Whether you’re a first-time visitor or a seasoned traveler, navigating the cultural norms and customs of Malaysia can be both exciting and daunting.
That’s why I’ve put together a list of the dos and don’ts to help you make the most of your time and avoid any cultural faux pas.
From the proper way to greet someone to the foods you should try, I’ve got you covered.
So whether you’re planning a trip to Kuala Lumpur or the beaches of Langkawi, read on for my top tips on how to be a savvy and respectful traveler in Malaysia.
Key Things To Know About Malaysia
The first thing to know is that Malaysia is a multi-ethnic and multicultural country with about half of the population being ethnically Malay.
There are also large populations of Chinese Malaysian and Indian Malaysian people.
This means that Malaysia is a mixing pot of cultures, traditions and religions.
As a whole, Malaysia is largely a Muslim country. In fact, 61% of the population is Muslim.
In general, Muslim countries tend to be quite conservative and you should try to respect the local customs where possible.
You will find that some parts of Malaysia are much more relaxed and laid back than others.
As an example, Kuala Lumpur is very relaxed and you’ll even find bars here where alcohol is served.
It’s not the same story in more rural places though.
As a whole, Malaysian people are very friendly and so as long as you’re aware of the difference in customs then you’ll be absolutely fine.
Let’s move on to what you should and shouldn’t do in Malaysia…
1. Don’t Shake Hands With Muslim Women
Malaysia is largely a Muslim country so you’ll probably come across a lot of Muslim women.
Due to their beliefs, a lot of Muslim women will not shake the hand of a man (it’s fine to shake hands with another women though).
Many of these women will be wearing a hijab (headscarf) meaning they’re easy to spot.
Remember that not every Muslim women will wear a hijab so if you’re not sure, it’s best to wait for them to shake your hand so as not to cause offense.
To avoid any issues, always allow the woman to initiate the handshake and if they don’t then you can smile and nod as an alternative greeting.
In Islam, physical contact between men and women is discouraged if you’re not married.
These days, you’ll find that many women are fine with shaking your hand but many are not.
Handshakes from a man to a man or a woman to a woman are common and shouldn’t be an issue.
2. Avoid Public Displays of Affection
Whilst in Malaysia, try to keep public displays of affection to a minimum.
This includes things like hugging or kissing in public as it is generally considered to be inappropriate.
Hand holding, a quick peck, or a brief embrace is fine but you may make locals feel uncomfortable if you go any further. This applies even if you’re a married couple.
It’s not uncommon to see signs prohibiting public displays of affection in Malaysia such as in a shopping mall or park.
It’s worth mentioning that, in general, the capital Kuala Lumpur is a lot more relaxed about this kinda stuff than other areas.
3. Remove Your Shoes Before Entering A Malaysian Home
If you’re lucky enough to be invited into a Malaysian home then, first of all lucky you, and second of all, remember to take off your shoes.
This custom is actually common across the whole of Asia and isn’t just a Malaysian thing.
Essentially, you just need to take your shoes off before you step inside the house as it’s seen as respectful.
If you don’t, you’ll come across as really rude!
4. Dress Modestly At Religious Sites
In general, you don’t need to dress modestly at all times in Malaysia especially if you’re going to be in Kuala Lumpur.
It is important to dress modestly if you choose to visit places of worship though including mosques and temples.
This is a sign of respect and you probably won’t be allowed to enter if you’re not dressed appropriately.
You need to cover up your shoulders and knees when entering religious sites. You may also be asked to remove your shoes when entering a mosque but not always.
As I said, you don’t need to dress modestly elsewhere in the city. You’ll often see non-Muslim Malaysians and tourists wandering around in shorts and t-shirts.
5. Greet People With A Smile & Nod
The most common way to greet people in Malaysia is with a smile and a nod. You can also use the word ‘salaam’ which is a greeting.
It’s also customary to use a person’s proper titles, the same way we might use Mr, Mrs and Miss in English.
Here are the titles you need to know:
- Mr – Encik
- Mrs – Puan
- Miss – Cik
You might want to address anyone older than you as ‘pakcik’ (male) or ‘makcik’ (female).
These kinda mean ‘uncle’ and ‘auntie’ and you may find that people younger than you may address you this way.
6. Don’t Use Your Forefinger To Point At Things
Another interesting Malaysian custom is that it is actually seen as rude to point at something with your forefinger.
In many countries around the world (including my own), it’s pretty standard to point out an item or a person with your forefinger.
Well, not in Malaysia.
If you need to point to something then try to use your entire hand to indicate the direction. You can also use your thumb to point instead.
7. Try The Local Cuisine
Is any trip to Malaysia really complete without trying out the local food (the answer is, of course, no).
Malaysia is a true melting pot of cultures and cuisines so you’re in for a real treat.
Here’s some of the must-try dishes:
The national dish of Malaysia, Nasi Lemak is a fragrant coconut rice dish served with sambal (spicy sauce), fried anchovies, peanuts, cucumber and a boiled egg.
It’s the perfect combination of sweet, spicy and savory flavors.
Laksa is a popular spicy noodle soup dish made with rice noodles, seafood and a rich and creamy coconut milk broth.
Every state in Malaysia has its own version of laksa, so be sure to try them all!
Roti Canal is a flaky and crispy flatbread served with a curry dipping sauce. Watch the skilled chefs toss and flip the dough to make the perfect roti!
