Some people get offended if asked whether their country is safe for tourists. I — on the other hand — think it’s a valid question to ask, especially if you’re a solo female traveler. True, danger is everywhere and we must never let our guard down, but if I were to visit a new place, I’d want to know if there’s any danger or annoyance specific to that place that I should be aware of.
In this article, I wish to give you an honest insight into the safety situation in Malaysia, particularly in Kuala Lumpur. I’m writing as someone who has lived here for more than 30 years, and who has also traveled abroad extensively, therefore has an idea of how Malaysia compares to other countries.
It’s not meant to denigrate my own country or to scare anyone away. Quite the contrary — I would love to welcome you to my homeland, but I don’t think I should gloss over the problems that visitors might encounter.
Kuala Lumpur is a modern city with a population of about 2 million people. In Kuala Lumpur, violent crimes against tourists are very uncommon. But just like in many big cities, petty crimes are prevalent.
In crowded places and on public transports, beware of pickpockets (although they are probably not as skillful or as organized as the ones in Europe). If you’re carrying a backpack, it’s safer to carry it on your front. Make sure your bags are zipped. Do not put any valuables in your back pockets.
Kuala Lumpur is not a city where you can leave your bag in a public area, go to the washroom, and expect to find your stuff still there when you come back. Never leave your personal belongings unattended. When dining alfresco, do not put your phone or purse on the table or within easy reach of passers-by.
The same rule applies when walking, riding a bicycle, or riding a motorbike: keep your valuables out of sight. Snatch theft is a more prominent problem than pickpocketing, and unfortunately, quite a few cases have resulted in serious injuries and even deaths.
I personally have never been a scam victim in my own city, so I can’t really speak from experience. But according to TravelScams.org, there are several common scams in Malaysia that you should be aware of, most of them concerning fake tickets.
When buying bus tickets for long-distance journeys, do it at the ticket counters or machines, not from ticket touts loitering outside the bus terminal. Alternatively, buy online from reputable websites like RedBus. On the same note, exercise caution when buying tour packages.
The most common scam is probably the taxi scam. All registered taxis come with meters, but the drivers may sometimes refuse to use them and try to negotiate the fare with you instead. Even if you succeed in getting them to use the meter, it still won’t protect you from getting scammed, especially if you don’t know your way around. This, and the general bad attitude of many taxi drivers in Kuala Lumpur have made me stop using their service completely. Take my advice: use Grab Car.
Sexual Harassment & Assault
In Malaysia, you are more likely to be raped by a family member or someone close to you than to be sexually assaulted by a stranger. However, sexual harassment in crowded places does happen, which is why you might see special train coaches for ladies.
Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country and therefore requires a certain dress code. There are some places in the city where you can wear anything you like and not feel out of place (e.g. Bukit Bintang). In other areas especially in more rural parts of the country, it is best to keep your legs and shoulders covered. Not that you will get into serious trouble for not doing so, but you might attract unwanted attention.
Staring is a common complaint I hear from tourists visiting Malaysia. In most cases though, people stare out of curiosity, rather than bad intentions. Some locals, especially those who are not exposed to Western culture (my own elderly parents included), are not aware that staring is rude. I personally had to tell my mom to stop staring at a Caucasian tourist, and she was totally confused as to why she was not allowed to look.
Please note that I’m not condoning this behavior, nor am I making excuses for the offenders. I hate the idea that women have to dress a certain way to be treated with respect. But I hope this might shed some new light on the issue — that sometimes it’s just a matter of cultural differences.
In terms of cleanliness, Malaysia doesn’t fare too badly compared to neighboring countries, but it’s not the cleanest either. People litter everywhere, rivers are the color of teh tarik, and some of the public toilets make you want to hold your pee till you get back to your hotel.
But things are slowly changing. If there’s anything positive that came out of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s that people are more conscious about hygiene.
When it comes to food, premises inside shopping malls can be considered safe, as they have to undergo frequent checks to ensure that they adhere to the strictest cleanliness standards. You might want to be a little wary of street stalls and night markets, but this shouldn’t stop you from trying street food. Just practice a little extra care.
Do not drink unfiltered tap water without boiling it first.
In 2019, Malaysia has the third highest fatality rate from road traffic accidents in Asia and Southeast Asia, behind Thailand and Vietnam. So, you might want to consider that before you take long-distance bus rides especially at night. For interstate travel, I personally prefer taking trains or flights.
Road conditions are excellent in most parts of Malaysia. However, you can’t say the same about the drivers. When crossing a street, always look both ways and make sure it’s safe before you cross — even if you’re using the zebra crossing, even if the traffic lights say you can cross, and even if you’re crossing a one-way street.
If you choose to rent a car in Malaysia, good luck. World Nomads offers the most comprehensive travel insurance for adventurous travelers.
Although Malaysia is known to be a nation with multiple cultures living in apparent harmony, this doesn’t mean that racism doesn’t exist. There are people of a particular ethnic group in Malaysia who claim that they own the land and consider all other races ‘unwelcome visitors’.
On top of that, we have a lot of foreign workers and illegal immigrants from neighboring countries and some parts of Africa. Unfortunately, Malaysians in general do not take too kindly to them. This is partly due to plain old bigotry, and partly because there are some foreigners who are frequently caught for engaging in criminal activities.
If you happen to be from any of these countries, you might receive the same kind of treatment. This doesn’t come in the form of violence, but you might notice that the locals are not as friendly to you, or as eager to entertain you as they are towards other (read: white) tourists.
Malaysia is a fairly safe country to visit. There is no war, riots, or political unrest beyond the usual bickering among politicians. There is no natural disaster apart from the yearly monsoon season in some parts of the country sometimes causing floods and landslides. Plus, violent crimes against tourists are very uncommon. Possession of guns is illegal without a license, which is extremely difficult to obtain.
However, just like anywhere else, you should always be vigilant and use common sense. Take good care of your belongings, don’t trust people too easily, and avoid walking alone at night in dodgy places. Drink responsibly, and dress modestly (optional).
In any case, you should never go anywhere without a travel insurance. Click here for the world’s most trusted travel insurance.
Have you visited Malaysia? Did you feel safe? Share your experience in the comments below.