Celebrating Deepavali, the Festival of Lights

Deepavali is the most important celebration for Hindus worldwide and this year it falls on October 29. The celebration, which is also referred to as the Festival of Lights, symbolises the victory of good over evil, light over darkness, and knowledge over ignorance.

(Photo credit: happydeepavali2015.com)

(Photo credit: happydeepavali2015.com)

Deepavali’s origins lie in a festival in India that marked the end of the harvest season before the onset of winter. People marked this festival by praying and seeking blessings from Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity for the months ahead. Families would gather together to enjoy traditional food and sweets, play with fireworks and light clay lamps.

(Photo credit: vulcanpost.com)

(Photo credit: vulcanpost.com)

To this day, the presence of light is an important feature of Deepavali. Hindus believe that on this joyous occasion, Lakshmi will descend from the heavens and for this reason, those celebrating Deepavali will light clay lamps and decorate their houses with colourful lights in the hope that Lakshmi will enter their homes and bless their family.

While many still hold fast to Deepavali’s religious and cultural origins, the festival is also seen as marking new beginnings, stronger family ties, new friendships and moving towards greater peace and harmony.

(Photo credit: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/)

(Photo credit: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/)

In Malaysia, everyone is included in the festivities as those celebrating Deepavali with invite friends to visit their homes. What follows is a very Malaysian pastime: the sharing of food and traditional sweets.

If you’re lucky enough to be visiting Malaysia during Deepavali and be invited to someone’s home, don’t decline the invitation. This will be a wonderful opportunity to be a part of someone’s family celebrations for a day and enjoy some traditional and homemade Indian food.

Murukku, a savoury Indian snack with lots of crunch (Photo credit: http://keralakichen.com/)

If you love sweets, you’ll love Laddu (Photo credit: http://www.expatgo.com/my/)

Happy Deepavali!

You know you’re in Malaysia when…

Today, August 31st, 2016, is Malaysia’s 59th Day of Independence. To commemorate this special day, we’ve put together a list of things which makes Malaysia what it is- one of Asia’s most fascinating countries, blessed with a rich heritage, a colourful culture and a proud history.

So here we go. You know you’re in Malaysia when:

You see food outlets open 24 hours a day

(Photo credit: egagah.blogspot.com)

(Photo credit: egagah.blogspot.com)

If this is your first time to Malaysia, we hope you’ll get to go to one of our all-night makan (that’s Malay for ‘eat’ or ‘eating’) places. The good thing about these 24-hour outlets are that they usually serve Malaysian food, so you’ll still be able to try something local at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning if you happen to be awake and peckish. The Malaysian appetite operates across all time zones.

You’re part of someone’s family, and you don’t even know them

(Photo credit: www.windowmalaysia.my)

(Photo credit: www.windowmalaysia.my)

Malaysians try their best to be inclusive. If you’re older than us we’ll refer to you as either kakak, jie jie or akka (sister) or abang (brother). If you look a lot older or as a form of respect, we may even call you ‘uncle’ or ‘auntie’. Everybody is someone’s elder sister, elder brother, uncle or auntie here.

You get to eat the most delicious food in the world, every day

Together with our 24-hour eating outlets, you also get the incredible taste and flavour which are features of Malaysian food. Malaysian dishes are influenced by Indonesian, Chinese, Indian, Siamese and Portuguese cuisine, some of which have been adapted in one way or another to suit local palates. But that’s not all- much of Malaysian cuisine is also a melding of its different components. The result is a truly amazing national identity which can only be Malaysian.

Shopping malls are full on weekends and public holidays

(Photo credit: www.skyscrapercity.com)

(Photo credit: www.skyscrapercity.com)

It’s unfortunate but it’s true: many Malaysians see shopping malls as the go to place to hang out because apart from retail outlets, our malls and shopping centres have cinemas, bowling alleys, restaurants, cafes, even pet stores! We honestly feel that Malaysians should enjoy the outdoors and go to parks more often but given how popular our malls are, be prepared for a crowd on weekends.

There’s a traffic jam almost every time it rains

(Photo credit: www.thestar.com.my)

(Photo credit: www.thestar.com.my)

Here’s something else that we don’t quite like. Whenever it rains, be prepared for a massive gridlock on the roads soon after. Why does it happen? Who knows- poor drainage, too many cars on the streets, rush hour. The fact is, it happens, so you’ve been warned.

Hearing words from three languages in one sentence isn’t unusual

(Photo credit: thisblogsparkles.wordpress.com)

(Photo credit: thisblogsparkles.wordpress.com)

This is our favourite quirk of being Malaysian: that the majority of us are bilingual, while many others are multi-lingual and able to speak up to four or five languages. Get a bunch of multi-racial Malaysians together, even complete strangers, and you’ll hear us use phrases and words from the different languages and dialects from the ethnic groups that make up our society. The result is something truly precious: for visitors, it makes listening to a Malaysian conversation a unique experience, while for us we get to enjoy a closeness, a bond with each other and a deeper appreciation of what makes us Malaysian.

