Best Day Ever

When Malaysia Has a Party, You'll Be On the Guest List

by Michael Evans
The Everybody's welcome at Hari Raya celebration at the prime minister's house. All photos by Michael Evans.

What’s a traveler to do when their visit to Malaysia coincides with the country’s biggest holiday? Attend an “open house” at the home of the country’s prime minister, of course.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – One of my favorite parts of traveling is experiencing local festivals. So when I found out my trip to Malaysia would coincide with Hari Raya, the country’s biggest holiday, it felt like the stars had aligned.

But then I did a little research, and my heart sank. Hari Raya, celebrating the end of Ramadan, is mostly a private affair. No parades, no carnivals. Even traveling can be a hassle due to the homecoming traffic jams.

It was only once I arrived in Kuala Lumpur, scouring the capital’s local newspapers for any kind of holiday cheer, that I read about one public celebration that definitely caught my attention — an open house at the home of the country’s prime minister.

If I couldn’t do like the locals and spend the holiday at home with family, I figured I might as well spend it at someone else’s home with a few hundred complete strangers. Besides, it's not everyday that you get the chance to hang out with a head of state.

So I woke up early on the morning of Hari Raya to hop on the express train to Putrajaya, the suburban town where the prime minister lives. I was expecting crowds, but at 9 a.m. the train was almost empty. Far from the hustle and bustle of central KL, Putrajaya was an endless expanse of landscaped lawns and modern low-rise bungalows. Without a few Asian flourishes on rooftops and walls, it would have been easy to imagine I was in a mid-range residential community in southern Florida.

But I was brought back to reality by the crowd gathering at the tile-and-stucco gate of Seri Perdana, the prime minister’s residence. Muslim Malays were decked out for the holiday in colorful silk suits and dresses, standing beside Indian women wrapped in patterned saris and Pakistanis in bright white robes and embroidered skullcaps.

The line shuffled slowly through the security check, and grumbling over the long wait in the sweltering summer morning provided an easy opening to chat with strangers and ask why they had chosen to spend their holiday at Seri Perdana.

A band playing music while the guests eat.
The band played pop renditions of traditional Hari Raya songs.
A line to get food.
Eat, it's free!

In front of me was a middle-aged man named Amin and his two sons, all three dressed in matching green traditional suits and black caps. He had been unable to get tickets back to his home in Sabah, one of the most distant corners of Malaysia, so they had come to celebrate here instead. Standing behind me was the Cantonese-speaking Chang family, who don't celebrate Hari Raya because they are not Muslim, who came because they couldn’t think of anything better to do.

The line squeezed through the barrage of metal detectors and X-ray machines, emptying into a wide, tree-lined garden walkway. Amin, who had been here three years prior, told me the prime minister would receive his guests in the building to our left. But since he hadn’t arrived yet, we should turn right and go to the banquet first.

We walked into a sprawling jumble of white tents with buffets laid out in every one. One tent had traditional Malaysian dishes, from tender marinated beef rendang to the irresistibly unhealthy pizza-like roti john. Next door was the dessert tent, where children clambered for ice cream, cotton candy, and quickly disappearing trays of cookies.

I wandered from tent to tent, determined not to miss out on anything really good. And as my budget traveler’s mind kept reminding me — it was all free!

I was surrounded by strangers, but the whole event felt like a big family reunion. It was impossible not to have a good time. On a stage up front, a band played pop renditions of traditional Hari Raya songs, and a few revelers stood around the stage to clap and sing along.

A massive TV screen behind the band suddenly flickered to life, showing a very familiar-looking man smiling and shaking hands. The prime minister had arrived. Not wanting to get stuck in another long and sweaty line, I made my way back up the hill.

Of course, I still ended up waiting for about a half hour, though thankfully underneath a canopy. To keep our spirits up, a loudspeaker played friendly banter between two Malay-speaking MC’s, one of whom broke into English occasionally to welcome all the foreign guests (though I didn’t see any besides me) and introduce the officials and cabinet ministers in the receiving line.

Prime minister's house.
Prime minister's home sweet home.
Garden at prime minister's house.
Men walking the gardens.

If it wasn’t for his bright red suit, the prime minister would have been impossible to pick out from the scrum of officials and attendants who were crowded around the main aisle. When my turn came, I smiled and shook his motionless hand.

Just as quickly as we had come in, the line exited — past chairs and coffee tables with a little too much gold trim, past walls covered with the kinds of random knickknacks that every politician picks up throughout his career of inaugurating coal mines and visiting kindergartens. Heading out the back, I suddenly found myself with my hands full, juggling a surprise gift of two blue boxes filled with cookies and snacks that attendants handed to each visitor as we left.

It was a little after noon now, and I felt glad I had arrived early as I watched streams of visitors pouring through the front gate. Adjusting their hats and veils, they looked sweaty and exhausted, though clearly happy to be arriving to join in their country’s Hari Raya party.

I walked out the gate in the opposite direction, thankful for the free food, the fleeting brush with the high and mighty, and for the chance to join in the festivities and be welcomed as a temporary member of this big Malaysian family.


PLAN YOUR TRIP

The prime minister typically receives guests from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at his residence in Putrajaya. The exact schedule is announced a day in advance.

The KLIA Transit express train runs from KL Sentral to Putrajaya Sentral every half hour. The trip takes around 20 minutes.

A free shuttle bus sets off every 20 minutes for the quick, ten-minute trip between Putrajaya Sentral and Seri Perdana, the prime minister’s residence (look for the sign in the bus’s front window, or just ask at the ticket counter).

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