Better off Red: Celebrating Chinese New Year in Kuala Lumpur

It’s true that I liked Kuala Lumpur a heck of a lot better the second time around, but if I’m being 100% honest with you (and I’m always 100% honest with you), part of why we spent as much time in the city as we did was because of Chinese New Year.

It’s true that I liked Kuala Lumpur a heck of a lot better the second time around, but if I’m being 100% honest with you (and I’m always 100% honest with you), part of why we spent as much time in the city as we did was because of Chinese New Year.

When you think about Chinese New Year, Kuala Lumpur is probably not the first destination that springs to mind. And yet, this is exactly why we chose to spend the holiday there.

Many travelers (and prospective travelers) plan their itineraries around attending festivals and celebrating major national holidays. Thailand for Songkran or Yi Pen, New Orleans for Mardi Gras, Rio de Janeiro for Carnival… For those of us who like to witness as much of foreign cultures as we can, what could be a better opportunity to do just that than a major holiday?

Unfortunately, as great as festivals sound in theory, we’ve found them largely to be a thorn in our sides in practice and do our best to avoid them whenever we can. For us, holidays make traveling more difficult as lodging and transport get booked up, prices soar, and plenty of attractions and restaurants close in observance. And then there are the crowds, as people take to the streets. Even by Asian standards I’m short, so I wind up getting swallowed up by the teeming masses, elbowed and prodded, generally unable to see what’s going on and why it’s supposed to be fun.

Central Market, Kuala Lumpur

After having had our plans derailed in China because of Golden Week, we vowed we do our best to sidestep all future Chinese holidays if at all possible. When we realized that our original plans in Malaysia would have us in George Town, Penang—a city with one of Malaysia’s largest Chinese populations—for the lunar new year, we immediately put on the brakes and decided to simply hunker down in Kuala Lumpur instead. Rumors swirled that most people would abandon the city and head home to their families in smaller towns and cities for the holiday leaving it quiet and deserted.

Perfect—just what we were looking for.

Thean Hou Temple, Kuala Lumpur

Located just a stone’s throw from Chinatown, our hostel in Kuala Lumpur was situated just across the street from a Chinese temple, and in the days leading up to Chinese New Year, it definitely experienced an increase in traffic as well as intermittent drum performances. But it wasn’t too rowdy, all things considered, and we were able to safely watch the proceedings from on high in the safety of our room. Every so often as we wandered through the streets, we were accosted by the occasional dragon dance party (as you do), but the vibe throughout the city was cheerful and festive (and therefore more than tolerable), rather than manic, deafening, and claustrophobic (as at Masskara in Bacolod).

Because we are not complete spoilsports, we decided to celebrate the dawning of a new lunisolar calendar year by visiting Thean Hou Temple, one of the city’s finest temples. Perched high on a hill and somewhat out of the way, it proved something of an ordeal to reach: we hopped the metro to KL Sentral where shuttle buses to the temple were meant to be running… only they weren’t. So instead we had to catch a taxi as there didn’t seem to be an obvious way to reach the temple as a large national highway seemed to encircle the hill like a moat, impenetrable to pedestrians. However, traffic was (understandably) insane, so after making it to the base of the hill and idling in gridlock for 5 minutes, we decided to simply walk the rest of the way, legs burning and chests heaving as we made our way up the steep incline.

Gasping for breath as we reached the top, the reward for our exertions was a massive six-story temple draped with hundreds of red lanterns, the grounds abuzz with activity. A hum of excitement crackled in the air, thick with the heady aroma of joss and incense sticks whose smoke swirled in billowing clouds on an otherwise crystal clear day. I had mentally psyched myself to expect the very worst when it came to the number of people that would be there, given that we had willingly thrown ourselves into the eye of the celebration storm, but it wasn’t nearly as crowded as I had worried it might be.

At least not at first…

We ducked up some stairs and headed to the topmost level of the temple hoping it would afford us a good view of the epic lion dance meant to usher in the new year and chase away evil spirits clinging to the old. By the time we had pushed ourselves to the rails, the main temple floor was swollen with people who were working themselves up into a frenzy. When the dance actually began, it was not so much a dance as it was a slow shuffling of two lions through the hysterical crowd, impeded in their movement by every person’s determination to pet and stroke the furry costumes and pose for pictures. It was unclear to me whether this obsession with groping was meant for luck OR if it was because Chinese people love nothing more than touching things, but I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

The lion dance may have been a bit of a letdown, but what came next certainly did not: after wandering around the temple in a bit of a daze (seriously, Chinese temples are so blinged out and busy they have a bit of a lobotomizing effect on me), we noticed a sign advertising a special New Year variety show. Although it was February, I’ve never been to Kuala Lumpur and had it make me feel like anything other than a sweaty fireball, so the prospect of going somewhere with air conditioning was enough to convince me this was worth checking out.

In every possible way, the show was incredible, provided you like your entertainment incredibly old school and cheesy. Which obviously I do. It started with a segment with spry teenagers doing impressive feats of gymnastics and acrobatics and demonstrating ridiculous degrees of strength & flexibility. The music and costumes were campy as hell, but that barely detracted from how skilled the performers were.

My personal favorite segment, however, was by far the worst part of the show as it featured a tubby drunken “magician” decked out in a top hat & tails; his routine was 75% him shuffling about arhythmically while pulling fake paper flowers from places you would never wish fake paper flowers to be. It was like watching something straight out of a 1980’s children’s birthday party and was squarely in that “so bad it’s good” territory. For this alone, I’m glad we made the effort to participate in some of the Chinese New Year shenanigans.

