Every Cultural No-No in Malaysia That Travellers Should Know About

21 Dos and Don’ts in Malaysia That Travellers Should Know About

First time to visit Malaysia? This is what to keep in mind.

Malaysia is a vibrant and dynamic country that calls out to us with its tropical rainforests, sky-high towers, elegant temples, and lip-smacking food. It’s known for its scenic beauty as well as its cultural diversity, which allows for different ethnicities, languages, and religious beliefs to co-exist. But if you’re visiting this country for the first time, how do you blend in with the locals? 

Here, we’ve rounded up every major no-no that you should know about in Malaysia. Whether you’re a tourist planning a post-pandemic trip or an expat with some extra time to spare, you don’t have to be nervous about committing a cultural faux pas. Just follow these simple rules about the dos and don’ts in Malaysia for a smooth and easy time! 

Also read: 8 Reasons Why Malaysia is One of The Most Affordable Destinations to Travel to

Basic greetings and cultural etiquette in Malaysia

1. Remove your shoes before entering someone’s home

Image credit: Jarvell Jardey via Canva Pro

It’s fairly common for Malaysians to take their shoes off before entering a house or apartment. If you’re invited to someone else’s home as a guest, it’s only polite to follow this local custom. With this in mind, it helps to bring footwear that you can easily slip in and out of. Plus, you’ll want to be sure that your socks are, well, not too shabby for other people to see! 

2. Show the proper respect when greeting others

malaysian etiquette

Image credit: Antonio_Diaz via Canva Pro

Greetings have a lot to do with body language. In Malaysia, you might see the locals bring their right hand to their chest and offer a slight bow. This traditional way of greeting is known as  “salam,” a gesture that tells the other person, “I greet you from my heart.”

If you’re travelling to Malaysia for business purposes, it helps to know the basic etiquette when it comes to formal greetings and exchanging gifts. When greeting people who are older than you, nodding your head or slightly bowing shows reverence towards your superiors. Handshakes are also a friendly way to greet other people during social events. But if you’re a man greeting a Malaysian woman, you should avoid initiating a handshake unless she extends a hand to you first. 

3. Don’t touch the top of someone else’s head

Image credit: APRIL STUDIO via Canva Pro

We’re not sure what occasion or sudden impulse will lead you to put your hand on someone else’s head out of the blue — it’s a little inappropriate, for starters — but just so that we’re absolutely clear: Don’t touch people on the head in Malaysia.

It doesn’t matter if they’re a child and you want to pat them on the head affectionately. Aside from the fact that it’s a bit unusual to do that to someone you just met, the head is considered in many Asian cultures to be a sacred part of the body. It’s off-limits, and ignoring this can risk offence. 

4. Don’t give or receive objects with your left hand

malaysian etiquette

Image credit: BananaStock via Canva Pro

One huge no-no in Malaysia is using your left hand to pass around objects. If you need to pick up an object with one hand — let’s say, at the dinner table — then you should use your right hand, rather than your left. That’s because the left hand is considered unclean. It’s meant for cleansing and activities that are reserved for the bathroom if you get our drift. Naturally, you don’t want to ruin the moment by putting the wrong hand forward. 

Now, if you’re exchanging business cards at a meeting, you can present or receive a business card with both of your hands to show respect. 

5. Never give pork or alcohol as gifts

Image credit: mohdrais

Speaking of gift-giving, it’s generally polite to offer a small gift when you’re invited to someone’s home. Sweets, pastries, and chocolates are safe options in Malaysia, but always make sure to check the ingredients first. Regardless of your host’s religion or lifestyle, your gift should be halal and permissible for them to consume. So, you shouldn’t offer alcohol or anything that contains pig’s skin. 

Wrapped gifts are also appreciated, but they’re usually not opened in front of the giver. More importantly, avoid packaging your gifts in white or yellow wrapping paper. White is associated with death and mourning for Malays and Muslims, while yellow wrapping paper is the colour for Malaysian royalty. 

Like what we just mentioned in our previous point, you can present your gift with both hands to express your gratitude for their hospitality. 

Also read: 12 Must-Buy Souvenirs in Malaysia That Make The Perfect Gifts For Your Friends

6. Avoid showing displays of affection in public

malaysian etiquette

Image credit: ti-ja via Canva Pro

Public impressions matter a lot in Malaysian culture. As such, public displays of affection, especially between members of the opposite sex, tend to be frowned upon. As a visitor, while light hugs and pecks on the cheek are okay, avoid being overly affectionate in public. 

