Visiting Malaysia is not just a tour to stunning beaches, untouched rainforests, and bustling metropolises; it’s also an immersion into a world of eccentricities that will delight, amuse, confuse, and annoy first-time visitors.
From the notoriously stinky durian fruit to the never-ending list of public holidays, Malaysia is a country that is teeming with surprises waiting to be discovered.
In this guide, I’ll take you on a journey to uncover 20 quirks and peculiarities that characterize both the country and its people, us Malaysians.
We dig smelly food
Malaysians have an unparalleled affection for stinky food that might leave uninitiated visitors both curious and bewildered. At the forefront of this culinary obsession is the notorious durian fruit, hailed as the “King of Fruits” despite its polarizing aroma, which has been likened to anything from rotting onions to gym socks. Despite its overpowering scent, Malaysians adore the creamy, custard-like flesh of the durian, elevating it to a revered status in local cuisine.
Apart from durian, other pungent delights such as belacan (fermented shrimp paste), budu (fermented fish sauce), petai (stink beans), bamboo shoots, and tempoyak (fermented durian paste) also find their way into traditional dishes.
While the uninitiated may wrinkle their noses at the prospect, for us Malaysians, these stinky delicacies are not just food — they’re an integral part of our culinary heritage, cherished and celebrated with gusto.
You will rarely see Level 4 in buildings
In Malaysian buildings, it’s a curious anomaly that you’ll rarely come across a ‘Level 4’ or a unit number 4. This omission isn’t due to mere chance; rather, it stems from a deep-rooted cultural superstition surrounding the number ‘4’.
In Chinese culture, the number ‘4’ is associated with death, as the pronunciation of ‘four’ in Mandarin closely resembles the word for ‘death’. Consequently, many Malaysian buildings, influenced by the prevalent Chinese population, opt to replace the number ‘4’ with ‘3A’, out of respect for cultural beliefs and to avoid any perceived association with misfortune.
There will never be enough shopping malls
Malaysians’ love affair with shopping malls knows no bounds. It’s a phenomenon where one can never have enough, and the landscape seems to perpetually evolve with new additions.
In Malaysia, malls are not just places to shop but also serve as social hubs, entertainment centers, and culinary destinations. They have almost everything you can think of — cinemas, karaoke centers, bowling alleys, ice-skating rinks, gyms, spas, go-kart tracks, escape rooms, obstacle courses, and even theme parks with roller coasters!
Largely due to the allure of air-conditioned comfort in the tropical heat, shopping malls hold an irresistible charm for locals. With each new mall that sprouts up, Malaysians eagerly flock to explore its offerings.
We have many public holidays
Malaysia’s calendar is peppered with an abundance of public holidays throughout the year. What’s truly remarkable about these holidays is their inclusivity; most of them apply to everyone, irrespective of personal faiths, cultures, or ethnicities.
Whether it’s Hari Raya Aidilfitri (Eid), Chinese New Year, Deepavali, or Christmas, Malaysians come together to revel in the festivities, sharing in the joy and camaraderie that these occasions bring.
As the nation comes to a standstill on these special days, streets buzz with activity, homes are adorned with decorations, and the air is filled with aroma of festive delicacies.
We mash up several languages together
In this multicultural country, language is not a barrier but a bridge that connects individuals across cultures and communities.
It’s not uncommon for a Malaysian to know multiple languages and effortlessly blend them together.
In a single conversation, you might hear a melodic mix of Malay, English, Cantonese, Tamil, and various regional dialects, as locals navigate between languages depending on the context and their conversational partners.
This linguistic mash-up, known affectionately as “rojak” (a term also used for a local salad of mixed ingredients), is a reflection of Malaysia’s cultural harmony and the interconnectedness of its people.
We will travel and queue for good food
To Malaysians, good food is not just a meal — it’s an experience worth savoring, no matter the distance or the wait. We display a remarkable willingness to travel for hours across state borders or endure lengthy queues that snake around city blocks, all in pursuit of culinary delights.
Whether it’s a legendary street stall renowned for its mouthwatering local delicacy or a trendy cafe serving up the latest viral food craze, we are prepared to go to great lengths to satisfy our cravings.
Food tastes better when eaten with bare hands
Dining in Malaysia isn’t just about savoring flavors; it’s also a tactile experience that involves a unique cultural tradition: eating with your fingers.
We have a deep-rooted affinity for using our hands to enjoy our meals, especially when it comes to certain dishes like nasi lemak, banana leaf rice, and various types of traditional Malay, Indian, and Indonesian cuisine.
Known as “makan pakai tangan” in Malay, this practice is not only practical but also adds a layer of intimacy and connection to the food. By using our fingers, we can better appreciate the texture, temperature, and aroma of the dishes, enhancing the overall dining experience.
In some traditional restaurants, you might see metal pots on the tables (see picture). These are not for drinking — they are for washing your hands!
We always want to know if you have eaten
In Malaysian culture, the simple question “Have you eaten?” is a common greeting that goes beyond mere politeness — it reflects the Malaysian obsession with food and is a way for us to show our hospitality, that is by ensuring that others are well-fed and cared for.
Whether you’re meeting a friend, a neighbor, or a stranger, you can expect to be greeted with this warm inquiry, regardless of the time of day or the context of the encounter. So the next time a Malaysian asks you, “Have you eaten?” know that it’s more than just a question — it’s an expression of warmth and generosity that define Malaysian culture.
"Mamak" restaurants are more than just restaurants
Originating from the Indian Muslim community, mamak stalls are open-air eateries that serve as social hubs where people from all walks of life gather to eat, drink, and chat. Even one of our kings was often spotted at mamak stalls.