Enjoy your stay in Malaysia!

Top Day Trips from Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur offers visitors much to see and do, but if you want some time away from the crowds, we know exactly where you should go. KL is well- connected to its surrounding areas, so plenty of options are available to you. Here are some ideas for day trips from Kuala Lumpur:

Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary

(Photo credit: ww.nre.gov.my)

(Photo credit: ww.nre.gov.my)

The Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary is located in the village of Lanchang in the state of Pahang about 160kms from Kuala Lumpur. The sanctuary, which is managed by the Malaysian Department of Wildlife and National Parks, was established in 1989 to provide temporary shelter to orphaned elephants or those whose lives are threatened due to encroachment. The elephants undergo rehabilitation and are then relocated back to the wild.

At the sanctuary, visitors can see elephants being fed and bathed by the mahouts. Occasionally visitors are allowed to bathe with the elephants, but if the animals appear distressed, the mahouts will request visitors to get out of the water. In order to minimise human contact, elephant rides have been stopped.

To get to the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary, you need to rent a car or get on a tour. If you’re driving from KL, take the Karak Highway heading towards Lancang District. When you reach Lanchang, look out for a BP gas station by the roadside- turn left before the station, then follow the signs and head for Bolok. The elephant sanctuary lies at the end of the road. Go here for more details.

Pulau Ketam

(Photo credit: www.pulauketam.com)

(Photo credit: www.pulauketam.com)

What? A village an hour away from KL with no cars or buses? You got that right. None of the residents of Pulau Ketam (Crab Island) owns anything on four wheels, the most they’ll have is a bike, a motorcycle and maybe a fishing boat. It’s not as though they need a car- the two villages on the island are within walking distance of each other, while amenities like shops, restaurants and the police station are easy to reach on foot.

Most of the 6,000 residents are fishermen, so Pulau Ketam is the place to be for fresh and delicious seafood. To work up an appetite, you can explore the villages on foot or rent a bike and go around the island. Pulau Ketam is very easy to get to: take a KTM Komuter train from KL Sentral to Port Klang, the last stop on the Sentul-Port Klang line. When you exit the station, you will see signs pointing towards the jetty. Boats to Pulau Ketam leave every hour or so. Click here for more info.


Janda Baik

(Photo credit: www.panoramio.com)

(Photo credit: www.panoramio.com)

Janda Baik is only a 30-minute drive from sometimes-chaotic KL and yet so different. The air surrounding the village of Janda Baik is cool and clean thanks to its location in the rainforest. Nearby streams and waterfalls also give daytrippers a chance to hike and explore the area and have a picnic.

If you plan ahead, you’ll be able to book a white water rafting trip, engage a guide for short hikes in the jungle (don’t forget your mosquito repellent!) or even do some abseiling. The easiest way to get to Janda Baik (if you’re travelling independently) would be to take the KTM Komuter train to Gombak station, then take a taxi to the village- a one-way ride should cost about RM60.

For more information, go here.



Batu Caves

(Photo credit: http://www.vertical-adventure.com/)

(Photo credit: http://www.vertical-adventure.com/)

Every visitor to KL is told of Batu Caves, with its 400 million-year-old limestone caves and the massive gold statue of Lord Murugan, but few people know that rock climbing enthusiasts have been scaling the limestone outcrops in the area for more than 10 years. To make the most of your day trip, before you walk up the 272 steps to the temple complex and marvel at the caves’ interior, book a guided rock- climbing session at Batu Caves. Go here and here for details.

Getting to Batu Caves is easy: take a KTM Komuter train and get down at Batu Caves station, and you’re there!



Must-eat food at Ramadan bazaars in Malaysia

The fasting month of Ramadan is a wonderful time to be in Malaysia as we mentioned here but out of the many attractions, the main one is that Ramadan bazaars or food markets pop up during this time of the year.

Ramadan bazaars operate daily during the fasting month and usually open from 4pm, giving you ample time to get there, make your purchases and scoot off back home or wherever you plan to eat your meal.

Like street markets all over the world, the appeal of Ramadan bazaars is the wide variety in choice. We all have our personal favourites when it comes to food, but here’s another thing about the fasting month in Malaysia: this is when you get to eat traditional food that you don’t usually see at other times of the year.

Because of that, we’ve done away with recommending pasar malam (night market) staples like murtabak, roti bom and chicken wings. Instead, we’ve listed food that we love but don’t see enough of, which thankfully make an appearance during Ramadan.

