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What Not To Do While Travelling To Malaysia

Have you ever travelled to a new country only to be confused by certain customs and practices? Walked the roads of a new city uncertain as to how you should behave? Every country has its own customs, standards of behaviour and taboos and often times they remain undiscovered until those practices are breached. Amidst questioning looks, confused stares and, sometimes even, expressions of angry disbelief, a traveller learns fast what is not acceptable in the places they visit.

Getting Lost in the Customs of Malaysia

Malaysia travel

Malaysia is no different. Quickly becoming one of the hottest and most popular travel destinations, it is a multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-ethnic country rich in variety of foods, traditions, and history.

With a core society of indigenous Malay, Indian and Chinese, the culture of Malaysia has also found influence from other areas of the world, from Britain to Persia, Europe to the Arabic nations. With so much diversity it can get confusing for a traveller to know exactly what customs to follow.

Before we first visited Malaysia, we had heard tons of ‘dos and don’ts’ from fellow travellers and we supplemented that with lots of research on the issue ourselves. While we didn’t notice all of these rules in play, possibly because we spent most of our time in the tourist-friendly Georgetown, Penang, we definitely were aware of some stark differences in practices between our own culture and that of the people in Malaysia. We’re sure if we had stayed longer, we may have noticed an even more stark contrast.

If you’re looking to make sure you don’t breach any behavioural rules while visiting Malaysia, the following will give you a good idea of what not to do in Malaysia.

Be Aware of Gestures Considered Rude or Obscene

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Gestures are a difficult thing to control as they often come automatically. When in Malaysia, it’s good to avoid a few gestures that are not acceptable in Malaysia but may be commonly acceptable in other parts of the world.

For instance, the head is considered the most sacred part of the body and as such, should be respected. Touching the head of an adult or passing an object above someone’s head is considered rude and disrespectful.

While common in a lot of western cultures, using the forefinger to point is seen as a rude in Malaysia and instead, make a fist with your thumb over top the fingers and point using the thumb as the directional guide. We noticed about half of the people would point with their finger and the rest with their thumb over fingers. We’ve also found that in many places “pointing in a direction” with your whole hand open-palm, works very well.

Pounding your fist into the palm of your other hand is an obscene gesture to some people in Malaysia and should also be avoided.

Take Into Account Gender-Based Considerations

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An important consideration in many places is the difference in acceptable behaviour from, and between, men and women. In Malaysia, men and women should avoid embracing and kissing in public. Public behaviour and image is incredibly important and public displays of affection are not considered appropriate.

Women should also take care in the beachwear they choose. Topless sunbathing is not allowed and while some tourist areas allow bikinis, many Malay women will swim fully clothed.

Interaction between unfamiliar men and women also comes with taboos. Don’t be offended if a member of the opposite sex does not return an extended hand for a handshake. In Muslim culture, physical contact between members of the opposite sex is not encouraged and may not be reciprocated. If you are a man, wait for the woman to offer her hand first. With a country as diverse in culture as Malaysia, it’s not always easy to identify what beliefs a particular person holds.

Interestingly, it is also important that a woman never touch a monk, even accidentally brushing past, or hand a monk something as they are then required to fast and perform a ritual cleansing.

Remember Table Manners and Guest Etiquette

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Table manners and guest etiquette change significantly from country to country, and even sometimes city to city. What you have been told as a child may not always apply to another country or culture. In Malaysia, there are several important rules to remember when acting as a guest.

You may be used to showing signs of embarrassment when burping as it is often considered rude to do so in public in many Western countries, but in Malaysia burping after a meal is typically acceptable and a regular part of dining etiquette. On the flipside, wearing your shoes upon entering someone’s home, a mosque or a temple is a definite faux-pas. Remove your shoes before entering a house or place of worship as a sign of respect.

A related custom is ensuring the soles of your feet do not point at people or sacred images. When in public, ensure that your feet are facing towards the ground and are not propped up exposing the soles to others.