All in all, Chinese New Year in Kuala Lumpur wasn’t the craziest or the most magical (certainly not with that last act!) time of our lives, but for us it was the perfect compromise: we got to experience the flavor of the festivities and stand on the fringes of the riotous celebrations without ever feeling overwhelmed by it all.

Tell us: Do you like attending festivals and participating in large holidays when you travel? Have you ever celebrated Chinese New Year?

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16 comments Leave a comment

  1. This sounds like a lot of fun. I’m sure you’ll remember it for years to come. I agree with you 100%. Although I love festivals and experiencing them when I travel, it’s definitely is harder on planning, getting rooms, and the prices are always higher. This is one reason I like to spend Christmas especially in non-Christian countries. Love the red! Gorgeous shots!

    Feb. 18 2014 @ 2:33 am
    1. Corinne author

      Yes, we do the same thing at Christmas! Although things like Christmas markets in Europe sound lovely, I just don’t want to deal with price hikes in already expensive places. We are definitely low key travelers, and while I don’t mind stumbling into a festival, I certainly don’t go out of my way to be present for one. I think the only possible exception to this might be in Taiwan for their version of Yi Peng. It’s something I’ve wanted to see for years!

      Feb. 18 2014 @ 9:30 pm
  2. Wow! Look at all that red!! And that temple is amazing! Thanks again for sharing 🙂

    Feb. 18 2014 @ 3:43 am
    1. Tim | UrbanDuniya author

      SO MUCH RED! So glad you enjoyed! 🙂

      Feb. 18 2014 @ 9:30 pm
  3. I am so anti-crowds, it’s not funny. If it’s that awesome, I’m happy to watch it on TV. That said, I had to laugh out loud to see your pic with the dancing dragon RIGHT AFTER you talked about how everyone wanted to grope / stroke / make love to it.

    Et tu, Brutus?

    Feb. 18 2014 @ 4:12 am
    1. James author

      If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, right? 😛

      Seriously, I posed with the lion long after its sad attempts at dancing were over. It was 100% consensual, I swear!

      Feb. 18 2014 @ 9:32 pm
      1. Stephenie Harrison

        Yeah, yeah, that’s what they all say… Kobe, R Kelly, Mike Tyson… and now Steph.

        When a lion says “NO”, that (usually) means “NO”. I think I need to call an NGO in for this. I’m sure there’s one out there that deals in trafficked / disadvantaged lions thrown into the sad, sad world of lion dancing for money.

        Feb. 18 2014 @ 10:01 pm
        1. James author

          Maybe those lion’s need to start dancing to “Can’t Touch This”? We’re all about blaming the victim over here!

          Feb. 19 2014 @ 9:06 pm
  4. Wow, what a wonderful experience and your photos are as gorgeous as ever! We normally try to avoid large celebrations (even at home) because of the inconveniences you mentioned (costs go up, restaurants close etc…) and also because I’m really uncomfortable in large crowds. However there are always exceptions, with music festivals being the big one for us. So glad to hear you are having a great time in Kuala Lumpur!

    Feb. 18 2014 @ 10:19 am
    1. Calli author

      We would probably make exceptions for a big music festival, though even still I’m likely to be at the back rather than trying to push up to the stage. Right before leaving Nashville, Tony & I actually went to Bonnaroo and camped and everything; it was A LOT of fun and I’d happily do that again.

      Feb. 18 2014 @ 9:34 pm
  5. Wow – that magic show sounds like something you won’t be able to forget 🙂

    We like the idea of events and festivals, but also have a hard time justifying it when we want to have normal/cheap prices. Ewan is a big soccer/football fan and so when we planned to be in South America in the lead up to the World Cup he was frothing at the mouth with the possibility of going to Brazil. But after looking at costs and what it would mean to our trip budget, we decided to shelve ‘attending the World Cup’ on our bucket list for another time. I think that would have to be a dedicated trip…for when we’ve won the lottery possibly!

    Feb. 18 2014 @ 10:21 am
    1. Emily author

      Yes, the magic show lives on in my memories forever…

      If I were REALLY passionate about something, I’m sure that would win over my dislike of large gatherings and I’d be willing to pay to be a part of it, but off the top of my head, I can’t really think of what would make the cut. I’m sure while you’re in SA you’ll be able to take in plenty of soccer games even if they aren’t the World Cup itself… sometimes those can be more fun!

      Feb. 18 2014 @ 9:36 pm
  6. We witnessed the first part of the Chinese New Year celebration in George Town (see link below the comment), the end in Melaka. I’d never seen anything like it, knew little about the holiday, so I enjoyed the learning experience a lot. And though back home I do my best to avoid crowds, because it was all new to me I didn’t mind them at all. On the contrary, they made me feel much more a part of the festivities.

    So. Many. Lion. Dances.

    Feb. 24 2014 @ 1:00 am
    1. Peter Korchnak @ Where Is Your Toothbrush? author

      I think if we had friends or family in George Town, we would have been more keen to experience CNY there. My understanding is that it’s a holiday that is really about family and so we were worried we would feel left out there. I’m glad to hear that you had so much fun!

      Feb. 25 2014 @ 2:33 am
  7. You don’t need to tell me twice to avoid certain countries around major holidays…oy!

    Feb. 26 2014 @ 2:57 am
    1. Carmel author

      So true! You know first hand how Chinese New Year mucks up travel plans!

      Feb. 27 2014 @ 12:37 am

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