14 April 2019

Local advice for first-time visitors to Malaysia

So, you’ve decided on Malaysia as your next travel destination.  It’s a lovely country, it’s inexpensive and, hey, this will be your first visit!  You can’t wait!  And, yeah, June's perfect, but so's July.  And August.  Or September.  The truth is, Malaysia is the perfect year-round travel destination.

There are plenty of Malaysia travel guides around of course but these will just try to sell you a country with little mentioned about how things really are on the ground, if at all.  In fact, the authors are likely to be foreigners who have neither spent enough time at a place nor understood its culture deeply enough to meaningfully impart what they've learnt in a typically expensive guidebook.  That’s where the locals come in - people like me.
Here I'm not going to talk about which tourist hotspots you should visit; you'd have done your homework anyway.  Instead, I’m going to share with you some useful advice which I feel will go some way towards enriching your Malaysian experience.  Inevitably, these will entail local etiquettes and mannerisms, personal safety precautions as well as some travel tips.  I hope you find them useful - or at least informative.

1.  WHAT TO PACK.  As Malaysia literally sits bang on the Equator, there are no four seasons here; it’s a perennial hot, humid summer.  By that, I mean a mean daytime temperature of 30°C.  That’s year-round, mind you.  As such, do pack more cotton clothes and light tees.  There’s no need for jackets unless you intend to visit the highlands.  Of course, don’t forget to bring lots of sunscreen (SPF30 is fine) as it’s extremely hot and sunny most days.

Mosque in Putrajaya, Malaysia's political hub just outside Kuala Lumpur

2.  LOCAL SENSITIVITIES.  Speaking of attire, if you intend to visit some of our architecturally-magnificent places of worship (and despite this being a relatively liberal Muslim country), do observe the appropriate dress codes and clothe yourself conservatively to avoid being frowned upon.  This applies especially to women visiting mosques where a headscarf and non-revealing clothes are considered respectful.  Practise good, sound judgment and you’ll be made very welcome, I promise you.  Also, if you're invited to someone's home, remember to remove your shoes before entering; this is customary and, in so doing, reflects good etiquette on your part.

3.  OUT AND ABOUT IN KUALA LUMPUR.  As far as possible, give taxis a miss.  Cases of dishonest or abusive cabbies, although not exactly rampant, are not unheard of and tales of disgruntled, harassed or abused passengers do rear their ugly head occasionally.  So save yourself the distress and use the city’s inexpensive and efficient subway/rail transit networks or book yourself a Grab car instead.  Both will get you pretty much anywhere in the city.

Monorail, Kuala Lumpur

Here's a little something on personal safety.  Unfortunately, cases of snatch thefts have been steadily on the rise in Kuala Lumpur (and to an extent, in Johore in the south).  Almost all instances involve rogue motorcyclists coming up from behind unsuspecting pedestrians and snatching their sling bags, handbags or even necklaces.  Therefore always keep your bag close to you and ensure you don't hold it on the side nearest to the road.

As expected in every major world city, the two social ills which I’ve highlighted here are more rampant only in Kuala Lumpur; I assure you it’s much, much safer in other parts of the country.  Just exercise due vigilance and you’ll be fine.  So, go…. enjoy the vibrancy of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s colourful capital city.

Shopping in Kuala Lumpur

4.  SHOP 'TIL YOU DROP!  If there’s one common thing many visitors to Malaysia tell me, it’s this - they wished they’d brought an extra suitcase or three for all the shopping they'd done.  You see, Malaysia (and Kuala Lumpur in particular) is a shopper’s paradise by virtue of the sheer variety of brands available here as well as the favourable exchange rate of most major currencies against the Malaysian Ringgit.  So if you do come this way, repeat not their “mistake”.  Bring a few extra bags and make allowance for excess baggage on your flight home!

5.  CHALLENGE YOUR TASTE BUD.  Fact; Malaysia is a foodie’s haven.  And because the country is blessed with a multiracial, multicultural populace, the more adventurous amongst you can expect to have a field day every day when it comes to food.  Forget the big American chain restaurants; instead, go for our wonderful street foods which you'll have no problem finding all over the country.  They're inexpensive, delicious and above all, they give you - our guest - the chance to sample our local delicacies.

In this respect, DO NOT leave Malaysia without having first sampled “nasi lemak”, our undisputed national dish.  This is a fragrant rice dish cooked in coconut milk; with knotted "pandan" (screwpine) leaves and a stalk of lemon grass thrown into the rice while steaming to lend it more aroma.  Traditionally and in its most basic form, nasi lemak is served wrapped in banana leaves, with fresh cucumber slices, fried anchovies, roasted groundnuts, poached eggs and - best of all - some spicy, chilli-based gravy (or "sambal").  Super stuff!

Nasi lemak

Although my country tends to make global political headlines from time to time for all the wrong reasons, visitors can expect to have a most unforgettable vacation for all the right ones.

There's just one small problem; whilst my country makes for a great holiday destination, it will enchant you to the point where you will want to come back again and again.  And when you do, remember what I said about sunscreen; this is possibly the best piece of advice I can dispense.

So, welcome, all, to my beautiful country of Malaysia.  Or as we say here, “Selamat Datang ke Malaysia”.... truly Asia.

Are you planning on visiting Malaysia for the first time anytime soon?  If so, did you find this article useful?  Or if you've been here before, how did you find your Malaysian experience?  Would you come again?

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