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

12 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: Eight 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Must-know tips for travelling in Malaysia

6. Use a traveller SIM card

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

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. 

7. Avoid getting into unmetered taxis

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

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. 

8. Be mindful of your  belongings

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! 

9. Dress appropriately when visiting places of worship

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

If you’re visiting mosques during your trip, then you should respect their dress code. 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. 

10. Never bring up politics

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

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. 

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

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! 

12. Give Malaysian cuisine the respect it deserves

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

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

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. 

About Author

Tiffany Conde
Tiffany Conde

Tiffany is a writer based in Manila. When she was younger, she knew she wanted to write stories or go on adventures—now, she's learning to do both. She enjoys being swept up in books that spark her curiosity for new places, both real and imaginary.

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