Welcome to Malaysia

Elizabeth Fowler

September 29, 2021
An Introduction to Malaysia

Malaysia is where the monsoons meet. The Malaysian Peninsula has been a focal and trading point between China and India for centuries.  There are cave paintings near Miri in Malaysian Borneo that are more than 40,000 years old.

Many sailors will be coming to Malaysia having been in Indonesia and so are familiar with the ASEAN way of life. But there are some differences here.

People here are polite, friendly, helpful and generous as in the rest of Asia.

Malaysians very polite and good manners are important. One of the worst things you can say to a Malaysian, although of course you never would, is that he or she is badly brought up.

Selamat Datang means 'Welcome'

One of the nicest things a Malaysian can say to you is that you are humble.

When I was being briefed for my first visit to Malaysia in 1976, I was told I wasn’t coming to ‘less developed’ country. Instead it could be argued that Malaysia is ‘more developed’ with many layers of ancient cultures, traditions, customs and belief.

Malaysia’s diversity has done wonderful things to the food. There are more that fifty festivals and holidays. Nine of the thirteen States have a Sultan whose birthday is a public holiday in that state. At publicholidays.com.my there is a useful list for all of the States and Territories in Malaysia. I would also recommend getting a local calendar: the Kuda Kelandar (that lists all the horse racing events) is comprehensive.

One great quality of these festivals is the open house tradition where governments, businesses and families welcome all with food and drink. Sometimes there is entertainment too.  When you have local friends, you will be expected to visit them at the relevant festival. They might visit you at Christmas. People share festivals.

We almost always feel safe in Malaysia. For us, in over a decade, the only two incidents of note were an attempted bag-snatch and a grabbed ATM card that wasn’t much use to the thief in the absence of the PIN number. Our yacht and home has twice been burgled: once in Tahiti and once in New Zealand.

It is sometimes easy to confuse the 1 ringgit banknote (RM 1) with the RM 50. The latter is slightly larger, but both are blue. We have heard several stories of a RM 50 note being offered in error, and it kindly being returned with a request for the smaller note.

ok, this was before 2019...

It is sometimes possible to be caught out by the generosity of Malaysians. On one occasion I admired a Council Worker’s hat, and was immediately given it. On another, I asked where a ferry passenger had bought his newspaper, and was given that too.

In Malaysia there are good doctors, dentists, hospitals and clinics, that are inexpensive by Western standards.  Some cities, notably Kuala Lumpur and Penang, are health tourism destinations.

Pharmacists invariably speak good English. Aside from medicines, many pharmacies also stock disposable extra-large gloves, essential for those of us using epoxy resins on our boats.

In rural areas it would doubtless be wise to boil drinking water. But in the towns and cities, mains water is clean and chlorinated. Ice is commonly available.

Modest clothing protects you from insects, sunburn and the sometimes over-enthusiastic air-conditioning. Inter-state buses are recommended, but they can be freezing!

It is a good idea to carry a sarong or shawl. When walking, an umbrella is a recommended addition. This is for sun, rain, checking where covered drains might be, and as a defence against over-friendly monkeys or dogs.

Large Supermarkets include Lotus (formerly Tesco) and Aeon. Smaller local ones include Pacific, Mydin, Billion, T.F. Valumart, Econosave, The Store and Cold Storage and Evergreen (in Borneo). Parkson is a big department store.

In the big cities there are shopping malls with familiar names, from Starbucks to Marks & Spencers. It is not difficult to find all the luxury brands needed or at least wanted by sailors.

cooking fried Kuey Teow

A dilemma when living in Malaysia in your own house (or boat) is whether to cook using fresh local ingredients or to eat out. Both options are inexpensive. Hawker stalls frequently cook to order and local recipes often use high-temperature cooking. We have never had any kind of food poisoning in Malaysia.

Markets open early, supermarkets later (around 10am). ‘Wet markets’ sell fruit, vegetables, fish and meat.  Sometimes the floor really is wet so the umbrella can be useful on slippery floors.

