Malaysia was a country of many travels firsts for me. It was the first country that I visited in Asia, the first country where I did not speak the language, where Islam was the official religion, and where I ate a frog for the first time. In retrospect, Thailand might have been an easier place to introduce myself to Asia, with its incredible tourist infrastructure, fluency in English, and tasty street cart Thai cuisine. However, easier is not necessarily the better, or best, choice. Malaysia pushed me to develop essential travel skills and cultural sensitivities that I now value very highly.
First Lesson: Don’t Be That Girl With No Manners.
Alright, so not all of us have time to learn a whole new language for a week or two of traveling in another country. But let me tell you, the best advice that I ever received from another traveler is that you should at least learn ‘hello’, ‘please’, and ‘thank you’ in the local language of wherever you travel. We are guests, after all. Knowing that I was being greeted whenever someone said ‘selamat datang’ made all the difference. Saying ‘sila’ and ‘terima kasih’ were the magic words in Malaysia that elicited smiles from all. Speaking these few phrases in Malay opened a lot of doors to interesting conversations with the people that I met and I wouldn’t have learned half as much about their country had I not made this small effort.
Second Lesson: Don’t Be That Girl Who Dresses Wrong.
I was unsure how conservative Malaysia would be before I arrived. In Latin America, I had found it was safest to cover shoulders to knees in most places. Since Malaysia is a Muslim country, I started out in a long sleeved shirt and pants, despite the heat, and was reasonably sure I wouldn’t have to cover my hair. After a day of wandering the streets of Kuala Lumpur and assessing the general dress code, I went back to my shoulders to knees rule. It was not uncommon to see a burka, a sari, and a miniskirt all on the same city block.
I wouldn’t recommend the miniskirts though. In one incident while traveling in the east part of Malaysia, which is a more conservative area, two girls on my minibus starting complaining about how many people were rudely staring at them. They failed to see that dressing in low cut tank tops and short shorts was the cause of all this unwanted attention. When I went into a shop, the lady behind the counter asked me why these girls were walking around in their underwear. I had no answer for her. If they’d only checked this first…
And I won’t even get into the time I ended up eating lunch in a fishing village with a bunch of other travelers in their bathing suits while the local men and women were covered head to toe. So. Awkward.
Shoes were another issue I had to contend with. At home, I think nothing of kicking off my shoes just inside the door in the hall, or if it’s a quick stop, leaving them on in the house. While it was easy enough to remember to ditch the shoes before entering a temple or a mosque, it took far too many glares from hostel and guesthouse desk workers before I clued in that my shoes were not welcome inside their establishments. I became more aware of my feet as a problem in Malaysia, since there, like in many Asian countries, feet are considered dirty and offensive. I hadn’t given my feet much thought one way or the other before going to Malaysia; they were just the things that got me where I needed to go. I wouldn’t stick them in anyone’s face, but I also didn’t pay them much attention. Having to constantly mind where I put my feet and my shoes in Malaysia made me more aware of how they could cause offence to others, and I adjusted accordingly. More importantly, it taught me to try to be more observant when I was in a new place. You can pick up a lot just from watching other people. Try not to stare, though. That’s not cool anywhere.
Third Lesson: Don’t Be That Girl Who Might As Well Have Stayed Home
Malaysia showed me the value of engaging with the places and people that I saw while traveling. From chatting with shopkeepers, cooks, internet cafe owners, and pedestrians, I learned all sorts of things about Malaysia that weren’t covered in my guidebook.
I learned that the big yellow restaurant in Chinatown makes a great satay and a green onion and chili frog stir-fry. That the ‘Friday’ is part of the weekend in many areas. That the Batu Caves were an easy bus ride away on public transit. That according to my horoscope, Tuesdays are my least lucky day. That many of the restaurants do sell alcohol even if it’s not on the menu. That Malaysia may be officially multicultural (Malay, Indian, and Chinese), but these cultures do not share equal rights. That there are places where it is a big problem for a mosque and a temple to be built on the same city block. Most importantly, that I should never insult the music of Celine Dion because there is no music better loved in Asia than a powerhouse ballad.
This country had many lessons to teach me, and I am grateful for every one of them. Terima kasih, Malaysia.