Malaysia is a hotbed for tourists. It’s a beautiful place to visit with gorgeous beaches, fantastic weather, delicious food and an amazing culture. It is definitely a place where you could make memories that you would cherish for a lifetime. Of course, if you are a tourist to the country, you want to be aware of the dos and don’ts of what you can do and what you should avoid. No one wants to have their trip ruined by paying a heavy fine, or worse, ending up in jail, so you should be aware of the fun things to do in Malaysia, but you should also be aware of important legal information as well.
Before you start reading this article, we’d like you to inform you about the fact that Malaysia relies heavily on tourism as it is the third biggest contributor to Malaysia’s GDP. Some previous incidents involving tourists made world headlines and you can be sure Malaysia wants to avoid this kind of bad PR at all costs. Standard objective would always be to settle things in the least conspicuous way. Holidaying in Malaysia can be enjoyed without ever having to worry yourself about the laws and rules you’ll read about below.
How to Get into Malaysia
Citizens of the vast majority of countries are welcome to come to Malaysia, and have been doing so for many years. It has become one of the most popular tourist destinations on the planet, and part of the reason for this is that it is very easy to visit this beautiful Southeast Asian country. To gain access, all you need is a tourist visa. Most foreign travelers will get one upon arrival (in most cases with a validity of 90 days), some need to apply for a visa before their trip. Check the rules that apply to travelers from your country beforehand to avoid trouble once you arrive in Malaysia.
In most cases, you may be able to apply for a tourist visa once you arrive in the country, but it is probably better to avoid any hassle by being proactive. Rules may differ for per country. For example, Indian travelers need to apply for an eNTRI beforehand. Travelers from certain other countries, like China, Sri Lanka etc, need to apply for an e-Visa.
Great Attractions for All
There are incredible attractions in Malaysia, places that will leave you breathless. For example, the Beautiful tea fields in Cameron Highlands are absolutely gorgeous. The design and maintenance have made this a spot you will not want to miss.
Of course, what brings many to the country are the incredible beaches and beautiful clear water. If you want to swim, scuba dive, take a boat ride, fish, or just lay out on the beach, you will find this country quite hospitable. The Perfect beach holiday at Langkawi Island, Crystal clear water at Perhentian Island, and Jungle adventures at Taman Negara are perfect for any beach or water activity.
Malaysia is the melting pot of a few different cultures, including Indian, Chinese, and European, so there is great culture and history. You will find fantastic artifacts, art, and exhibits at museums, and the food is like no other on the planet (simply divine!).
Freedom to follow one’s own religion is protected under the country’s constitution, but that is not adhered to in practice. Around 30% of the population is non-Muslim, meaning that many of the laws that have been written in accordance with Sharia law do in fact not completely apply to them. But this doesn’t mean they are allowed to just ignore Sharia law. Minorities have adapted perfectly well to basically live a carefree life in the country, without risking repercussions from not obeying religious law. Actually, you’ll notice most minorities live in more urban areas, often the more populous regions along peninsula Malaysia’s west coast. Here they can live their lives without too much interference by the other population groups or by the religious police. For example, local (religious) authorities have a much tighter grip on community in states like Kelantan and Terengganu.
What tourists may find is that they can come in conflict with laws related to blasphemy, which prohibits any conduct or word that insults a religious group or belief. You can still enjoy visiting Malaysia and have a great time there, just be aware of the beliefs of the vast majority of the citizens of the country and be respectful.
Many couples would consider Malaysia the perfect honeymoon or romantic getaway. But one should be aware that not all personal choices are accepted in the country. That is especially true for gay, lesbian, and transgender couples.
Because Malaysia is predominantly Muslim, the country follows Sharia law in most cases (Sharia law is a separate law altogether from the Malaysian legal system). Though Sharia law primarily applies to Muslims, the laws regarding everything LGBTQ apply to everyone, even western tourists. You should be aware that many of the romantic activities you are able to enjoy in your own country are likely illegal in Malaysia, or at least frowned upon.
That said, reality is that gay couples can have a fabulous holiday in Malaysia without constantly having to worry about its ‘religious police’. Many of our Malaysian gay friends live a pleasant life in Malaysia, obviously they’re facing challenges, but overall quality of life is quite good. Compared to many western countries however, Malaysia does not offer the same freedom in terms of life choices. Compared to heterosexual couples, there’s no carefree living for gays in Malaysia.
Gay couples visiting Malaysia often act as ‘good friends’ in public. Perhaps not the most fun way to enjoy a holiday, but the vibe is often much more relaxed when staying at one of the better resorts on the islands or along coastal areas. In buzzing cities like KL, people aren’t too occupied with how others behave or appear.
