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 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
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
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
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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