10 Do's & Don'ts in Malaysia

Explore Malaysia like a pro! Get essential tips on cultural dos & don'ts to enhance your visit & respect local customs. Perfect for travelers to Malaysia.

Tobi Miles
July 5, 2024
Explore Malaysia like a pro! Get essential tips on cultural dos & don'ts to enhance your visit & respect local customs. Perfect for travelers to Malaysia.

Do's and Don'ts in Malaysia, Cultural Faux pas to AVOID! Malaysia is a wonderful & colourful place with a relaxed attitude overall. However, there are still many cultural nuances that you should be aware of to enrich your trip and not offend anyone! For example toasting is not a common practice in Malaysia. The country’s large Muslim population does not drink alcohol.

Top 10 Cultural do’s and Don’t’s for Malaysia.

1. DO - Wear Appropriate Clothing!

I have seen my people fall into error with this one, especially western tourists from the U.K , U.S.A and Australia! The goal is not to look like a nun but to just wear relaxed, casual clothing as you would normally. The main variations come if you plan on visiting Historic Landmarks of religious significance, anywhere in which you see a Buddha is usually a good clue. This includes Temples, Monasteries and surrounding areas.

In these places you will be expected to cover your shoulders and knees and sometimes even remove your shoes and socks. The temples are sacred places of worship even though you may see many tourists dressed inappropriately here, it is considered to be extremely disrespectful.

Appropriately dressed woman | By RahimMngwaya via Wikimedia Commons

Swimwear and Bikini’s on the beaches in Southeast Asia is perfectly fine! However, don’t fall foul to walking around the surrounding streets or towns in your bikini & swimwear, no matter the weather!  Even though someone may not mention it to you, this is probable to cause offence to the Malaysian people.

Overall, Lightweight and comfortable clothing made from Cotton or other natural fabrics is the most suitable whilst travelling around Southeast Asia. It’s comfy, easy to pack and doesn’t make you sweat as much! Malaysian's traditionally dress conservatively, so dressing appropriately shows cultural sensitivity, which will help you along your way!

In Hindu Areas

If you visit Batu Caves Kuala Lumpur, get there early in the morning to avoid the crowds and use the same rules spoke of above. Especially make sure you wear longer trousers (U.K) or pants (U.S.A) and remember to take off your shoes if you wish to enter the worship/prayer area.

Batu Caves Kuala Lumpur | By Bernard Spragg via Wikimedia Commons

2. Do - Ask Before, taking photos of locals.

Lots of tourists love going up to the people of south east Asia and even monks posing and snapping photos with them for Instagram etc. Although most Malaysian people would be ok with this as long as it’s not disrespectful. It is best to ask to avoid offending them.

The Malaysian people tend to smile often even when shy or uncomfortable, so don’t ever presume it’s okay to take a picture of someone. If you ask and receive a nod with a warm smile not a nervous one, then it’s ok! Snap, Snap to your hearts content!

Friendly people in Malaysia | By Vyacheslav Argenberg via Wikimedia Commons

Related Read: Best Time To Visit Indonesia

3. Do - The " Salam" Rather than a Normal Handshake!

The traditional Malay greeting gesture is called the  "salam" it looks like a handshake but with both hands but without the hard grasp. The man offers both hands out then lightly touches his friend's stretched out hands. Following this he will bring his hands to his chest which means, “I greet you from my heart”. The visitor then reciprocate with the salam. With Muslim ladies a handshake should only be initiated by them.

Shaking hands | Official website of the supreme leader of Iran via Wikimedia Commons

An Alternative greeting in Malaysia.

When you meet and greet someone bow slightly, and put your hands together in a ‘prayer’ position. There are variations of this Bow which depend upon the persons age/status relative to yours. The more important the person, the higher the hands are on the body. For example, when greeting an elder or monk, the hands can be placed higher at the nose and a deeper bow is done.

In general, it’s best to put both your hands in centre of your chest and just bow your head slightly (The “Sampeah”). This can also be a great way of saying thank you.  If you meet monks or elders it’s important to remember this, as they are usually more inclined to value the Malaysian people's traditions more and demand greater respect.

4. Do - Take your Hat off!

When you enter inside someone’s home, a place of work or religious temple/ pagoda.

A pagoda is a tiered tower with multiple eaves, built as cultural traditions in south east Asia. In Malaysia customs it is a religious structure thus Malaysian etiquette should be followed. A small donation can also be given to help with religious work.

Related Read: Incredible Infinity Pools in South East Asia

5. Don’t - Touch Anyones Head!

The head is considered to be the most sacred part of the body to alot of south east Asia. In Malaysian culture and traditions it is extremely rude to touch someone else’s. Be especially careful not to do this on  children or elders.

6. Don’t - show the souls of your feet.

The souls of your feet should never be pointed towards anyone, particularly at religious statues such as the  Buddha. This is because feet are considered to be the dirtiest part of the body.

7. Don't - show anger or frustration.

In Malaysian Society it is embedded in them to stay calm and even smile out of awkward situations!  If you loose your cool and go crazy the Malaysian people may get embarrassed and offended. To make it even more confusing they may smile as you or your friend is being angry making the entire situation worse!

8. Don’t insult while Bartering!

We 100% recommended bartering when visiting any market in south east Asia. In Malaysian culture it’s part of their society. Negotiating a bargain is a great way to interact with the locals.  However there are rules to play by to make sure you do it right and don’t offend anybody.