A frothy and creamy milk tea that’s a staple in Malaysia. The tea is pulled and mixed until it’s smooth and creamy and it’s the perfect beverage to enjoy with your meal.
8. Haggle At Markets
Chances are that you’ll visit a market or two whilst in Malaysia. One of the most popular ones is Central Market in Kuala Lumpur where you’ll find traditional handicrafts and souvenirs.
Haggling is very commonplace in Malaysia so definitely don’t accept the first price you’re offered.
Many vendors will inflate the price significantly for tourists so haggling really is a must to avoid overpaying.
9. Learn Some Phrases In Malay
Although a lot of people in Malaysia speak English, especially in the touristy areas, it’s still worth learning a few words and phrases in the local language.
I’ve done this a few times when I’ve visited new countries and the locals always seem to respond to it well. It shows respect and that you’ve actually put some effort in.
The main language spoken in Malaysia is Malay, also referred to as Bahasa Malaysia.
Here’s some common phrases in Malay:
- Hello – Salaam
- Goodbye – Selamat tinggal
- Thank you – Terima kasih
- You’re welcome – Sama-sama
- Excuse me – Maafkan saya
- Sorry – Maaf
- Yes – Ya
- No – Tidak
- How are you? – Apa khabar?
11. Don’t Insult The Royal Family
In Malaysia, it’s actually illegal to criticize the Royal Family and you could end up doing jail time if you’re really unlucky.
People have been arrested for this in the past so avoid making any negative comments whether in person or online about the Royal Family.
13. Don’t Litter
Malaysia has very strict anti-littering laws and fines that are enforced on anyone caught littering.
Even if it’s just a small wrapper or cigarette, it doesn’t matter you could get a fine if you’re caught.
You’ll be fined up to RM 500 ($112) for your first offense and up to RM 1,000 ($224) for any subsequent offenses.
That’s a pretty hefty fine so avoid it at all costs by placing any rubbish in a trash can or in your bag.
These laws tend to be enforced by local councils and security guards.
12. Don’t Take Photos Of People Without Their Permission
Always ask before taking a photo of someone as it may make them uncomfortable.
This particularly applies in religious and cultural settings e.g. in a mosque or temple.
Most locals will be fine with you snapping a photo of them for your Instagram page but be wary that it may upset some people.
If you do manage to get some cool photos in Kuala Lumpur then you might be needing these Kuala Lumpur Instagram captions.
14. Don’t Get Drunk in Public
A huge part of Malaysia’s population is Muslim and, in general, Muslim people don’t drink alcohol.
As Malaysia is actually only 61% Muslim, there’s still a lot of people who do drink so you will find that alcohol is readily available especially in the big cities.
You’ll find plenty of exciting bars to spend the evening in Malaysia.
Although you’re allowed to drink alcohol, it’s best to avoid getting drunk in public as it could offend the local Muslim population.
Having a few drinks isn’t an issue at all but it’s best to limit it if you can.
If you really want to get sloshed then maybe buy some drinks and drink them in your hotel room instead to avoid offending the locals.
Another thing to consider is that drinking alcohol is really expensive in Malaysia as it’s heavily taxed so you probably won’t want to buy more than a few drinks anyway.
10. Only Wear A Bikini On The Beach
Malaysia has a range of breathtaking beaches that you might want to visit. It’s great to know that it is fine to wear a bikini when you’re on the beach or relaxing by the pool.
The key thing to know is that you should always put something over your bikini when you leave the beach or enter a restaurant.
It might be seen as inappropriate if you just walk around the streets or enter a restaurant in a bikini.
Malaysian people tend to cover up more and you won’t see many Malaysian people wearing bikinis on the beaches.
In fact, most Muslim women will be fully covered, even on the beach.
It’s fine for tourists or non-Muslims to wear bikinis and you shouldn’t have any issues doing this on the beach itself or by a pool.
15. You Don’t Need To Tip In Malaysia
I know you Americans feel like you’re committing a crime when you don’t leave a tip but it’s really not a thing in Malaysia.
Servers don’t rely on tips to make a living so they don’t expect them.
Of course, if you received exceptional service and you really want to leave a tip to show your appreciation then the server will happily accept.
You may find from time to time they might chase you down the street thinking you left it by mistake though.
16. Don’t Touch Anyone On The Head
I mean, you probably won’t try to do this anyway but just in case…
Avoid touching people on the head at all costs. Not only because it’s just a bit weird but also because in Malaysia the head is considered to be the most sacred part of the body.
Whether someone is in your way or you like their hair or any other reason you might think to touch someone’s head, just don’t.
It’s seen as super rude to touch anyones head and that goes for children too.
17. Avoid Using Public Taxis
Avoid using public taxis in Malaysia unless you love overpaying for stuff.
Instead use the Grab app. It’s basically Asia’s version of Uber.
I used Grab the whole time I was in Malaysia and it was super easy to use and really cheap.
A few times I got quotes from public taxis and they always charged me 4x the price on Grab so I just stopped asking after a while and went straight to Grab.
Many taxi drivers try to overcharge tourists and even sometimes refuse to use the meter in order to scam you!
And that’s it!
Thanks for reading this post on the do’s and don’ts in Malaysia which includes tons of tips on how to be a responsible traveler in Malaysia.
It’s super important to respect the local culture and customs when traveling to avoid offending the locals and by following the do’s and don’ts above, you’ll have no problems!
If you’re looking for your next place to visit then check out my list of the most Instagrammable cities in the world! I promise there’s a few you won’t have heard of!