Typically open 24 hours, these affordable restaurants are perfect for a quick breakfast of roti canai and teh tarik in the morning or a late-night supper of nasi kandar. It is also the place where football fans congregate to watch international matches in the middle of the night.
These inclusive spaces are where Malaysians come to unwind, debate current affairs, or simply enjoy each other’s company. Mamak stalls are more than just a dining experience; they’re a culture and a way of life.
Chili is life
Just like most Southeast Asians, Malaysians have a penchant for spicy food, and we’re not afraid to add chili to virtually anything on our plates. From traditional dishes like nasi lemak and laksa to Western favorites like pizza and burgers, and even fresh fruits, Malaysians will often reach for the chili sauce, chili flakes, or sambal to elevate the flavor profile.
For us, a meal without chili is like a day without sunshine — it’s simply incomplete. So, if you’re feeling brave, go ahead and embrace the heat. Otherwise, ask for less spicy.
We live in "Malaysian timing"
‘Malaysian timing’ is a colloquial term that describes the relaxed and flexible approach Malaysians often have toward punctuality and time management. While it’s not unique to Malaysia and can be found in many cultures worldwide, Malaysian timing has become somewhat of a cultural stereotype.
Events, meetings, and gatherings may not always start precisely on time, and there’s often an understanding that delays are commonplace. When somebody says they’re already on their way to meet you, it often means they’re still at home or have just woken up.
While this notion of ‘Malaysian timing’ may baffle those accustomed to strict punctuality, it reflects a cultural inclination to prioritize human interactions and adaptability over the constraints of the clock.
You might encounter wildlife in unexpected places
You might be surprised to find that in Malaysia, encounters with wildlife are not confined to the depths of the jungle or remote nature reserves; they can happen unexpectedly, even in urban settings. Malaysia’s rich biodiversity means that wildlife often coexists with human habitats.
It’s not uncommon to spot monitor lizards leisurely crossing sidewalks or monkeys rummaging your kitchen if you forgot to close the windows. Malaysians have learned to adapt to these encounters, treating them with a mix of awe and familiarity.
Bikers wear jackets backwards
A unique fashion trend has long emerged among Malaysian bikers: wearing their jackets backwards and leaving them unzipped.
This unconventional style choice is very popular among motorcyclists, who often don their jackets with the front facing backward, leaving the collar to protect their neck from the sun, dust and wind while riding.
At the same time, leaving the jackets unzipped at the back will allow some ventilation in this humidity, and also make it easier to put on and take off.
Genius, if you ask me!
Going to the toilet can be an interesting adventure
While Western-style toilet seats are prevalent in urban areas and tourist establishments, squat toilets are still a common sight. In fact, some people like the squat toilets so much that in the absence of one, they’d resort to squatting on normal toilet seats.
Visitors may also come across the ubiquitous bidet hose, affectionately known as the “bum gun.” Malaysians often practice the cultural norm of washing with water instead of toilet paper, hence the bidet.
The hand is a powerful tool when crossing the road
Crossing the road in Malaysia often involves more than just looking both ways; it’s a skill that locals have mastered using a powerful tool — the hand. This simple yet effective gesture involves raising one’s hand outward, signaling to oncoming traffic an intention to cross, and also doubling as a sign of thanks to the drivers for stopping.
It’s a non-verbal communication method that drivers readily recognize and respect, often slowing down or stopping to allow pedestrians to safely navigate the bustling streets. However, I would personally only do this when the cars are already slowing down, not when they’re going at full speed.
Everyone is our aunty, uncle, sister, or brother
Addressing strangers with familial titles like “aunty,” “uncle,” “sister,” or “brother”, based on their apparent ages, is a cultural norm in Malaysian society.
Whether it’s seeking directions from a passerby, ordering food from a street vendor, or striking up a conversation with a fellow commuter, addressing them with these terms of endearment is a way for us to show respect and establish a sense of kinship with those around us.
We like to freeze indoors
You may not have thought it necessary to bring a sweater to a tropical country, but stepping indoors or boarding public transportation in Malaysia often comes with a surprising chill, as air conditioning is cranked up to combat the tropical heat outside.
While the cool respite from the sweltering heat can be refreshing to most, some people may find themselves reaching for sweaters or jackets to ward off the frigid temperatures indoors. Despite the occasional discomfort, Malaysians have learned to adapt, often carrying extra layers to the office or for the train ride.
We love freebies
Other than good food, there’s another thing that Malaysians will happily queue for: freebies! Be it free samples at the supermarket, promotional giveaways, or complimentary vouchers, the prospect of receiving something for free is too irresistible, even if it’s something small that we can totally afford to buy. It’s not the material value, but the thrill and satisfaction of scoring a deal!
We will park anywhere
Limited parking spaces for the amount of cars on the road has forced Malaysian drivers to be a little more ‘creative’. As a result, vehicles are sometimes found occupying unconventional spaces such as sidewalks, alleys, or even makeshift parking spots along roadsides.
While this practice can cause congestion, inconvenience, and even danger to other road users, some drivers still continue to do so and consider it a pragmatic solution to the perennial challenge of finding a parking spot in the city.
Rules are just "suggestions"
The concept of rules may sometimes take on a more flexible interpretation in Malaysia, where adherence is sometimes viewed as optional rather than mandatory.
While there are certainly laws and regulations in place, their enforcement can sometimes be lax, leading to a culture where people may feel more inclined to bend or disregard rules if it suits their immediate needs or circumstances.
This mindset is evident in various aspects of daily life, from the relaxed attitude towards traffic rules to the creative improvisation in navigating bureaucratic red tape.
Nonetheless, I wouldn’t advise you to follow suit and act like a local in this regard. If caught, the fines can be hefty, especially if they believe you have the money to pay!
What Malaysian oddity did you find the most baffling? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.