In Malaysia, there are apparently fairly strict customs for using your hands to eat. Always eat with your right hand, even if you are left-handed, as the left hand in Malaysian culture is usually reserved for bathroom-related behaviours. If you are left handed and cannot get used to the right-handed way, ask for utensils.

 

While there are more customs, traditions and taboos to be encountered in Malaysia, these are some common and more relevant behavioural rules to take into consideration while visiting the country. As a traveller it’s hard to know all the ins and outs of a culture, especially one as diverse and multi-ethnic as Malaysia, but taking time to learn the dos and don’ts, and making an effort to incorporate them while travelling, can make a huge difference in the way in which you are able to interact with the locals you meet and the impression you leave as you go.

 

Have you noticed any of these customs while in Malaysia? What other customs and practices have you noticed differ from your own culture while travelling abroad? Comment below and let us know!

 

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44 replies
  1. Duke Stewart
    Duke Stewart says:

    This was a cool post to read, considering we were in Malaysia last year and will be there for a few days in the fall. We also visited Penang and had the most wonderful food experiences when there. When touring the Tropical Spice Garden, the handshake kinda took me and my wife aback when men wouldn’t share her hand.

    It didn’t affect me so much being the man and getting all the benefits of all customs, but I had to feel a bit for my wife who was mostly ignored by people. Sometimes, it’s similar here in Korea but I think Malaysia’s definitely more extreme in putting men first and foremost ahead.

    Thanks for sharing this! I hope our paths can cross while you’re in Korea.
    Duke Stewart recently posted…Behind Every Man, There’s a WomanMy Profile

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    • onemoderncouple
      onemoderncouple says:

      It was definitely noticeable for us in Malaysia more so than some places, but it does seem to be fairly common in many countries. We were in Northern Thailand and got stuck in a rainstorm under an awning with some Thai locals and Macrae got offered food and drink but Carolann was virtually ignored. It’s definitely an interesting experience.

      Reply
  2. Mia
    Mia says:

    Great post on customs in Malaysia. A lot of novice travelers don’t educate themselves on customs and proper etiquette. I try to do a fair amount of research before I travel. Thanks for saving me a little time!
    Mia recently posted…Barcelona RevisitedMy Profile

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    • onemoderncouple
      onemoderncouple says:

      Glad you found it helpful! It’s always hard to know which are practiced fervently and which are not as strict but we find it’s good to play it safe until you can gauge the area you’re staying in and the country as a whole!

      Reply
    • Ken Morrison
      Ken Morrison says:

      These customs are displayed through quite a bit of South East Asia. they are identical to the ways in Thailand, for example.
      So many foreigners come to Asia and think they can act the same way as at home and then wonder why the get into trouble.
      When I came to live in S.E. Asia I made a point of learning the customs but you can still get it wrong.

      Reply
  3. Lesley
    Lesley says:

    I didn’t know a lot of these gestures that are considered rude there. This is very helpful. I knew that the head was considered sacred and I think I could avoid that one but pointing using my forefinger could easily slip my mind. It would be great if there was a master list of these things for countries around the world.
    Lesley recently posted…Treasure Island, San Francisco BayMy Profile

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  4. Meg Jerrard
    Meg Jerrard says:

    Thanks for this list – hand gestures I’ve come to realize is a really big one around the world, and what’s TOTALLY acceptable in one place is completely the opposite in another. Really can get you into some trouble abroad! Had no idea that touching the head of someone else was rude – not that I really do that to strangers anyway 😀 … but I wouldn’t have thought twice about passing an object over someone’s head if we were in a crowded or small space.

    Main point out of this – research the customs of the culture you are visiting!

    Thanks guys!
    Meg Jerrard recently posted…Terrorism is Real. Why You Need a Travel Health Insurance Policy with Terrorism CoverageMy Profile

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    • onemoderncouple
      onemoderncouple says:

      It’s so hard to learn them all as well and even when you think you’ve got them down, there are always cultural subtleties you just won’t know until you slip up. e.g. in Korea, it’s rude to touch the head of someone older or with more authority – and that extends to anything worn on the head, like a baseball cap, etc!!!