If you find a unknown item in a market, you could ask the vendor what it is and how you might cook it.  Some people have wound up being given cooking lessons by the stall holder.

Malaysians bake for their festivals. Bake shops are well stocked, even selling cheddar cheese and tinned butter plus the ingredients for home made muesli.

For many visitors, the drinks available from restaurants and hawker stalls are alarmingly sweet. Two useful phrases are “kurang manis” (“less sweet”) and “tak mau gula” (“no sugar”).

Teh Tarik - a national drink. Make sure you ask for 'kurang manis'


If given something to eat or drink in polite company that you really don’t like, all will be understood if you say something like “Not for me thank you, doctor’s orders”.

Stationers sell masking tape and inexpensive courtesy flags. You should be able to find a photocopy shop that can make laminated Identity Card sized copies of your passport and vaccination certificate. In theory, visitors are required to carry their passport at all times. But in practice a small laminated copy seems to suffice.

There are many good hardware stores, including ACE. Most towns have tool shops. There are outlets specialising in nuts, bolts and screws.

In some stores, especially those dealing with tools and hardware, the ‘sticker price’ is for those purchasing on account. Cash buyers are usually granted a significant discount. It doesn’t hurt to amiably ask for the “best price?”

Old fashioned taxis (teksi) are safe and inexpensive, when the drivers are prepared to turn on their meters. Elsewhere, Grab taxis have become increasingly popular. Blue taxis are ‘eksekutif” and significantly more expensive.

The rail network is limited, but the main north/south line between Singapore and the border with Thailand has recently been upgraded and there is another line to the east coast. For other destinations, most Malaysians needing public transport use the bus network. Services are offered by competing companies and are frequent and inexpensive.


Durian, king of fruits

In urban areas the buses are usually delayed by heavy traffic and a conventional taxi or ‘Grab’ might save a lot of time. Yellow buses are for schoolchildren (sekolah), blue buses are for workers.

Phone companies compete fiercely. It is work shopping around for the best deal. A passport (or at least a copy of a passport) is needed to purchase a SIM card. Overseas calls to landlines are much cheaper if a special prefix number is entered first. For Digi this number is 13300, the equivalent for Maxis is 13200.  

Local TV is mostly in the local languages. Fortunately, internet links are now so efficient that it’s possible to receive TV and radio broadcasts from all over the world. Singapore rebroadcasts the BBC World Service is on 88.9 FM, which can be received in neighbouring areas in Malaysia.

Mains power is 220/240 volt AC, 50 Hz, and at least in urban areas very reliable. In some marinas it is a good idea to check the polarity of the power supply before plugging in your yacht to shorepower.

Some words in the Malay language (Bahasa Melayu) have been derived from English and can be read phonetically. Examples are:












The letter ‘c’ is pronounced ‘ch’. Hence kampung cina can be translated as village China, or Chinatown. Words tend to be pronounced with the accent on the second syllable. Thus, the town of Terengganu on the east coast is pronounced Teren-Ganu. The letter I is usually long, thus the town of Ipoh in Perak is pronounced EE-poh, not EYE-poh.  The sun is matahari, or mata (eye) of the hari (day). Batu means stone. But is also the word for mile, derived from milestones. Air (water) batu is ice, although these days it’s also commonly called ais. Those with an interest in linguistics can really enjoy picking up the language.

There are two Booker Prize nominated Malaysian writers:  Tan Tuan Eng and Tash Aw. Their books are a fine introduction to the country.

Rungus traditional costume

Two enjoyable and informative detective story writers are Shamani Flint (based in Singapore) and Barbara Ismail. Isabella Bird sailed the Malacca (Melaka) Straits in the 1880s: see her book The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither (1883). Joseph Conrad wrote about the area from a marine perspective.  


Dragon dance in Penang

If you are




you will have a fine time in Malaysia.

Elizabeth Fowler