MALAYSIA

Safety

As with visits to any country in the world, whether it be a poor area or an affluent region, caution should be exercised at all times whilst travelling around Malaysia. Staying in unfamiliar regions is inherently more risky than staying at home and spending time in familiar places which you know to be relatively safe. However, the following advice will help you stay safe whilst travelling around Malaysia and will ensure that you make the most of your time in this fascinating region.

Much of the advice provided below may seem to be pure common sense but an amazing number of travellers seem to drop their guard as soon as they leave the UK and take risks which they would not dream of taking at home. We also include advice on aspects of travelling in Malaysia which you may simply not be aware of. The Foreign Office estimates that approximately 250,000 British travellers visit Malaysia every year and the good news is that most of these travellers never encounter dangerous situations and thoroughly enjoy their stay. However, it is always better to be well prepared...

General advice

  • Always be aware of where your valuables are located on your person. It may feel safe to carry your mobile phone in your pocket but it only takes a split second to become the victim of a pick-pocket. If you have decided to store valuables or cash in your hotel or hostel, make sure you have used a secure safe.
  • Keep up-to-date with the news in the local and regional newspapers and make sure you are constantly aware of any security risks or local issues which may affect your stay. If your hotel or hostel has a television, keep an eye on CNN or another Western news channel, which will keep you informed about any civil unrest in Malaysia. Similarly, if there is a radio handy, the BBC World Service will alert travellers of any problems arising in the country.
  • Never open your hotel or hostel door to a stranger, particularly during the evening and late at night. Even if the person is dressed in uniform and appears to have a bona fide reason for being there, it is not worth running the risk. Women travelling alone are particularly vulnerable.
  • Organise appropriate travel insurance and make sure you know what your policy does and does not cover prior to leaving the United Kingdom.
  • Make sure any travelling companions are aware of your whereabouts at all times. If you are going out on an excursion on your own, leave details with the receptionist at your hostel or hotel and ask them to raise the alarm if you are not back by a certain time.
  • Leave a copy of your contact details with somebody remaining in the United Kingdom. If you know where you will be staying prior to leaving the country, leave telephone numbers and addresses. If you intend to travel without booking accommodation beforehand, leave a general travel itinerary with someone in the United Kingdom, providing as much detail as possible.

Areas to avoid

Whilst Malaysia is a beautiful part of the world, there are some areas which it is not advisable to visit. In particular, the coastal regions of Eastern Sabah have been considered very dangerous for some time now. If you do decide to visit this area, you should be aware of the kidnap risk by criminals or terrorists. Areas such as the coast around Eastern Sabah have also had their reputations damaged by incidents of piracy.

The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), which is an extremely active terrorist group, operates in the southern Philippines and, as such, the coastal regions in Malaysia which are located close to this area should be avoided by all foreign tourists. These areas have been popular with backpackers from Britain in the past because of its beautiful dive sites. However, it is really not worth running the risk of becoming involved in a potentially life-threatening situation.

Unfortunately, kidnappings over the past few years have also occurred on the islands of Sipadan, Mataking, and Pandanan, located off the south-eastern coast of Malaysia. Other areas to avoid include Lahad Datu, which is on the eastern coast of the country.

The Malaysian government is aware of the risks posed to tourists by criminals operating in some of these areas. As a result, some of the regions, particularly those located near to Eastern Sabah, have been provided with extra counter-terrorism measures but they are still not safe for foreign travellers, particularly those travelling on a tight budget.

Advice on terrorism

Unfortunately, terrorism is a threat throughout the world and you should always be aware of the potential for becoming involved in a terrorist incident regardless of your destination. Public places in Malaysia are at risk of being targeted by terrorist groups. These places include hotels, particularly large Western hotels, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, schools, market places, places of worship, tourist attractions, and shopping or leisure complexes.

It is of course difficult to avoid this sort of place and travellers have to assess the risk to the best of their ability when planning their itinerary. Make sure that as far as possible appropriate security measures and regulations are firmly in place before you put yourself in danger.

In every area you choose to visit, you should of course remain vigilant at all times. If you spot a suspicious package or believe that somebody, or a group of people, is behaving in an odd manner, report it as soon as possible to the appropriate person. Many terrorist attacks have been prevented by travellers being vigilant and reporting their suspicions to local police.

Official advice given to travellers keen to avoid terrorist incidents is to avoid sticking to the same routine which can make an individual more of a target. Instead, you should vary the times and routes of any journeys you are going to make more than once or twice during your stay.