7. Don’t point with the forefinger

malaysian etiquette

Image credit: yongyuan via Canva Pro

Pointing with your forefinger is one of the major don’ts when it comes to Malaysian etiquette. The right forefinger cannot be used to gesture or address people, places and objects. Instead, use the thumb of the right hand with the four fingers folded under.

8. Don’t cross your legs in front of elders

Image credit: Ron Lach via Canva Pro

In the do’s and don’ts of Malaysian culture, crossing one’s legs is not an acceptable thing to do. Especially among women, don’t cross your legs in front of elders and hosts. It is considered rude. Likewise, do not step over someone who has their legs crossed on the floor. 

9. Don’t blow your nose at the table

malaysian etiquette

Image credit: South_agency via Canva Pro

Malaysian cuisine is often filled with rich flavours, but sometimes it can pack quite a punch when it comes to the spices. When a spicy dish has gotten your nose running, don’t blow your nose loudly. It’s considered disrespectful as well as disgusting among your peers. If you want to blow your nose, be discreet about it or leave the room.

10. Don’t show the bottom of your feet to anyone

Image credit: Eduard Gorichev via Canva Pro

The feet are considered one of the dirtiest parts of the body in Malaysia. In the list of do’s and don’ts in Malaysia, don’t show the soles of your feet to anyone. Likewise, don’t point at someone’s feet and put your feet up on the table.

Also read: 10 things that you should avoid in Delhi

Must-know tips for travelling in Malaysia

11. Use a traveller SIM card

do's and don'ts of malaysia

Image credit: urbazon via Canva Pro

Whether you’re admiring the skyscrapers in Kuala Lumpur or chilling in the tropical paradise of Langkawi, you’ll need a stable internet connection to explore Malaysia to the fullest. True, you can find many establishments in the country that offer WiFi access. But once you start visiting rural areas, you might appreciate the high-speed internet, as well as the life-saving option to call a local number in case of an emergency. 

Thankfully, it’s quite easy to get a SIM card in Malaysia. You can buy one at the airport or in various convenience stores around the country. Skip the costs you might accrue from international roaming charges — we all know your money is better spent elsewhere. 

Also read:

12. Avoid getting into unmetered taxis

do's and don'ts malaysia

Image credit: Mlenny via Canva Pro

Sadly, there are some taxi drivers who refuse to switch their metres on and charge tourists at overpriced rates. For this reason, we strongly recommend that you take advantage of ride-sharing apps like Grab and EasyTaxi instead. Not only are these taxi services incredibly easy to use, but they’re also much cheaper than your average taxi. But if you’re really out of options, make sure to check with the driver if he will be using the metre before you get into the car.

13. Use vacation rentals to save up on money

Image credit: Andrea Davis via Canva Pro

Finding a place to stay for the night? Vacation rentals are a great way to save up your travel budget. Instead of staying at hotels, vacation rentals will grant you better accommodation with varying price ranges. You also have more freedom in catering to your needs as a traveller as well, at the cost of a small price. Arguably, many vacation rentals users in the country have said to save up on hundreds of dollars per night. 

Also read: 16 Instagrammable Places in Malaysia: Where to go, Eat and Stay in KL and Klang!

14. Use the public transport when in the city

dos and don'ts in malaysia

Image credit: razaklatif via Canva Pro

What’s a better way to explore Kuala Lumpur than Malaysia’s public transport system. It is convenient, relatively fast and most of all, it’s affordable! Buses usually run at 15-20 minute intervals, and iconic attractions like KLCC, Batu Caves, and Bukit Bintang are accessible via train! Most of the train stations in Kuala Lumpur are interconnected, and switching between lines is really easy. Depending on your itinerary, you can take the KTM, Monorail, the LRT or the MRT. 

Also read: Where to Travel in Malaysia: Top Destinations From Every State in the Country

15. Be mindful of your belongings

no no malaysia

Image credit: pixelshot via Canva Pro

While Malaysia is relatively safe for travellers, try not to flaunt your belongings or leave them lying around. Pickpocketing is not extremely rampant in Malaysia, but it does happen sometimes. In any case, it doesn’t hurt to be extra careful as a tourist. Observe your surroundings, keep a watchful eye on your valuables, and you should be fine! 

16. Dress appropriately when visiting places of worship

dos and don'ts of malaysia

Image credit: Prasit Rodphan via Canva Pro

If you’re visiting mosques during your trip, then you should respect their dress code. This is part of Malaysian etiquette travellers should take note of. 

