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Before we left on our trip to Malaysia, friends asked us: "Why are you going to visit an Islamic country? They put too many restrictions on visitors, especially women."

Flip flops outside Masjid Jamek prayer hall in KL
Flip flops outside Masjid Jamek prayer hall in KL
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

During our travels, we discovered that the federal government is very open to the fact that Malaysia is a multi-racial country. The constitution supports freedom of religion.

We had no clothing restrictions, except for visiting mosques. (Everyone must remove their shoes before entering. Attendants lend robes to people wearing shorts.)

Where is Malaysia?

Located south of Thailand and north of Singapore, peninsular Malaysia faces the Straits of Malacca and the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

The population of Malaysia is 29 million. Inhabitants are a diverse mixture of Chinese, Indians, Malays and indigenous tribes who not only live together in harmony, but also share each other's festivals.

For example, there are four New Year's Days in Malaysia—Western, Chinese, Indian and Muslim. Each one celebrates with traditional open houses and feasts. All nationalities are welcome to attend.

Malaysian woman makes otak-otak (spiced fish stuffed coconut leaves).
Malaysian woman makes otak-otak (spiced fish stuffed coconut leaves).
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Malaysian food

Even though Muslims don't eat pork, many restaurants serve it because the large Chinese population includes it in many dishes. The racial melting pot has resulted in a cuisine that includes familiar Western and Chinese specialities, as well as spicy Indian and Malay foods.

Otak-otak, for example, is spicy minced fish stuffed inside coconut leaves and then barbecued. Steamboat is like fondue. You select portions of meat, fish and vegetables attached to sticks like lollipops. After holding the sticks in boiling broth to cook the food, you dip them into sauces.

Luscious tropical fruits range from juicy rambutans to durians. Spiky green durians, which are supposed to be aphrodisiacs, are very much loved by Malaysians, even though they have such a strong smell that hotels forbid guests from bringing them inside. "They smell like hell, but taste like heaven," claim the locals.

We also found popular fast-food chains in Malaysia. In addition to its usual menu, Pizza Hut serves pizza topped with ground mutton and fresh chilies.

McDonalds serves McRendang burgers with spicy curry sauce and onions. (Rendang is meat, usually beef, slow-cooked with coconut milk and spices.)

Silver pot with water for washing hands, otak-otak, lemang (glutinous rice cooked with coconut in bamboo), roti-jala (net bread with chicken curry), beef rendang and gado-gado (vegetables, eggs and tofu with peanut sauce)
Silver pot with water for washing hands, otak-otak, lemang (glutinous rice cooked with coconut in bamboo), roti-jala (net bread with chicken curry), beef rendang and gado-gado (vegetables, eggs and tofu with peanut sauce)
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Although Muslims forbid the drinking of alcohol, there are no restrictions for visitors. In Kuala Lumpur, the capital city, most hotel rooms have mini-bars. Several of the hotels where we stayed provided guests with welcome drinks in the lounge.

One hotel left serving-sized bottles of liqueurs instead of chocolates on our pillows during evening turn-down service. Even Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets serve beer.

We did see occasional reminders that the official religion of Malaysia is Islam. Kuala Lumpur International Airport (code: KUL) has his and her prayer rooms.

Some hotels have arrows painted on the ceiling enclosing the word kiblat. The meaning eluded us, because the arrows did not indicate an exit or anything we could see. It was only later that we learned they were pointing to Mecca, so Muslims would know which direction to face while praying.

Domes and minarets on Masjid Jamek mosque in KL
Domes and minarets on Masjid Jamek mosque in KL
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Malaysian language

Bahasa Melayu (Malay) is the official language, however English is widely used throughout the country. Malaysians often use only their first names. On business cards, they sometimes follow it with bin (son of) or binta (daughter of) and their father's name.

The usual greetings are selemat datang (welcome), selemat pagi (good morning) and selemat petang (good afternoon). The Malay language includes a few words that are similar to English, such as muzium and bas (bus).

Between men, handshakes are common. Close friends use both hands to clasp the other's hand. Women shake hands with men, only when a hand is offered.

Malaysia tours

Multi-national companies offer rental cars. An International Driving Permit is required for Malaysia travel. Driving is on the left-hand side of the road.

While roads are excellent and language is rarely a problem, we discovered that the best way to experience Malaysia was on tour packages offered by local companies. For not much more than the cost of a rental car, insurance and gas, you can book a tour with a competent driver-guide.

Tour guide describes Sultan Abdul Samad building.
Tour guide describes Sultan Abdul Samad building.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The main advantage of these travel packages is that they make it easy to meet Malaysians and experience the culture in a way that is difficult, if not impossible, on your own. Syaam, our Indian guide, introduced us to the Hindu culture, telling us about festivals honoring the deities and helping us identify the fruits and foods sold at hawker stands near the temples.

Having a guide pays dividends, we learned, when it comes to information about Malaysia, such as how to bargain in marketplaces, knowing where and what to eat and finding one's way about an unfamiliar town.


Because Malaysia's weather is hot and humid year-round, you should bring cool, light clothing. You should plan a walking tour of Penang, for example, in the early morning or evening when it is cooler rather than during the midday heat.

April, May and October are wet months on the west coast. If you visit a hill resort, such as the Cameron Highlands, you will need a sweater. Long-sleeved shirts and/or jackets and ties may be needed for some evening and business functions.

Visitor information

Malaysia's time zone is eight hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). The states of Johor, Terengganu, Kelantan, Kedah and Perlis observe a Thursday to Friday weekend. Other states have Saturday to Sunday weekends.

Shops generally open 9 am to 7 pm, while department stores open 10 am to 10 pm daily. Kuala Lumpur has several 24-hour stores.

Shopping at Karyaneka Handicrafts
Shopping at Karyaneka Handicrafts
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Malaysian souvenirs range from batik clothing to handmade pottery and baskets. You can also visit a tailor to select a suit design and have measurements taken. Three days later, the completed outfit is ready for pick-up.

The unit of currency is the Malaysian ringgit (symbol: MYR or RM), which is divided into 100 sen. Major credit cards are accepted by most stores, restaurants and hotels.

Malaysia is on a 220-volt, 50-cycle system (grounded socket "Type G" British BS-1363). First-class hotels usually have adapters. Bring an electrical converter for smaller hotels and lodgings outside major cities.

There is a 6% government tax on hotel accommodations and restaurant bills. Many hotels also add 10% service charge.


Tourism Malaysia

Malaysia Airlines

More things to see & do in Malaysia

Day Trips from KL Malaysia to Batu Caves, Melaka and Genting Highlands

Penang Hawker Stalls Offer Cheap and Delicious Food

Kuala Kangsar — Ubudiah Mosque and Sultan of Perak's Residence

Ipoh's Buddhist Cave Temples in Perak Malaysia

Borneo Holiday in Sarawak Malaysia Longhouses