      Reply
  5. Jen Seligmann
    Jen Seligmann says:

    Really great post! It is so important to have at the very least a basic understanding of the culture, etiquette and traditions of a country you are visiting. We expect it in our own countries but so many people go on holidays and ignore the local customs. This reminds me of one of my favourite quotes : “If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home.” – James Michener
    Jen Seligmann recently posted…Driving New Zealand’s Wild West Coast – Things to See & DoMy Profile

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  6. Will
    Will says:

    Great tips…you dont want to go around offending people in their country like an arrogant tourist…immersing yourself in the customs is very important, although I believe the most important thing is acknowledgment when told things you dont know as there’s a level of understanding that you’re a foreigner, making the effort is more often more critical than doing everything to the letter of the law.
    Will recently posted…10 YEARS IN BANGKOK – PING PONG BALLS AND LADYBOYSMy Profile

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    • onemoderncouple
      onemoderncouple says:

      Very true! We’ve encountered very few instances where we’ve observed someone being offended by a genuine mistake made by a traveller. As long as you show effort, most people laugh off the mistakes and correct your errors politely!

      Reply
  7. Orana
    Orana says:

    A lot of the customs in Malaysia are similar in Thailand and Laos, especially the head and the feet. I have noticed though that if you don´t fully immerse yourself in the culture it´s usually not so much of a problem or a shock. It is nice to see when the locals notice that you are taking care to be respectful though. Georgetown in Penang is amazing. We love it there!

    Reply
    • onemoderncouple
      onemoderncouple says:

      That’s very true – locals do seem to notice and appreciate an effort to immerse yourself and follow their customs and they tend to be forgiving and even show humour when you slip up!

      Reply
    • onemoderncouple
      onemoderncouple says:

      We agree! Learning about different cultures is one of the best parts of travel – seeing all the intricacies of a collective group of people and the differences from others is fascinating! Have an amazing time in SE Asia and let us know if there’s anything we can help with if/when you head to Thailand (that’s where we know best 🙂 )

      Reply
  8. Sand In My Suitcase
    Sand In My Suitcase says:

    Good tips! We recently visited a little of Malaysia – and hopefully didn’t breach any etiquette rules while there :-). Not pointing your feet in the direction of a Buddha also applies when visiting any Buddhist temples (that’s a sign of disrespect). We learned that in Thailand – you have to kneel, with feet pointing backwards, rather than sit cross-legged with your feet in front.
    Sand In My Suitcase recently posted…Bears at Joffre Lakes?My Profile

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    • onemoderncouple
      onemoderncouple says:

      It seems as though most tourist areas in Malaysia are pretty forgiving of any faux pas! That’s a great addition to the list – we’ll be sure to remember to keep our soles back!

      Reply
    • onemoderncouple
      onemoderncouple says:

      It definitely makes for navigating the customs a little tricky! We’d ask for directions from one person and he’d point a finger, then we’d ask another person and they’d use the thumb over palm… we just always tried to follow things the best we could!

      Reply
  9. Stacey jean Inion
    Stacey jean Inion says:

    While staying at a guest house in the Philippines, we noticed that our cleaning lady was tearfully very upset. Apparently, the American supervisor had unknowingly offended her by summoning her with an single, upraised pointer finger. We let the supervisor know who quickly made an earnest apology. All’s well that ends well. Better though to be informed. Thanks for the informative post…applicable in many places throughout the Muslim world and SE Asia.
    Stacey jean Inion recently posted…A Mother-Daughter Cozumel GetawayMy Profile

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    • onemoderncouple
      onemoderncouple says:

      We agree – they are incredibly forgiving! We’ve always tried to be respectful and keep etiquette and customs in mind, but sometimes you just accidentally slip right back to the behaviours you are accustomed to!