Enjoying Your Night Out
You should be aware that there are many forms of conduct that can get you into trouble in Malaysia. One of the most common is drinking, excessive drinking to be more specific. Sharia law prohibits the consumption of alcohol, but these laws apply to Muslims only (more specifically, local Malay Muslims or people resembling Malay Muslims like travelers from nearby countries). There are many bars and clubs where tourists (and expatriates) can go to have a drink. Bigger cities like KL and Georgetown have a vibrant night-life scene with big dance events, concerts at small and big venues, life music and the typical bars with huge buckets full of beers and such. A simple rule applies, don’t get too drunk and refrain from disorderly behavior.
The 1955 act that prohibited foul language also bars public drunkenness anywhere in the vicinity of a courthouse or place of worship. You will find many places of worship throughout the country, so it can be quite easy to violate the law. It is ok to drink – just be moderate about it.
As part of your night out, keep in mind that oral sex on a man is still considered a crime regardless of whether it is a man or woman who committed the act. This law is taken seriously, as the punishment is a maximum of 20 years in prison. Both the person giving and receiving can go to jail.
One other thing to keep in mind while you are out is that you need to be respectful and keep the noise down. Making too much noise is seen as a public nuisance crime and you can receive a stiff penalty. Noise does not have to be verbal either, banging a drum or blowing a horn could get you into trouble as well.
Gambling in Malaysia
For those who enjoy playing slots, blackjack, or other casino-style games, there is a lot to enjoy in Malaysia. They have incredible casinos available at the mountainous Genting Highlands, together with a plethora of online options. If you fancy some fun at one of many online casinos, you can play your favorite games anywhere within the country, according to this international source. It also offers a comprehensive list of all options to fulfill all your online gaming needs.
To keep yourself out of trouble, you should be aware that online gambling is technically illegal in Malaysia. Right now, it is illegal to host online casino sites within the country’s borders, but laws do not specifically prohibit gambling online. While you may be able to gain access to a site hosted in a neighboring country, it doesn’t mean that you should.
While casinos are legal to operate in Malaysia, Muslims are barred from using the facilities. This is a very interesting dynamic considering that almost 70% of the people in the country fall in that category. Among the visitors of casinos are mostly local Chinese-Malaysians, Chinese tourists, Singaporeans and the occasional western tourist.
Over the years Genting Highlands evolved into one gigantic entertainment hub that comprises of indoor and outdoor theme parks, cinemas, bowling alleys, huge Vegas like shows and a colossal shopping mall stretching throughout the resort. Because of this it is highly popular among the Malay population, even though they cannot participate in any of the gambling options that is provided here as well. Instead, they head out there with families for a weekend full of fun. Due to its close proximity to the capital of Kuala Lumpur, many book a room at one of many amazing hotels to spend several days in this great place.
While at the Beach
You need to be careful with your conduct that beach. The same behaviors that apply while you are out would apply at the beach as well, so don’t be drunk, don’t make too much noise, and avoid having sex. In general, Malaysians are quite conservative when it comes to how to dress and how to behave in public.
You also need to keep your bathing suit on, even on the most secluded beaches. In many countries, women like to go to the beach and at least take off their tops. This is a crime in Malaysia. It could lead to you going to jail and you can be fined as well. So, keep it on in public.
Public Indecency and Public Display of Affection
Malaysia has some strict rules in place for its inhabitants, and most also apply to tourists. Obviously, all forms of public indecency are strictly forbidden and punishable by law. Do not engage in public sex acts ever, it could open up a world of trouble.
But there’s also a much more subtle set of rules in place, related to all forms of public affection. Kissing in public is frowned upon. It will not lead to fines and such, but you may receive some glances. You will probably never ever see a local couple kiss in public. However, cuddling or holding hands is fine, occasionally you’ll even see male friends (mostly from the Indian demographic, but often Malays as well) holding hands when walking.
Lately, some rules have been introduced to make sure Muslim non-married local couples are not able to stay in a hotel room in Malaysia. Immediately after this set of rules we received questions from our readers if these rules also apply to them. Fortunately, the answer is No, unmarried foreign couples are just as welcome into Malaysia as every other couple.
Say No to Drugs
Drugs are strongly prohibited in Malaysia. Once again, because of the influence of Islam on the laws of the country, any type of illegal substance that is used is a serious crime. There has been talk by government officials of decriminalizing those who use small amounts, instead choosing to provide them with treatment. However, those who are using harder drugs or who are involved in the selling of drugs are looking at serious repercussions for doing so.
