Ramadan is a special time for us Muslims. Besides not eating or drinking from dawn to dusk, it’s also a period of religious reflection, spiritual cleansing and plenty of generosity and socializing. Those that choose to travel to a Muslim country during Ramadan will often witness an atmosphere unlike that of Christmas in the U.S., with decor, shopping, and good cheer.
That being said, traveling to a Muslim country during Ramadan is not without its complications, especially for visiting non-Muslim tourists. Although this is a unique opportunity to experience traditions, customs, and even special meals and desserts, many countries adjust business hours and rules in order to accommodate those fasting. In order to ensure you can enjoy your trip while still respecting local customs, here’s what you need to know when traveling to a Muslim country during Ramadan.
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What is Ramadan?
Ramadan is the Muslim holy month that starts on the 9th month of the lunar calendar. For 30 days, millions of Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. Yes, this means no food or water, even if you’re really, really thirsty (seriously, people ask me that). To us, it’s not just about fasting from food and water, but about spiritual reflection as well. It’s a month of increased prayer, charity and hospitality. It’s also a time to refrain from bad behavior and thoughts – think cursing, gossiping, and all the other habits that you promised yourself you’d break on January 1st ;). Ramadan starts 10-11 days earlier every year. In 2020, it starts on April 23rd. In 2021, it will start on April 12th. For a basic breakdown on FAQs, you can read this link, but feel free to ask me questions as well!
For the intents and purpose of this being a travel site and all, I’m sharing with you some tips on what to know when traveling to a Muslim country during Ramadan, as well as a few rules to follow in order to be respectful of local cultures during this time.
Which countries observe Ramadan?
Well, there are Muslim communities in pretty much every country, but the only places where Ramadan may affect your travels are in Muslim-majority countries. The Middle-East and North Africa, parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, and a couple of countries is Southeast Asia more or less cover it. Note that intensity of practice varies widely depending on the country you’re in. This list offers some good country-specific tips, so read about the specific country you’re visiting if you’ll be traveling during Ramadan.
Ramadan Terminology You Should Know
- Ramadan: The Muslim holy month when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset for 30 days.
- Iftar: This translates directly to breakfast, and refers to sunset when people break their fast.
- Suhoor: This refers to the meal that people oftentimes eat before the sun rises to try to keep the morning hunger at bay. Many hotels and restaurants open for suhoor.
- Eid-al-Fitr: Translating directly to “breakfast celebration”, this refers to the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan and fasting.
Tips for Traveling to a Muslim Country During Ramadan – How to Be a Respectful Tourist
Don’t eat or drink publicly during the day
Remember: you’re not expected to fast while traveling in a Muslim country during Ramadan. And while nobody will chide you for eating in public, and it certainly isn’t against the law (mostly), it’s a tad disrespectful when everyone is you know, starving. Some countries are stricter about this than others. I know Istanbul is more tolerant but it was rare to see people eating in public in Cairo. In Dubai, it’s not allowed. Either way, as a general rule, try to be discreet about eating and pack lots of snacks and water (or buy them at the grocery store). Also, note that in many countries, restaurants will be closed to the public throughout the day in preparation for breakfast at sundown. Some restaurants might be reservation-only since the whole country is eating at the same time although most hotels still have at least one restaurant open all day for guests. Keep that in mind and prepare accordingly!
Alcohol is forbidden for Muslims, although this a rule that many people and countries follow quite loosely except during Ramadan. Many countries (including the oh-so-popular Morocco) actually go dry for Ramadan: the sale of alcohol is usually forbidden for the entire month. If you’re staying at a beach resort or upscale hotel somewhere you should still have access to drinks, but either way, Ramadan certainly isn’t the best time for a boozy holiday. As Aretha Franklin once sang, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T!”
In all honesty, it’s important to dress modestly in many Muslim countries year-round, but it’s especially important if you’re traveling to a Muslim country during Ramadan. Locals are already pretty good at spotting the tourists, so just try not to be too skimpy or revealing. It’s disrespectful. Also, no PDA. This can get you in trouble on a normal day in some countries, but PDA during Ramadan is especially rude. You’re better safe than sorry.
Normally, bustling cities tend to slow down during Ramadan and many office and store hours are shortened. Although many places come alive at night and can stay open until the wee hours of the morning, don’t expect shops to be opening bright and early. If you’re one of those people who travels on a tight schedule, be sure to do extra research for opening times of attractions, tours, and restaurants. Or just travel slower so you have more time to spend at your destination.
Become a night owl
The nightclubs and bars don’t turn around and open after sunset (they’re usually closed all month long), but the streets come alive after everyone has broken their fast. Many shops sell special Ramadan treats, and cafes and public spaces are open late to accommodate socializing, family time, and suhoor. Don’t hesitate to join in on the local festivities! If you can join a family for iftar or walk by the local mosque at sunset, do it. You get to observe the local culture in action and really get a taste for the special time that is Ramadan – a time for hospitality and generosity.
Traveling to Muslim Countries During Ramadan: A Unique Experience
At the end of the day, Ramadan isn’t just about not eating or drinking. It’s a month when millions of people join their family and friends to eat, celebrate, and reflect. It’s a time of charity and appreciation and despite the hanger pains, a time that the whole community really comes together. While it certainly isn’t the most convenient time to travel (for Muslims or non-Muslims), it is by far one of the most interesting. If you can get past the pain points and the occasional hangry person like me, you’ll gain a little more insight on a religion that the whole world should certainly learn more about. Happy travels – and to my fellow Muslims out there, Ramadan Kareem!
Have you ever traveled during Ramadan in a Muslim-majority country? What was your experience like? Share in the comments below!
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