When we couldn’t get on a train from Casablanca to Marrakech (and we were travelling with Mum, too, and had reservations at a beautiful riad hotel), we shared a taxi with a local businessman who was on his way home to see his family.
Ramadan in India
India is unique in that the country boasts large populations of devout Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, as well as Muslims. Yet the holy month is still observed by Muslims in accordance with the Islamic calendar and follows the strict guidelines that other Islamic countries follow during Ramadan around the world.
In India, Muslims also fast from sunrise to sunset, perform prayer — known as ‘namaz’ — five times daily, give alms to the poor, and abstain from eating and drinking during the day.
One main difference lies in the food eaten for Iftar and during Eid, with the most popular dish served at the mosques and at home being ‘ghangui’, a soup comprised of meat and rice, which is thickened with flour.
Eid, which takes on a festive atmosphere, as it does everywhere, involves traditional meals and Indian sweets being shared. It’s also a national holiday, which often comes as a surprise to many foreigners, considering the country’s diverse religious make-up.
Ramadan in Malaysia and Indonesia
Ramadan is the most important holiday in the Muslim countries of Malaysia and Indonesia and is observed in similar ways. As both nations boast populations comprised of other religions, have substantial expat populations, and tourism is an important industry, the rules of Ramadan aren’t as strictly enforced as they are in the Middle East.
Unlike the Arabian Gulf countries, for instance, there are no requirements for non-Muslims to refrain from eating and drinking in public and alcohol is still served in restaurants and bars. Most tourists wouldn’t even know it was Ramadan, if it wasn’t for the lively late afternoon bazaars set up in towns and cities with Muslim communities across the countries.
Whereas the final days of Ramadan are very quiet in many Islamic countries, with Muslims feeling the strain of a month of fasting and late nights, in Indonesia and Malaysia there’s a festive atmosphere. In the week before Eid — called Hari Raya Puasa or ‘Hari Raya’ (Celebration Day) for short in Malaysia, and Idul Fitri in Indonesia — Muslims head to the Ramadan bazaars and malls to buy food and gifts for family and friends.
Ramadan in Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Singapore
For the smaller Muslim populations in Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Singapore, the holy month is observed in similar ways but on a more low-key scale. While expats will be aware of what’s happening in their communities, unless travellers are staying in a Muslim region (the deep south of Thailand, say) or passing through a Muslim neighbourhood with a mosque (in Kampong Glam in Singapore, or downtown Yangon), they may not be aware it’s even Ramadan, and when it comes to eating and drinking shouldn’t be affected in any way.
I’ve been asked to expand on how Ramadan is observed in these countries — one reader didn’t realise we had a Muslim population in Cambodia (we do, indeed) — so I promise to do that for 2017.
Ramadan in Australia
A very multicultural country, Australia has a sizeable Muslim population. One of the biggest differences in how Ramadan is observed by Muslims in Australia is the food eaten for Iftar, the breaking of the fast, and Eid al Fitr, the three-day celebration at the end of Ramadan.
As Australian Muslims come from diverse backgrounds, the food eaten is equally as diverse with buffet-like meals boasting dishes from an array of countries on the same table. The only common thread will be that the dishes are halal, that pork in recipes is replaced with beef or chicken, and there’s no alcohol in sauces.
Recipes evolve as tastes change over generations, making the offerings even more unusual now than ever. It’s not uncommon to find Arabic dishes from the Middle East or North Africa served alongside dishes of European or Asian origin on the same table — and even on the same plate.
Travellers won’t be affected by Ramadan at all in Australia, so make sure you seek out Iftars to enjoy with the local Muslim communities.
Ramadan in a Nutshell
- The holy month of Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, which commemorates the revelation of the Quran to the prophet Muhammad, which is why the month is spent in prayer, reading the Quran, and quiet reflection.
- As the Islamic calendar follows the lunar calendar, it is 10-11 days shorter than the solar calendar, the Ramadan dates shift each year, so it takes place from around 16 May to 14 June in 2018; 6 May to 3 June in 2019; and 24 April to 23 May in 2020. These dates are approximate as Ramadan only starts when the first crescent of the new moon is sighted.
- Fasting for the month of Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, which Muslims are required to follow.
- Adult Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan, which is why restaurants and cafes serving food might close during the day. Traditionally only children, the elderly, the ill, and women who were pregnant or breastfeeding were exempt, but these days diabetics and those suffering from other illnesses or conditions are also exempt.
- In addition to fasting, Muslims should also abstain from sinful conduct during Ramadan, from smoking to, ahem, sexual intercourse, as well as swearing, lying, and speaking badly of people, and so on.
- Ramadan is also a time for charity and giving alms to those in need, from making donations to taking gifts of food to the mosques for worshippers who are less well-off.
- The two important meals of the day during Ramadan are the pre-fast meal, Suhur, before the dawn prayers, and at sunset, the breaking of the fast, which is Iftar.
- Traditionally at Iftar, the first food that is eaten are dates, as it’s believed that the Muhammad broke his fast by eating three dates. After this, Muslims gather at the mosque for the Maghrib prayer, and then the main meal of the day, which can be eaten at the mosque, at home with family and friends, or, these days, in a banquet hall or hotel.
- The month ends with the festival of the breaking of the fast or Eid al Fitr, which begins on the first day of the next month when the new moon has been sighted. This is also a time for family to gather together for meals and visit other family and friends. Eid is likely to start on 6 July in 2016 and the official holiday will last three days though workers in government and education will get up to a week off in some countries, such as the UAE. (When we lived there that was when we did our short trips around the Middle East).
Tips for Travel During Ramadan
- If you’re travelling to a Muslim country during Ramadan do some research to find out what the rules are and what conduct is acceptable and what’s not. Good hotels will provide this information also.
- Dress modestly and refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, and behaving intimately in public places. Even if you’re in a Muslim country with relaxed rules, it’s only common courtesy to be considerate and respectful.
- Appreciate that it may be difficult to find restaurants open during the day in some places, although in more tourist focused destinations such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Muscat and so on, hotels will have restaurants for non-Muslims that have been closed off with screens or curtains so that you can eat and drink without being visible.
- Understand that alcohol may not be on sale during Ramadan. In some places, bars and clubs are closed for the month of Ramadan and some hotels will empty mini bars. If they’re important, check these things when booking.
- If you can’t do without an alcoholic drink, buy duty free before leaving your home airport and/or book yourself into a decent five star hotel, as they’re more likely to keep the mini bar stocked.
- If you can’t go without food or water during the day, as you will have to if travelling in some Arabian Peninsula countries, perhaps postpone your trip until after Ramadan.
- Take care crossing the road, especially before the breaking of the fast at the end of each day when people are in a hurry to get home and driving can be a bit erratic.
- Time your days carefully — if you’re in the Arabian Gulf countries, take it easy during the day and chill out by the hotel swimming pool, and head out after dark when the locals do.
- Wherever you are, don’t miss a Ramadan bazaar or Iftar experience, and make sure you get to a Ramadan tent to quietly puff on sheesha and listen to some live oud.
- Our Muslim readers should see this excellent guide for Muslims travelling during Ramadan on Passport and Plates.
- Greet Muslims with ‘Ramadam Kareem!’ during Ramadan and at the end of Ramadan and during the Eid wish Muslims an ‘Eid Mubarak!’
Have you experienced Ramadan before? If you live in a Muslim country, would you recommend non-Muslims visit during the holy month? What’s special about Ramadan in the place that you live in? If you’ve travelled during Ramadan, do you have any tips for travellers? Please feel free to share, below.
UPDATED 16 May 2018