Before we begin, here’s a quick glossary of terms you’ll find useful when buying food in Malaysia:

Nasi: Rice, whether fried (‘goreng’) or cooked in a steamer (‘kukus’)

Mee: Noodles, whether fried or in a broth or soup (‘rebus’ or ‘sup’)

Roti: May refer to either Indian-style flatbreads or bread baked in loaves

Kuih: Traditional Malay cake. Usually sweet, but may also be savoury

Ikan: Fish

Ayam: Chicken

Daging: Literally, meat, whether beef (‘daging lembu’) or lamb/mutton (‘daging kambing’), but can also specially refer to beef. Ask to be sure.

Sambal: In its most basic form, a sambal is a hot chili paste with shallots eaten with rice or noodles and sometimes, Indian-style roti. Variations include sambal with dry-toasted shrimp paste (‘belacan’), white anchovies (‘ikan bilis’) and prawns (‘udang’).

Here we go- here are the things we recommend you look out for in Ramadan bazaars:

Kuih Lopes

Photo credit: 123rf.com

Photo credit: 123rf.com

Like many traditional Malaysian sweets, kuih lopes is made with glutinous rice, pandan leaf flavouring, grated coconut and gula Melaka (palm sugar). The palm sugar appears in liquid form as a syrup that is poured over the rice cake, which is green from the pandan leaves. We like kuih lopes because the syrup allows you to decide how sweet you want the dessert to be.

Ikan Bakar

Photo credit: cknormmasak.blogspot.com

Photo credit: cknormmasak.blogspot.com

Ikan bakar is grilled fish but the wow factor is the hot and sour chili sauce that goes with it. The sauce is made with tamarind juice, tomatoes, salt, sugar, garlic, shallots and cut chilies, and is a perfect accompaniment to fish (usually stingray) that’s just been taken off the grill.

Putu Piring

Putu piring, steamed rice cakes with a melted palm sugar filling and topped with grated coconut, are Indian in origin. Sadly they aren’t seen as often as they used to be, so make sure to grab some putu piring if you spot them because they’re very tasty.

Apam Balik

If you love peanut butter, you’ll love apam balik, which is a kind of folded pancake filled with crushed peanuts, sweetcorn and sugar. It’s made on a griddle, tastes delicious and when freshly-baked, imparts the most amazing aroma- in fact, Malaysians can actually smell apam balik before they see it. Ignore non-traditional variations with jam or Nutella filling- what you want is the authentic apam balik with peanuts.

Nasi Kerabu

There is nasi kerabu and there is nasi kerabu. The type you should be looking out for is the one that is accompanied by lots of herbs and vegetables, because that is what nasi kerabu traditionally is. Modern-day variations include a chicken, fish or beef dish to go with it, but we suggest you pick fried fish or a chicken or fish percik (grilled, then topped with a coconut milk-based gravy). Don’t be alarmed by the light blue colour of the rice- that comes from the natural hue of the petals of the butterfly-pea flower, which is used in the recipe. As long as the rice isn’t psychedelic blue, you’ll be fine.

Nasi Kukus Ayam Berempah

Photo credit: resepibonda.com

Photo credit: resepibonda.com

Nasi kukus, which refers to rice cooked in a steamer, is softer and tastier than rice cooked in an electric rice cooker, but the operative words here are ‘ayam rempah’, or chicken cooked with spices. This chicken isn’t chili hot, but fried with lemongrass, galangal, ginger and turmeric, and the result is a distinctive taste which will grow on you once you’ve tried it. The rice and chicken are usually accompanied by a light clear soup, acar timun (cucumber salad) and a chili sambal.

Laksa Johor

Laksa Johor is another delicacy that you don’t get to see much of because it isn’t usually commercially sold in restaurants, owing to its origins as a ‘family’ dish, cooked at home for your family to enjoy. Like all laksa, Laksa Johor (so called because it comes from the southern state of Johor) consists of noodles and vegetables eaten in a fish-based broth. Unlike other laksa however, the unique thing about this particular laksa is that instead of using rice noodles, the recipe calls for spaghetti.

Nasi Ayam Penyet

Another rice-with-chicken dish, although the chicken here is ‘penyet’, which means flattened. And yes, the chicken is fried then flattened, which makes it all the more interesting, although we would dare say it’s the accompanying chili sambal and vegetables that make the dish. Ayam penyet is Javanese in origin, and comes with raw vegetables like sliced cucumber, green beans and cabbage, and fried tofu and fried tempeh, or fermented soya bean.