Men should wear shirts that will cover their elbows and long trousers that reach their knees. Meanwhile, women should wear loose clothes that will cover their arms, legs, knees, and shoulders; for this, you can opt for a long-sleeved shirt and ankle-length trousers or skirts. Women should also cover their hair with a headscarf, which some mosques provide. 

Before entering a mosque, always remember to remove your footwear first. 

17. Never bring up politics

no no malaysia

Image credit: Odua Images via Canva Pro

Image credit: Odua Images via Canva Pro

Take care not to mention politics during your conversations with the locals. It goes without saying, but as a tourist who is simply visiting the country, you shouldn’t criticise their government or bring up sensitive issues that will make the locals uncomfortable. That’s a very big no-no in Malaysia. 

Just as you probably don’t enjoy it when foreigners voice their unwarranted opinions about your country, think about how Malaysians might feel if you start making judgments about their culture. Not only is it far from your place to do so, but it’s also extremely rude. This is a matter of having common decency — not just in Malaysia, but in any country in the world, really. 

18. Try the hawker stalls

do's and don'ts in malaysia

Image credit: SvetlanaSF via Canva Pro

Hawker stalls are an incredible way to dive into Malaysia’s food scene. For such a small price of RM4-5 per dish (S$1.26-1.58), you are heavily rewarded with an explosion of flavours. Hawker food is so much better than fancy restaurants when you want a quick bite. Everything is made fresh upon order, and sometimes you can share bigger portions when you’re with friends. 

Try some of these dishes when you’re at a hawker stall: char kuey teow, Indian rojak, nasi lemak, wantan mee, Penang assam laksa, Ramly burgers, chicken rice, fried bee hoon and more! If you’re up for dessert afterwards, grab a bowl of ais kacang, tong sui or cendol

Also read: What to Eat in Malaysia: 15 Malaysian Food Staples For First-Time Visitors

19. Don’t bring durian up to your hotel room

no no malaysia

Image credit: engdaowichitpunya via Canva Pro

Hailed as the “king of fruits,” durian is a delicious fruit indeed. But it also carries a distinct and very pungent odour that many hoteliers don’t want wafting inside their premises. That’s why, even before you enter a hotel in Malaysia, you can already see the clear signs forbidding you from bringing durian up to your room. 

Still, durian-lovers needn’t worry much. Nobody will infringe upon your freedom to consume durian as much as you like, just not in your hotel room! 

20. Before you tip, ask!

Image credit: Polina Tankilevitch via Canva Pro

For pubs, restaurants, cafes and other relevant establishments in Malaysia, tipping is not needed. The bill will already include a 10% service charge and a 6% Goods and Services Tax. As for the taxi drivers and hotels, you have to pay the exact amount without extra tips. But if you feel like you’ve been provided with great service, ask before you tip. It would be greatly appreciated. 

21. Give Malaysian cuisine the respect it deserves

do's and don'ts in malaysia

Image credit: nazar_ab via Canva Pro

Eating and drinking your way through the country is one of the best things to do in Malaysia — a melting pot of Malay, Chinese, and Indian influences that is shown on every plate, bursting with colours and flavour. Malaysia enjoys a rich gastronomic scene that can take your senses for a whirl, from the fragrant aroma of coconut milk in nasi lemak to the tender meat falling off the bone in rendang. To be picky and choosy with your food is to miss out on all the mouth-watering delicacies that this country has to offer. So, if you hit the Malaysian streets, you better be prepared to eat! 

Note: Food can be a sensitive topic that is close to many Malaysians’ hearts. With this in mind, try not to get into passionate debates or arguments with the locals about food. Eat well, but always respect Malaysian cuisine! 

Also read: These Are The Best Dishes to Try in Every Malaysian State

Image credit: kazhiya via Canva Pro

We hope this basic list of dos and don’ts in Malaysia will prove helpful for your future trips! Keep watching our website for more travel updates on Malaysia coming your way soon. 

Featured image credit: MasterLu via Canva Pro

About Authors

Tiffany Conde
Tiffany Conde

Tiffany wrote articles on travel, food, and pop culture for TripZilla. As she plans her next adventure, she enjoys writing about the coolest places to stay around the world and where to find them.


Natasha Effendy
Natasha Effendy

Natasha is a wordsmith and digital content creator who's been trying to write her way into the adventure of a lifetime. If she's not writing, you'd definitely catch her nursing her addiction to romance and fantasy novels with a cup of tea.