      Reply
  10. Stefan
    Stefan says:

    Sleeveless tops and dressing modestly. After Thailand/ Philippines/ Cambodia/ Laos/ Vietnam, we got so used to wearing sleeveless tops during the hot, humid months. But in KL, we felt so self conscious doing the same. It’s a lot more conservative here and we “dressed down” (ie T shirts instead).

    Reply
  11. Melanie
    Melanie says:

    Great post! We’re currently in Malaysia (Tioman Island). It’s so beautiful here! I read some posts that you should dress modestly, etc. In KL there are so many cultures and I dressed what I felt like because nobody seem to care. There were people fully covered, others with hotpants and sleeveless shirts. Even here on Tioman Island people are used to tourists and it doesn’t matter what you wear. I totally agree with the hands. It’s so difficult! We’re so used to point to something with our fingers and whenever I want to show something here I really have to think twice before I do something with my hands 😉
    Melanie recently posted…5 Favorite Travel BooksMy Profile

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    • onemoderncouple
      onemoderncouple says:

      We did notice how accustomed they are to tourists and how patient they are with us forgetting, or ignoring, some of their customs. It’s nice not to have to over-worry but like you, we still try to adhere to at least some of them…even though we did our fair share of accidental finger-pointing!

      Reply
  12. Fatima
    Fatima says:

    A well written post. These are the general customs and traditions in the Muslim world that includes Malaysia too since it is dominated by the Muslims. It’s always good to read and research about a place before going there and respecting their customs is a good thing to do. I visited Malaysia 2 years ago and had a lovely trip.

    Fatima | http://www.blogsbyfa.com

    Reply
  13. Danial
    Danial says:

    One unique custom among Malaysians is that we do not call elders by name or adding a “Mr” or “Mrs” but we affectionately call them “Uncle” or “Auntie” as a sign of respect even though they’re not your uncle or aunt. This also applies to someone who looks older than you but not as old as your parents where you would call them “abang” or “kakak” (brother or sister in Malay, respectively).

    So, if you happen to need to ask a random person about directions you can start with “Uncle, do you know where the nearest bus stop is?”
    Danial recently posted…5 Scenic Driving Experiences In MalaysiaMy Profile

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  14. yi07
    yi07 says:

    most of what u have pointed out applies to the muslims of malaysia… not the non muslims… we have no issue with eating with either hand nor shaking hands with women nor pointing with the index finger. i refrain from burping in public but this seems to be more individual. the only thing i can agree with that can be applied generally is the shoes thing… yeah pretty much ALL of us take off our shoes at home oh and the feet up thing. another note the pounding the fist in your hand thing is actually ‘open palm to top of fist (i.e. where the thumb n index finger curl around each other)’ it’s akin to a middle finger (not exactly though… similar)

    Reply
  15. Nani
    Nani says:

    I am traveling in October. I will be going to George Town Malaysia and also Cambodia.
    I will be traveling alone for the first 4 days and with my boyfriend the next 4 days. I read a bit about the does and don’ts of public affection. Will be hard! I am super affectionate. but while I am alone…. what should I expect? Being a woman and very independent, I planned on touring many places but now I just want to be sure I don’t get my self in trouble. Recap for single tourist please!

    Reply
    • onemoderncouple
      onemoderncouple says:

      You’ll be fine, there are many independent women who travel to Malaysia all the time. Panang is for the most part a safe place, like any city in the world you just have to be smart and don’t put yourself in bad situations… Don’t think anyone will say anything about the public affection but saying that sometimes you just need to respect the locals and try not to make it obvious, jut be respectful and you won’t have a problem.

      Reply
  16. Feez Hussain
    Feez Hussain says:

    Hi, I’m Malaysian. If anyone has any questions to ask about Malaysia or getting lost in our cultures, feel free to contact me. I know how confusing it would be for the tourists to adapt but don’t be scared guys it’s not as hard as it sounds. You are MOST welcome to Malaysia, Truly Asia!

    Reply
  17. Malaysian turtle
    Malaysian turtle says:

    Remove your shoes upon entering someone’s house . Shake hands with your right hand . That’s all . The rest are just nonsense .

    Reply

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