We hope we’ve given you some ideas on what to look out for when you visit a Ramadan bazaar in Malaysia. Better still, stay with us at BackHome because from now till July 1, our hostel will be running food tours at Ramadan bazaars from 4-6pm, Monday to Friday. So now you know what to do: book a bed at BackHome and go on our Ramadan food tours!

Have you tried any of the food we mentioned, or do you have any favourites to add to the list?

Visting Malaysia during Ramadan

The fasting month of Ramadan is a special month for Muslims. This year, Ramadan is from 6 June to 5 July 2016, where fasting will be observed from the start of the early morning prayers (around 5.40am) till sundown. The fasting month is regarded as the best month of the year for good deeds, doing charity and prayers.

Many foreigners and tourists may think twice about visiting a Muslim-majority country like Malaysia during Ramadan. Will museums and shops still be open? Will restaurants be open during the day? Will Malaysia still be worth visiting? Will I actually have fun??

Our answer to all those questions is a big yes. During the day, the atmosphere in the smaller cities and towns will be quieter and activities may be low-key, but all this will change after sunset when people can start eating.

Here are some pointers on visiting Malaysia during the month of Ramadan:

Restaurants will still be open

Chinese and Indian restaurants will open as usual but smaller, individual restaurants run by Muslims may be closed during the day and will open only at noon or later at 4pm. Eateries and fast food outlets in shopping malls, however, even those manned by Muslims, will operate as usual.

It’s all in the timing

Here in Malaysia, the sun goes down between 7.20-7.30, in other words, this is when restaurants are at their busiest in Ramadan. There are two options if you plan to go out for dinner during the fasting month: either avoid the crowd or join in the fun.

If you want to avoid the crowd, have an early or late dinner- before 7pm or after 8pm. If you want to eat dinner together with us Malaysians (because non-Muslim Malaysians often join their friends to break fast), be at the dinner venue by 7.15pm to make sure you get a table. Restaurant kitchens will need time to take all the orders and prepare the meals.

Look out for ‘buka puasa’ (breaking of fast) buffets

Photo credit: malaysianflavours.com

If you happen to be in Malaysia during Ramadan, lucky you. This is when hotels and large restaurants in major cities will have their buka puasa dinner buffets, where you’ll get to enjoy an incredible spread of Malaysian and Western food. Every buffet will feature a wide variety of delicious meals, so this will be an excellent opportunity for you to try out some of our best local food. Keep your eyes peeled for buffet ads in newspapers or on banners on your daily walks around town.

Look out for Ramadan bazaars

Photo credit: zafigo.com

Photo credit: zafigo.com

Another feature of the fasting month here in Malaysia are Ramadan bazaars, which are open-air food markets where people buy food to break their fast with. These markets are great fun to visit and are popular with Malaysians from all backgrounds and faiths due to the wide range of food available. Most of the food is Malaysian but now and again you’ll see stalls selling lasagna, kebabs and pizza, especially in urban areas. Your hotel or hostel will know where the nearest bazaars are, but here’s a plus if you stay at BackHome during Ramadan: from 6 June to 1 July 2016, we’ll be running food tours at Ramadan bazaars nearby from 4-6pm, Monday to Friday, so now you know what to do: stay with us during the fasting month and go on our food tours!

Ramadan food tours with BackHome Hostel

Ramadan food tours with BackHome Hostel

Avoid getting stuck in traffic

Photo credit: www.thestar.com.my

Photo credit: www.thestar.com.my

If you’re going to be anywhere near Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Jaya, Subang or Shah Alam, do yourself a favour and don’t make the mistake of finding yourself stuck in a taxi between 5.30-8pm. This is the height of rush hour traffic during the fasting month. If you need to get anywhere in the evenings, you’ll be better off taking public transport of the above-road kind, namely, the LRT and the monorail.

The year of “Yes”

Photo credit: www.thestar.com.my

Photo credit: www.thestar.com.my

We mentioned earlier that Muslims regard Ramadan as a good month for being generous and charitable. If you’re visiting and happen to make some new friends, make sure to say “Yes” if they invite you to join them to break their fast at home. Malaysians love sharing their food and Ramadan especially is a wonderful time to witness the local culture. When you break fast in someone’s home, not only will you be treated to traditional food and sweets, you’ll get to meet the family and observe how they celebrate the fasting month.

Not fasting? No problem

Foreigners aren’t expected to fast but it’s considered polite to avoid obviously eating and drinking in public in front of others. Having said that, Malaysian Muslims will understand and won’t get offended if they see you with a can of Coke or an ice cream- we understand how hot it can get here! It goes without saying, of course, that it’s okay to eat and drink when you’re having your meal in a restaurant.

We hope we’ve managed to convince you to come over to Malaysia during the fasting month! We promise that it’ll be an enlightening and eye-opening experience. See you soon!