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A GUIDE FOR FIRST-TIMERS
Visiting a new country can be a bit daunting, so if you’re thinking of visiting Malaysia, here is my guide for first time travellers to this beautiful country. These 10 essential tips will help make your stay seamless and enjoyable.
I’ve travelled to Malaysia more times than I can count, visiting friends and relatives who live there, and have been to both sides of the country, Peninsula Malaysia (West Malaysia/Mainland) and Malaysian Borneo (East Malaysia).
Located in Southeast Asia, Peninsula Malaysia is sandwiched between Singapore and Thailand. Being centrally located on the world map is part of the reason Malaysia is a very popular destination, or stopover, for travellers.
Malaysia has enormous appeal with ultra modern architecture, historic and cultural attractions, beaches, boating, jungles, mountains, adventure activities, wildlife, world famous cuisine and loads more. All of this coupled with year-round warm weather and affordable prices, makes visiting Malaysia perfect for short and long vacations, or as a pleasant and convenient layover. A little preparation on what to expect goes a long way, so the following information will help you on your travels.
1 – Culture
Firstly, it’s important to know that Malaysia is made up of a blend of several cultures. The 4 main ethnic groups are Malay, Chinese, Tamil Indians and indigenous people.
The country celebrates all of the respective religious festivals and has public holidays for everyone to observe. These include, Hari Raya, Deepavali, Chinese New Year, Buddha Day and Christmas.
2 – Languages
The official language is Malay (Bahasa Malaysia). This is taught in mainstream schools. However, English is also an official language, widely spoken in the bigger cities of Kuala Lumpur, Penang, and Johor Bahru, particularly in business districts and tourist areas. This makes visiting Malaysia easy for most westerners.
Chinese languages, such as Mandarin, Hokkien and Cantonese are common. Indian Tamil is also spoken. Native tribes have their own dialects, which are in steady decline.
Interesting fact: There is also a language known as Manglish, which is a combination of Malay, English, Mandarin and Tamil spoken on the streets About 60% of the population can speak it. However, the government is apparently trying to discourage its use.
3 – Currency & payment options
Currency is the Malaysian Ringgit.
All major credit cards are accepted in hotels and large shopping centres. Many restaurants take cards also. However, markets prefer cash, especially if you’re haggling, but some vendors do take cards.
4 – Accommodation
When visiting Malaysia you have a plethora of accommodation available to choose from. From luxury resorts and major hotel chains, to boutique hotels, homestays like Airbnb, and also hostels. I suggest you choose lodging with airconditioning, as it is rather warm at night all year round.
Snazzy Tip: I don’t recommend hostels. Instead, I suggest opting for a budget hotel in Malaysia, where the cost is very reasonable. For as little as A$50 per night, you can be sure of air conditioned privacy.
5 – Transport
The national train system is KTM in Peninsula Malaysia. There are 3 types of train services – Intercity, Komuter for KL and surrounding areas, and the new electric train.
Intercity has two lines. A westcoast line going all the way from top to bottom of the mainland, which joins Thailand in the north and Singapore in the south. And an eastcoast line, which is a jungle route and shorter.
In East Malaysia on the island of Borneo, the only train is North Borneo Railway, which is a tourist steam train.
Throughout Malaysia travelling between cities by bus/coach is a comfortable and cheap option and there are many bus companies to choose from. Given that the freeways in Malaysia are very extensive, it’s often preferable to take a bus, particularly if you choose an express one. Only book online or at the counter.
Driving is on the left hand side, as per all Commonwealth countries.
- Ditch the taxis and use GRAB. Download the app for free. UBER doesn’t exist.
- For navigating your way around, and if hiring a vehicle, use WAZE. Download the app for free.
6 – Etiquette & Customs
When greeting locals it is best to avoid physical contact and simply say ‘hello’ and a nod of the head, unless they extend a hand to shake.
The right hand is used for greeting, passing things, eating and everything else, except going to the toilet.
Public displays of affection are not acceptable, other than holding hands. So no kissing.
It is customary to remove shoes when entering homes and places of worship, as a sign of respect.
Being gay (in public) is illegal.
Clothing should be modest, covering the body and upper legs, especially in places of worship and during Muslim celebrations. Females may need to cover their head with a scarf in mosques.
Quirky customs in Malaysia
During my time here I have noted many quirky or unusual practices that are commonplace or normal in Malaysia and not to be questioned, just accept them. Such as:
- Being well dressed for a function, but wearing slippers or thongs on the feet. This is totally normal. As shoes are then removed when entering an abode, people remain at the do in bare feet.
- Indians often eat their meals of rice, curry, chicken etc., with their right hand, and no cutlery.
- Many homes have sinks in the dining rooms for washing hands at mealtime.
- Breakfast often consists of Nasi Lemak, a rice dish.
- Do not give alcohol as a gift.
- Malaysians are often late to things.
- Walking and physical exercise is not something they usually do for fun, probably due to the heat.
- Most Malaysians don’t swim, even though the country has huge coastlines and extensive rivers.
7 – Alcohol & Drugs
Being a Muslim country, alcohol is quite expensive. Do not drink in public, only in licensed hotels, bars and restaurants. Muslim owned establishments do not serve alcohol at all, nor can you bring your own.
Drugs could mean the death penalty. Enough said.
8 – Food
Amazing cuisine is one of the main attractions of Malaysia in my opinion, which has become world renowned. The beauty about the food here is that it is a combination of Asian and Indian style cooking, full of flavour.
Some favourites include, Satay, Nasi Lemak, Beef Rendang, Roti Canai, Char Kway Teow, Curry Laksa, Curry Puffs, Mee Goreng, Nasi Goreng, Wonton Mee, Butter Prawns, Steam Boat Hotpots, and so many more tantalising dishes. Try as many as you can, but be aware, many have chilly or sambal. You can of course ask for ‘mild’ when ordering.
Other types of cuisine are available, such as pizza, pasta, KFC, Maccas, Starbucks, as well as other Asian cuisine like Korean and Thai.
9 – Climate
Malaysia sits on the equator and as such has a tropical climate, which makes it hot and humid all year round. Best time to go? Any time really. You will get a little more rain in the Monsoon rainy season, which is October to March, but it’s usually just a short downpour each day. Not too much to worry about.
10 – Tipping
Tipping is not required, but it’s entirely up to you. It’s common to tip in 5 star hotels.
You’re good to go. I hope these essential tips help you when visiting Malaysia. Enjoy your time in this wonderful country.
Any questions or comments for me, you can leave below.