11 things you should know before going to Malaysia

I spent 6 weeks in Asia in 2019, traveling through Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia. We didn’t make it to Malaysia because we ran out of time to move on. I have wanted to visit Kuala Lumpur ever since I heard about it from a former colleague in the 90s. It was on the back burner for all of my travels until this year.

As I started planning, I reconnected with a Malaysian friend from college. She connected me to a friend in Kuala Lumpur. And between the two of us, I had a long list of recommended places to visit and eat. The food is one of the main highlights of this country which is a fusion of Chinese, Indian and Malay cultures. From street food to restaurants, you’ll be satisfied no matter when you go.

Almost every country I visit requires a period of adjustment, during which cultural norms and behaviors are exposed every day. Malaysia was no exception. But it involved some experiences that I didn’t expect. Here are some surprising things to prepare for before visiting this fascinating country for the first time.

View of the rainforest near Genting Highlands, Malaysia

Photo credit: Heather Markel / HeatherBegins.com

1. Malaysia has two sides.

The first thing you learn when planning a trip here is that Malaysia is divided into two sides. It’s especially confusing because it’s not included! Malaysia’s left side borders Thailand, and Malaysia’s right side borders parts of Indonesia. The Kuala Lumpur you know well is on the left. For now, there is a lot of nature on the right side of Malaysia. (Unfortunately, it is driven by palm oil production and tourism) deforestationIt threatens the natural habitat of orangutans and other forest animals. )

If you’re looking for orangutans, you can see more of them in the wild on the Borneo side, but on Orangutan Island, near Ipoh on Malaysia’s left, several rescued orangutans are in various stages of rehabilitation. I visited the left side of Malaysia. At least in the major tourist cities, there is less nature and more infrastructure.

kuala lumpur night

kuala lumpur night

Photo credit: Heather Markel / HeatherBegins.com

2. You should always carry some cash with you

Unlike many places in the world where accepting cash is met with surprise or disdain, in Malaysia people often only accept cash. For example, food markets where you eat regularly only require cash. When I bought a subway card in Kuala Lumpur, they asked for cash. Every day there are things we want and need that can only be obtained with cash. So be sure to carry some with you. There are many banks and ATMs. I didn’t have to worry about ATM fraud because I often used large, well-known banks to get my cash. I never had a problem with it while I was there.

3. Crossing the street requires your full attention.

Cars often turn right at crosswalks without slowing down. Crossing the road is an act that requires your full concentration. Put down your phone and always look both ways. Sometimes there are no intersections and people are just running. The best rule of thumb is to cross the road when there are no cars coming. If that’s not possible, find other people waiting to cross and use that as an indicator of when it’s safe to cross the road.

Example of a giant hole in a Malaysian street

Example of a giant hole in a Malaysian street

Photo credit: Heather Markel / HeatherBegins.com

4. The streets are full of potholes.

No matter where you walk in Malaysia, you need to be careful where you place your feet. You’ll find gaping holes in almost every block. This was especially true for Kuala Lumpur and Penang. At first I thought it was because of the economy. But after witnessing my first monsoon-like rainstorm, I understood the purpose of the hole. I have never seen rain fall so hard and accumulate to several inches within minutes. The car drove carefully, submerging some of its tires in the collected river. When the rain stopped, I couldn’t believe that all the water was gone in less than 5 minutes. If I hadn’t seen the storm, I would have thought I’d missed a little rain. So the purpose of the hole is clear, but you don’t want to get stuck in it.

5. Always carry tissues with you

Don’t leave home without a pack of tissues. Bathrooms are easily accessible and happily equipped with both Western and Turkish toilets, but toilet paper is much more rare. The toilet stalls have hoses instead of paper and are usually used by locals. Unless you plan on using the hose, it’s a good idea to keep some tissues in your bag.

6. Try wearing short pants or skirts.

Malaysian toilets use hoses instead of paper, so you’ll quickly find that your bathroom floor gets wet. It’s not a great feeling having to walk around holding the hem of your wet pants. The only good thing is that it’s so hot that it dries quickly. I speak from unfortunate experience.

Buddha in Genting Highlands, Malaysia

Buddha in Genting Highlands, Malaysia

Photo by: Heather Markel / HeatherBegins.com

7. Don’t show too much skin

Malaysia has a large Muslim population. During my stay, I bought a strapless dress, thinking it would help me stay a little cooler in the hot and humid weather. I was happy because the amount of sweat I sweated while wearing it decreased a little. However, when I went on an evening gourmet tour wearing that outfit, I noticed a lot of people staring at me, which made me uncomfortable. It wasn’t like I was in any danger, just that I was conspicuous. The tour guide explained that while it’s not illegal or wrong in any way, wearing clothes that show cleavage will get you stared at. She helped me buy a wrap for her $4, but she never wore that dress again while in Malaysia.

8. Finding vegetables can be a pain.

I don’t know why, but I found out that Malaysians don’t eat many vegetables. Therefore, even if you order a meat dish, it will not be served with vegetables. The only way to ensure you’re getting enough vegetables with your meal is to order them as a side. Food prices are very low so it won’t break your budget.

Diabetes This is a major concern in Malaysia. When you’re there, you realize that everything has sugar in it. The food is delicious, but if you don’t like it too sweet, be sure to request “no sugar” for all your drinks. For dessert, fresh lime juice is popular (Rimau) Great as long as you can get it without sugar. When you go to the supermarket and try to buy instant coffee, it is almost impossible to find coffee without sugar.

malaysia food market

malaysia food market

Photo by: Heather Markel / HeatherBegins.com

10. Storing food is something I’m not used to.

If you walk into a food market, you’ll quickly notice that there’s no ice. You probably don’t have a temperature-controlled box to put the ice in, so the ice will melt quickly. If you are a Westerner, this will probably be an unpleasant experience. Of course, all the stalls source their meat and fish from these markets. I just recommend accepting it as normal and enjoying your meal. It was great, during the month I was in Malaysia, I never got food poisoning or met anyone who got food poisoning. They just have different food storage habits than we do.

11. Stray dogs don’t love me

This is not the only country where I have seen stray dogs. But I have rarely seen a stray dog ​​so afraid of human contact. We encountered many stray dogs in Cameron Highlands and Ipoh. I bought them food, but I realized that they were scared of me. I had to spend a few minutes making kissing noises and talking to them gently until they tried to stop. And I had to build enough trust for them to stay still. Then I had to pour the food and leave to let them come and eat. I learned that Muslims are forbidden to touch dogs. This was a surprise to me and most everyone else I talk to. If you like dogs, they will appreciate the food, but don’t expect to pet them.

By the end of my trip to Malaysia, I had come to appreciate Malaysia so much. Food is cheap, taxis are cheap, and the people are nice, curious, and engaging. Malaysia has the world’s oldest tropical rainforest, and there are people who still live purely in the forest. Tin mining made this country famous and gave rise to today’s cultural fusion. One of the most fascinating types of food I’ve discovered is Hakka; not to be confused with New Zealand fool. I resonated with the stories of Chinese immigrants who traveled to Malaysia as nomads. Because they moved frequently, they had to use large amounts of salt to preserve their food while on the move. It is used sparingly in today’s cuisine, and if you find a Hakka restaurant while in Malaysia, you’re sure to be treated to a treat.

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