We all know that we don’t pat the back of a colleague in Korea to thank them for a “job well done”. Or eat with your left hand in India, or sip vodka in Russia. In many countries, these actions are harmless. But in others, they can give a wrong impression or cause offense.

In fact, whatever culture you’re from, it’s likely that you routinely do something that could cause offense somewhere else in the world. So here is:

A primer on how to avoid mistakes in Malaysia

It’s advisable to dress respectfully, particularly in rural areas (wearing trousers or a long skirt, not shorts, and covering your shoulders is recommended but not essential). In more metropolitan areas such as Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bahru, Penang, and Ipoh, as well as East Malaysian states (Sabah and Sarawak), attitudes are more liberal. When entering a home or a place of worship, always take off your shoes. Also, never eat with your left hand, or give a gift with your left hand; and never point with your forefinger (you may use a closed fist with the thumb instead), point with your feet or touch a person’s head. Public showing of affection in larger cities is tolerated but might invite unnecessary attention from the public. In more rural areas it is frowned upon and is to be avoided.

Malaysia Culture photo

Photo by Farhan Chawla

Public nudity (and going topless, in the case of women) is a criminal offence, including on beaches. One incident in Oct 2014 in Port Dickson involving four women believed to be foreign tourists drew a crowd of onlookers, as well as police investigations.

The offence is punishable by up to three months imprisonment, a fine, or both. Same-sex relationships are still a taboo subject in Malaysia, although a lot of people, especially the younger generations in the larger cities are more open to it.

Gay and lesbian travellers should avoid any outward signs of affection, including holding hands in public. Homosexuality is illegal in Malaysia. Swastikas are an ancient symbol commonly seen in Hindu and Buddhist temples. They are typically a reverse image of those used by Nazis and do not express similar sentiments or anti-Semitism, so Western visitors should not feel offended when seeing it in the homes of their hosts.

With this, you had the primer on key facts about Malaysia, and key facts on culture and customs. Another important part of the culture is the local food and the local drinks. Make sure you read our posts on Malaysia food and drinks:

Local food you should try in Malaysia and No miss drinks in Malaysia.

Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in Malaysia? Please comment below.