Before you travel to Malaysia, there are a few things you should know. Like how you point could be offensive or kissing your husband could make the locals uneasy. Traveling to Malaysia is quite easy but the differences in culture and customs can be startling to some. The differences will take some time to get accustomed to. Generally, Malaysians are friendly people. They have great food and great sense of pride in their country.
The differences in gestures and cultural context are quite huge. What may seem normal for some cultures may be considered rude by Malaysians, so take it into consideration. Malaysia is a melting pot of different cultures and religions, which has resulted in a plethora of good food 24/7, languages and cultures spilling into each other, and sights that offer all the best of Asia in just one city. The following Malaysia travel tips, taboos, do’s, and don’ts will surely make your Malaysia tourism an enjoyable lifetime experience. Here are some of the things you should and shouldn’t do when in Malaysia.
Things to do:
- Do greet people you know. You can shake hands with people or do it the traditional Malay way: Shake hands and hold the outstretched hands lightly. Touch your right hand to the left part of your chest and smile. This means “I greet you from my heart”.Note that when greeting Women in Malaysia, simply just smile and nod politely unless they offer you a handshake. Remember that you are in a Muslim country, Men are not supposed to touch a woman whom they do not know.
- Do remember to remove your footwear. Whenever you enter the mosques or temples and Malaysian homes, it is polite to remove your shoes. This shows respect for the people living there. It is customary to remove and leave your shoes outside the house.
- Do enter the shine with your left foot first and exit by leading with your right foot. This gesture symbolically represents a whole.
- Do follow simple rules when visiting a Buddha temple. Show respect and remove your hat and shoes, dress conservatively, no shorts. When sitting, never point your feet at a person or image of Buddha stand up to show respect when monks or nuns enter.
- Do you use your right hand to receive or give something. The right hand should also be used for eating. It is considered discourteous and Malay custom to use your left hand when you hand over or receive things.
- Do learn a few words in Bahasa. Since almost everyone speaks English, learning the niceties just makes you a better traveler. At the very least, learn thank you = terima kasih (pronounced ter-eema kah-say).
Things not to do:
- Don’t expect pork bacon. That bacon you’re eating, it’s not pork. Since the majority of the population is Muslim, they don’t eat pork. Many restaurants in Malaysia are halal, which means there is no pork. It also means the meat that is served has been slaughtered in a specific way and then blessed. It is very similar to kosher meat. Unless you are in a Chinese restaurant, that bacon you are eating is beef or turkey.
- Do not touch the head of an adult. Touching people on the head is considered rude.
- Do not point forefinger at things. Instead the thumb of the right hand with 4 fingers folded under is the preferred way.
- Do you not pound your fists into the palm of the other hand, which is considered an obscene gesture to some people.
- Do not point your feet towards people or sacred images.
- Do not wear hot pants and vest at Mainland beaches if you are female. Topless sunbathing is a no-no. Malay women usually go swimming fully dressed and some keep their scarves on. If you are on the beach, a bikini is ok, but cover up when you leave the sand to go anywhere else. Even if it’s just for lunch on the beach, throw on your shorts and tank top.
- Do not kiss in public. Public behavior is important in Malaysian culture. Most Malaysians refrain from displaying affection such as embracing or kissing in public.
- Do not ever touch or hand among something if you are a woman. Even accidentally brushing against their robes requires that they fast and perform a cleansing ritual.
- Do not be offended if your offer of a handshake is not reciprocated by a Muslim who is of the opposite sex. In Islam, physical contact between the opposite sex is discouraged.
- Do not be embarrassed about burping. In Malay dining etiquette burping or bleching after a meal is acceptable.
- Do not discuss ethnic relations or the political system. They are both sensitive subjects.
- Do not drink alcohol. The country’s largest Muslim population does not drink alcohol. If you are looking for a party, look elsewhere. As a Muslim nation, however moderate it is, booze it taxed heavily here. You’ll spend more money on drinks than on your accommodations or food.
- Do not ever involve in illegal drugs. There is a mandatory death penalty for trafficking.
- Do not bring Durian up to your hotel room. Hotels strictly prohibit guests from bringing durian inside because of its pungent stench — some say it smells like feet.
- Don’t confuse the terms “Malaysian” and “Malay”. Everyone who is from Malaysia is a Malaysian. But not every Malaysian is a Malay. Malays are the largest ethnic group in the country. They are Muslim and speak Bahasa Melayu as their first language. The Chinese and Indians, who came to Malaysia in the late 1700s, are Malaysians. They refer to themselves as Chinese Malaysian or Indian Malaysian. They are not Muslim, Bahasa isn’t their first language, and therefore they are not Malay.
- Don’t tip. Tipping is not part of the culture. And Malaysia isn’t service-driven; they don’t rely on tips to make a living. You won’t get great service at any hawker stall, but you’re not paying for it either at $1 a plate. You’ll get better service at a fancy restaurant, but even still, no tipping is necessary.