Memos from Asia

DOs and DON’Ts While Traveling in Malaysia

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Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Have you ever heard of how tipping, a very common practice everywhere in the world, is considered insulting in South Korea?

Despite common practice elsewhere, taboos must nonetheless be respected when visiting foreign countries, regardless if you’re a tourist or intending to stay for some time. One must remember to take extra care in learning about the do’s and don’ts of culture in respective countries in order to remain respectful.

Malaysia is an example of a country that has many values and cultures that has been ingrained in Malaysians’ lifestyles. Being a multicultural country, there are many superstitions, taboos and cultural cues one must adhere to in order to blend into the Malaysian culture.

DON’T point using forefinger or index finger

Pointing using your forefinger is considered rude in Malaysia. Alternatively, you can use your thumb to point with the other four fingers curled inwards into your palm or use all five fingers with your palm exposed.

DON’T show public displays of affection

Better known as PDA for short, public affection is frowned upon in Malaysia, especially since the majority of the population are Muslims. Affectionate gestures with the opposite gender who are not one’s own spouse is considered wrong in Islam.

At most, you may see people holding hands and hugging for a short time, but beyond that is often avoided until behind closed doors. As a foreigner it may be tolerated, but you will likely attract some attention doing so in public.

DON’T practice too much physical contact

Just as we mentioned earlier, Malaysia’s popularity consists mostly of Muslims and it is forbidden to unnecessarily touch the opposite gender unless they are family or through marriage.

Some Muslims will refrain from accepting a handshake if it is from the opposite gender, while others will be bothered if you put a hand over their shoulder during a photograph. However, if they extend hands first, then it is fine to reciprocate it. When taking pictures with them, be sure to read the room and ask for their permission, when in doubt.

DON’T wear shoes inside a person’s home

This practice is a big no-no when visiting Malaysia, especially in homes and in religious places like temples or mosques. This is to avoid bringing in dirty gunk from the bottom of your shoe into places that are considered sacred or places that should be clean.

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DON’T visit homes unannounced

Another common practice between Malaysians is the practice of letting the host know if you intend on coming over. This is to ensure the host is aware, and has time to prepare the home so that it is sufficiently presentable. Often, Malaysians prepare snacks, or kuih, and drinks when people come over to show good hospitality.

Malaysia popular assorted sweet dessert or simply known as kueh or kuih

DO bow when expressing gratitude and when passing elders

Malaysians often bow their head as a body gesture of being thankful. This is an alternative to shaking hands, which may not be a preferred way of saying thank you for certain Malaysians.

In more formal situations, or when you are a guest at a person’s home, Malaysians tend to slightly bow while walking past the elderly. This is a way of showing respect to them, as it is essentially a non-verbal cue to replace saying “excuse me”.

DO be respectful in forests

Malaysian forests can be very sacred to some cultures in Malaysia, especially indigenous cultures, the Orang Asli. The forest is considered to have a spiritual tie to these people, so it is important to respect this by behaving in forests.

It is best to avoid plucking leaves unnecessarily and avoid saying negative things to mother nature in fear of the wrath of spiritual forces.

Malaysians also avoid having too much fun or being too loud in the forest as a sign of respect and to avoid losing focus from the right path.

Woman hiker exploring the majestic jungle of Kubah National Park, West Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia.

DO dress modestly

Most Malaysian women, especially the Muslims, tend to wear more conservative clothing, as it is considered a duty in Islam. It is important to remember to be considerate and avoid outrageous clothing, as some Malaysians are not used to it.

In more remote areas or the countryside like the East Coast, it is best to stick to wearing at least a shirt and pants that reach below the knee. In cities like Kuala Lumpur however, Malaysians tend to accommodate different fashion styles as there are more tourists visiting and the area is more culturally diverse.

At beaches, it is also uncommon to do topless sunbathing, but bikinis should be fine.

Do remember that Malaysia is quite hot and humid, so you should not need to have too many layers, otherwise you’d be drenched in sweat!

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – January 26, 2017

DO use your right hand when passing items and eating

Malaysians believe that the left hand is often impure, as it is used for cleaning our body. Because of this, the right hand is used to eat, pass or receive anything.

Even in circumstances where the left hand is accidentally used, you will often hear Malaysians apologising for using their left hand instead of their right hand.

DO learn some of the language

According to the 2019 EF English Proficiency Index, Malaysia ranked 26 out of 100 countries. Although Malaysia would be considered to have high proficiency in English, there are a lot of Malaysians who are still unable to converse fluently.

It might be hard to communicate with a hawker at a stall during your night market visits while in Malaysia.

To make things easier, it would be convenient if you could learn some Malay/ Malaysian terms. Sometimes, being able to speak Malay would help you get better prices while bargaining!

Here are some short, important phrases you should know!

  1. Berapa ringgit? (or Berapa harga?) / How much does this cost?
  2. Saya tidak faham. / I don’t understand.
  3. Mahal / Expensive
  4. Murah / Cheap
  5. Saya suka. / I like this (or that).
  6. Saya tidak suka. / I don’t like this (or that).
  7. Saya nak pergi … / I want to go to …
  8. Di mana …? / Where is …?
  9. Jauh / Far
  10. Dekat / Close (or near)
  11. Tandas / Toilet
  12. Saya alah. / I am allergic.
  13. Saya tak nak pedas. / I don’t want it spicy.
  14. Boleh murah lagi? / Can you lower the price?
  15. Saya nak beli. / I want to buy this (or that)
  16. Wang (or Ringgit or Duit) / Money
  17. Terima kasih. / Thank you.
  18. Maafkan saya. / Excuse me (or I’m sorry).
  19. Bahaya. / Danger
  20. Tolong saya. / Help me.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – March 16, 2019: People at Night Market, Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, or Jalan TAR, a famous place for locals and tourists for shopping.

Once you’ve abided by these do’s and don’ts, you’re on your way to blending in with Malaysian society and enjoying the rest of your trip with ease!

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