The Western Tourist’s (Short) Guide to Malaysia

Visiting Malaysia for the first time? Here’s a quick guide to some of Malaysia’s heritage and culture, to give you a bit of a “heads-up” before you make the trip.

Multicultural Malaysia

The Federation of Malaysia is comprised of two land areas – Peninsular Malaysia which lies to the south of Thailand, and the East Malaysia states of Sabah and Sarawak, located across the South China sea on the island of Borneo.

The geographical distance between the two parts of Malaysia, means that over time, the country has been exposed to, and developed, a range of religions and cultures.

The majority of the population is Malay (57%), while the rest of the population have Chinese, Indian, and other ethnic origins. The Sabah and Sarawak regions are home to numerous indigenous tribal groups.

Diversity Acknowledged

Although Islam is the prevailing religion in Malaysia, Buddhism and Christianity are also widely practised. In fact, the country officially celebrates a range of national holidays stemming from these religions, including Maulidur Rasul (Prophet Muhammad’s birthday), Chinese New Year and Christmas.

While there are over one hundred spoken languages in Malaysia, many of which are only used among local tribes, Malay is the country’s official language. English is an actively used second language (a legacy of British rule in the region, which ended in 1957). You will also hear various Chinese languages throughout Malaysia, such as Cantonese and Mandarin.

Malaysians Dress to Impress

The diverse culture of Malaysia means that there are a variety of traditional costumes worn throughout the country.

The traditional dress for Malay men is the “baju melayu”, a loose, collarless tunic worn over trousers. Often, a short sarong called a “sampin”, is worn around the waste together with this outfit.

Malay women traditionally wear a “baju kurung”, a loose blouse that drops to the knees and is worn on top of a long, pleated skirt. A complementary headscarf is also often worn.

The “cheongsam”, a long, tight, one-piece dress with a high collar and short sleeves, is the traditional choice of clothing for Chinese Malaysian women, while Malaysians with an Indian heritage will prefer the customary “saree”.

The native tribes of Sabah and Sarawak wear a range of tribal costumes, often made from tree bark fabrics, feathers and beads. Much of their attire is still hand-made.

Malaysians are not afraid of wearing colour, and many of these traditional costumes are bright, bold and colourful.

Malaysian Culture
A Remarkable Heritage

The Malay, Chinese, Indian and indigenous influences over the country’s culture, has also contributed to a diverse range of foods, dance, music, and even architecture. While you may be able to spot hint of western influence in Malaysia’s culture, especially in modern cities such as Kuala Lumpur, the country’s origins and deep heritage is still evident throughout much of the region.

Travelling to Peninsular Malaysia and to the eastern states, you will surely be exposed to an array of cultural experiences, all of which contribute to this beautiful country’s uniqueness.

Culture of Malaysia

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