In general haggling in Malaysia is not quite as “pushy” as in other parts of Southeast Asia.  The most important rule in bargaining is to be friendly and smile. Keeping “face” is very important in Malaysia, as in the rest of Asia. The goal is to ensure that both parties finish the deal with their dignity and pride.

Malaysian Sunday Market | By CEphoto, Uwe Aranas via Wikimedia Commons

I recommended practicing while souvenir shopping at local markets. However, it important to remember that  food or snacks vendors usually have a fixed price so don’t bother trying to haggle these. The same goes for restaurants and most street food stalls. A top tip is if they have a sign with a price it usually is that fixed price!

A few haggling tips for Malaysia:

A) Smiles connect people, so always smile especially in Malaysia. A friendly attitude will ensure a better deal and  more enjoyable experience for both parties.

B) Search around first – Check out a few stalls to find the average price for the item you wan’t.

C) Do the currency calculations before – Think to yourself how much would I pay in USD, or GBP £ or Euro. Then convert to local currency or you will pay a premium if you try it in your own. Then start negotiating.

D) Start very low if their price is very high. (The old low/high game)

E) Don’t look Desperate – Negotiation is about power in any culture

If the price isn’t coming down, don’t be afraid to walk away! They will usually call you back if they really can lower the price.

F) Bulk Buying is Smart – If you see a few items you like at a market for example, try to purchase them all from one store to get a deal on everything. My favourite line is, “What is the best price you could do for me if i bought not just 1 but 5??” .

G) Don’t push too far!

Never get carried away. Remember it’s just a game and probably the small amount extra would mean alot more to them then you!

Bored of Normal Markets? Try Kuala Lumpur Floating Market!

The Floating Market in perils, Kuala Lumpur should be on everyones bucketlist!Floating Market in Pengkalan Tok Kuning, is the new tourist attraction in the state of Perils, Malaysia, by offering experience like traveling abroad.  The innovative concept was implemented by the Perlis Fishing and Recreation Club to offer a unique travel and shopping experience to the visitors.

The floating market is located about 5 Km from Kangar Town. It will give visitors the opportunity to buy food stuff and other items sold from boats. “The market will operate consistently every two weeks on Sundays from 5 pm to 10 pm accompanied by about 50 fishing boats,” said Mohammed Noor Hashim, Chairman of Perlis Fishing and Recreation Club.

Visitors will have the opportunity to buy various types of food, beverages, fruits and fresh fish from the floating market,” he added.  Source: http://www.tourismnewslive.com

9. Don’t give to Street Children – Honestly i’m not heartless!

So a cute little kid comes up to you and try’s to give you a flowery necklace or just ask for change? The best thing i do is offer to buy them food if they wan’t it but not give them money. Why?

Usually these children do have a home and parent who send them out to pry on un-expecting tourists. We really don’t like this as it can give some the courage to believe that it is more useful to spend their time begging than going to school for a proper education.

10. Don't - Handle Objects with your left hand only!

Sorry lefties, in many cultures the left hand has been associated with lack of trust and evil spirits. For example, in Italian Sinistra means left or Sinister in english!

So avoid handing any object to someone with your left hand alone, the most polite way to pass objects being with both hands. An alternative to politely pass objects is to touch your right elbow with your left arm and then hand over the item with your right hand.

Don't Point! - The right forefinger is not used to point at places, objects or people. Instead, the thumb of the right hand with four fingers folded under is commonly used.

Is Malaysia Safe?

Generally Malaysia is safe ask long as you follow the tips above. For General Advice U.S government travel tips.

Malaysian Culture, no 1 tip:

Do - Ask Questions!

This is perhaps the most important thing to do while traveling Malaysia. If you are unsure about a certain etiquette or tradition just ask, there is no shame and most people are very happy to help!

Following the tips above you should be sure to fit in with the social norms!

If you have visited Malaysia before or have any questions, comment on your experience below!

Insider Tip: Invest in a quality Travel Camera!

Capturing the Memories of your adventure is essential!

You will be able to show your friends, family and even grand kids all the wonderful photos captured.

For more info see, our recommend Travel Photography Gear

Make sure you are equip with some great Photography Gear!

Important! Are you insured?

Be aware that you will need separate travel insurance if you are traveling to Malaysia!

If you get ill or have an accident it will be a very costly experience!

All travellers to Malaysia should have a robust travel insurance to avoid paying out thousands of dollars.

I always recommend World Nomads, I’ve used these for years,

they are the best and most reliable insurance, they also provides an unlimited medical budget!

Getting hit with a large hospital bill after getting sick or injured, could really add to your worries! Get some Travel Insurance


For more info see: Why you NEED Travel Insurance?

Other Travel Essentials  (Things You can’t travel without!)

A high quality Tent & backpack can also be great investments to help you cut costs and have more of an adventure while traveling!

To learn about our secret Hotel Hacks check out: How to find the Best Hotel Deals??

Tobi Miles
Article updated:
July 5, 2024 11:07 AM

Tobi Miles is a University of Florida graduate turned globe-trotting culinary explorer and digital nomad expert. As the founder of "Bytes & Bites," he combines his passion for international cuisine with practical advice on remote work, inspiring others to experience the world through food and cultural immersion. With 32 countries under his belt and a knack for uncovering hidden culinary gems, Tobi is redefining the intersection of work, travel, and gastronomy for a new generation of adventurers.

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