There is a rising addiction problem in Malaysia and they are trying to curb this by getting people help. However, tourists using drugs may be viewed as a source of the problem and could be dealt with quite severely. NEVER EVER USE DRUGS IN MALAYSIA!
Do Not Overstay (Your Welcome)!
Travelers that arrive in Malaysia receive a passport stamp which allows them to stay in the country for a certain period of time, depending on your origin. Most European travelers for example are allowed up to 90 days on a so-called Tourist Visa, which means that they must leave the country (or travel elsewhere) before these 90 days are up.
It is very important to not overstay. It could mean you get a fine or worse and at least a prohibition of entering the country for several years.
Do Not Consider a Bribe
Bribing is against the law. Never try to settle an issue by offering a bribe. Times of bribing local enforcement officers are long gone. Do not suggest it, do not try to be subtle about it.
Also, if you do encounter a situation where you feel a bribe is suggested, please decline and always ask for the ‘proper way’ to settle. This could mean a higher fine or more hassle, but it also means things will not escalate further or spiral out of control.
Avoid Traffic Incidents
Usually, when there are traffic checks, foreign travelers are allowed to pass through without a question. Most of these random checks are purely focused on local inhabitants, and often in crowded/urban areas (as the image above suggests, driving through rural Malaysia can be quite lonely at times). However, if you are caught speeding, ignoring traffic lights, driving into traffic on a one-way street, or worse, drunk driving or involved in an accident, you can look forward to paying hefty fines.
This goes for scooter rental as well. Be aware that you are often only allowed to rent a scooter (actually a very fast motorbike) if you carry a motorbike license. A typical driving license is not sufficient. Make sure you inquire upfront about rules that apply. Langkawi for example is notorious for traffic checks (with main focus on tourists).
Different States, Different Laws
Malaysia has many different states, each has their own local government and each enforces laws their own way. Some states, for example Kelantan and Terengganu, are more strict than other states. Here Sharia law is more dominant. During our first few trips to these states, many many years ago, alcohol wasn’t even available in international hotel chains. Nowadays more Chinese-Malaysians have settled here and those that run an F&B establishment are also allowed to pour alcohol. If a place in these states does sell alcoholic drinks, you’ll know it and you do not have to ask for it specifically. When in doubt, assume they do not sell alcohol.
Religious sites always have a certain set of rules to abide to, usually clearly visible on a sign at the entrance. Examples are, no shoes inside the premises, do not show too much bare skin, no shorts or tank-tops etc.
The Island of Penang, the State of Selangor and capital city Kuala Lumpur have the most liberal stance towards consumption of alcoholic beverages. Think of bars with hundreds of different types of beers, vast collections of whisky’s and more. In Kuala Lumpur, there are several districts for a great night out, for example Changkat Bukit Bintang in KLCC, Bangsar and Damansara (just outside of KL in the state of Selangor).
Stay Away from Certain Regions
This will probably not get you in trouble with local law, but they do carry certain risks. For example, you have to be cautious in Northern parts of the peninsula, specifically the border regions to Thailand. Some parts of Eastern Sabah are recommended to avoid as well. Though chances you run into issues are slim, there’s also the matter of (health) insurance coverage. If you run into troubles in these regions, you might risk your insurance not willing to cover expenses.
Dual Nationality is a No Go
Dual citizenship is not recognized in Malaysia. Make sure you travel with a single passport only. If Immigration discovers you carry dual nationality, you may need to renounce one at the spot.
Eating During Ramadan
Foreign travelers (non-Muslims) are allowed to eat during the holy month of Ramadan. It is however more appropriate to refrain from eating, drinking or smoking in public during the day, especially around people that are fasting. Luckily the sun sets early in Malaysia, so around 7.30pm tops most Muslims are happily enjoying their meal.
Most popular tourist areas, including all bigger cities, have ample F&B establishments where you can eat during the day without any issues. Here local Chinese-Malaysian citizens have their dinner as they do not adhere to the rules that apply during Ramadan. All Chinese and western restaurants will be open during day-time so it is always easy to find a place to eat. In some regions, like the previously mentioned states of Kelantan and Terengganu, you are best off heading to one of the more luxurious hotels and resorts for a nice meal during the day. You’ll find that most local shops (are run by Malaysians) are closed during the day during Ramadan.
You Will Have a Great Time
The reality is that the vast majority of these are commonsense things to do. You should not be in any kind of trouble if you are respectful and keep your enjoyment to a moderate level. There is a lot to do and you will find plenty of things to make this a destination you will never forget.
You just need to make sure that you are respectful to Muslims and to the Islamic faith as a whole. Do this, and you will have the time of your life.