It’s that time of year again when millions of Muslims around the world observe the holy month of Ramadan, during which they will abstain from taking food and drink (among other things) between sunrise and sunset.
Even though only Muslims are expected to fast, there will be certain changes to daily routines and customs that non-Muslims should be aware of, especially if you’re traveling to Muslim-majority countries/regions during this period.
However, this shouldn’t put you off from your travels – Ramadan is a very special time for Muslims, not just one of prayer and reflection, but also camaraderie and celebration.
So make the most of this unique opportunity to experience it first-hand!
What to expect during Ramadan
#1: Ramadan is observed differently depending on the local culture and laws
In some Muslim nations, it’s against the law to openly consume food and drink in public, so even if you’re a non-Muslim, you’re only allowed to eat or drink privately, behind closed doors.
Hotels and restaurants located in touristy areas will often serve customers behind screens or curtains to keep them out of view from those fasting. Otherwise, you can always order in or takeaway and eat in the comfort of your own room.
In countries such as Oman and Egypt, it’s illegal for establishments to even sell alcohol, so it may be a challenge to grab a beer with the mates during your travels.
The party scene is likely to be more subdued as well, as bars and lounges may be closed or not have any live entertainment during the month.
#2: Local restaurants and food stalls may be closed during the day
In countries with large Muslim populations, many eateries run by Muslims are either closed during the day or have shorter business hours.
In some multicultural countries, like Malaysia and Singapore, non-Muslim restaurants can operate like normal, whereas several Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have banned most, if not all, eateries from opening during the day.
If the latter is the case for you, then you’ll probably need to take into consideration where you can get food during the day.
#3: There’s more to Ramadan than fasting from food and drink
During Ramadan, Muslims are not only expected to fast from food and drink, but other things that are considered detrimental to one’s physical health, such as smoking.
As such, it’s advisable not to light up in public. It’s also a good idea to dress modestly, as religious authorities and locals may be more sensitive than usual, seeing as Ramadan is considered a blessed month.
#4: The festivities come after sundown
Though activities are kept to a minimum during the day, you can expect things to pick up after iftar (the breaking of fast).
Many restaurants and hotels will offer sumptuous buffet spreads for you to enjoy, but you should head to the bazaars for the best local pickings. Our rule: if a food stall has a long line, it’s usually worth the wait. The trick is to get there before the line gets too long!
Shopping malls will probably be packed with post-iftar crowds for shopping and gatherings, while night markets remain as vibrant as ever.
Do’s and Don’ts
Be sensitive to those observing Ramadan
Due to odd sleeping schedules and hunger pangs, people are probably more prone to being grumpier than usual, so do remember that everyone gets ‘hangry’ and try to be as patient and understanding as possible.
Respect local laws and practices
This one is pretty much a given no matter what time of the year you’re visiting. However, during Ramadan, some visitors may not be aware of the special circumstances.
That said, even if you’re allowed to eat and drink out in public, do try to do it as discreetly as you can.
Give fasting a try
Some travelers opt to try fasting during their visit at least for one day, if only to get a better idea of what it’s like for Muslims.
The common practice (known as sahur) is to wake up an hour or two before sunrise and having a light meal and plenty of water to keep you energized for the day.
Many who have given it a go say that fasting from food is much easier than fasting from water, especially in countries with hotter climates, so if you’ve never tried fasting before, it’s recommended to try abstaining only from food.
Ramadan is observed differently depending on where you are, so be sure to do your research and planning ahead of time so you’re not caught unawares.
Check whether it’s okay to eat or drink in public and whether most restaurants will be closed during the day.
Miss out on the festivities
The closer it gets to sundown, the livelier things get, so join in the fun!
Check out the local bazaars in the hours just before sundown, which are sure to be brimming with specialty food that you’ll only get to taste during Ramadan. During the month, some eateries are open in the early morning before sunrise to cater to those who wish to eat out for sahur.
Hesitate to ask questions
If you’re unsure about anything related to the observance of Ramadan and what’s acceptable or not, feel free to ask the locals. Or even if you’re simply curious. They’ll be more than happy to explain and help you better understand Islam and how it’s practiced.