Credit card scams

Unfortunately, credit card fraud is a real problem throughout Malaysia. The sad fact is that the vast majority of places which accept plastic are likely also to be able to copy a credit card. Even large, apparently reputable department stores and Western style hotels have been found guilty of this practice.

Before you leave the United Kingdom, make sure you have organised several ways to access money whilst abroad. For instance, ensure that you will not have to rely solely upon credit or debit cards. Take travellers’ cheques and cash with you as well and make numerous copies of important documents including your passport, tickets, and visa.

It may also be a good idea to keep a spare credit or debit card somewhere no thief would ever think to look. Some backpackers sew a spare card loosely into the lining of an old bra or bikini and keep this item of clothing in their suitcase or with all their other clothes in a drawer or cupboard. Not many thieves would ever think of looking in lingerie for a credit card and it will provide you with real peace of mind throughout your travels knowing that you have some way of accessing cash to fall back on in case of emergency.

Alert your bank to the fact that you are going to be travelling in Malaysia, so that they can keep an eye on the transactions occurring in your name. Furthermore, if you have a bank account which can be accessed online, provide a trusted, close family member with your account details and ask them to keep a close eye on your transactions. Ask them to alert you and your bank as soon as possible if anything looks unusual or excessive payments have been made unexpectedly.

As a final word of advice on fraud, you should always protect your passport since criminals may use it to steal your identity. Always keep it in a safe place and report it as lost or stolen should such an event occur.

Local laws

British travellers are often surprised when they travel abroad to encounter local laws which, to them, seem overly harsh or unnecessary when compared to the laws they have become accustomed to in the United Kingdom. However, it is important to be aware of Malaysia’s laws before travelling to the country, in order to avoid being found guilty of doing something which you thought was perfectly legal.

The unfortunate truth is that many young people who backpack around poorer countries, including Malaysia, will indulge in recreational drugs at some point. The freedom afforded to them whilst travelling abroad without their parents often results in them indulging in dangerous activity such as drug use but this can be extremely risky in Malaysia. Drug offences are punishable by severe penalties and if an individual is found to have been trafficking drugs, the death penalty can be imposed.

It is also a sad fact that certain countries have not adopted a fair approach to homosexuality. Homosexual acts between men are illegal in Malaysia and long prison sentences can be handed out if caught. Homosexual acts between women are treated slightly differently in Malaysia but the end result, in terms of imprisonment, is usually the same.

Unfortunately, corporal punishment is common in the country and crimes including robbery can be punished in this manner. Finally, travellers should make sure that they are aware of Sharia Law, which has been introduced in numerous states across Malaysia.

Although it is not necessarily illegal to disregard local customs and traditions, you could find yourself in a lot of trouble if you do go against the norms of Malaysian society. Both men and women should make sure that they pack appropriate clothing to wear during their travels. Some Western clothes can be viewed negatively by local people and you should always take care not to offend in this manner. Furthermore, behaviour which may seem acceptable back in the bars and nightclubs of the United Kingdom may cause offence in Malaysia and could land you in severe trouble.

Malaysia is a Muslim country and you should be careful to observe religious customs which may be important to the local population. For example, during Ramadan, Muslims are forbidden to eat, drink, and smoke between sunrise and sunset and you should be very respectful of this fact. If you are planning on visiting a place of worship, you should make sure that your arms and legs are covered and it is also customary to remove shoes prior to making your initial entrance. Do not worry too much about more minor customs, since you simply cannot be expected to remember them all. However, whilst exchanging money and eating, many people in Malaysia use their right hand exclusively.

Petty crime

Although many travellers spend a lot of time worrying about becoming victims of terrorist activity including kidnappings and bombings, the fact remains that they are far more likely to become victims of petty crimes. Perhaps the most common crime of this nature is mugging, which often occurs in busy urban areas where travellers need to focus their attention upon crossing the road and negotiating the packed streets. Travellers walking along the road can have their handbags snatched by individuals in passing vehicles. Even if physical injuries do not result from such incidents, the psychological impact which frequently arises from these events can ruin your entire trip.

If you are carrying a backpack, consider wearing it on your front rather than on your back. This will make it far more difficult for criminals to unzip your bag and grab your valuables. You may think that securing the backpack with a padlock is adequate protection but any criminal carrying a knife can render such protection pointless in just a few seconds. For this same reason, always keep more valuable items (if they do not fit in your money belt and cannot be left in your hotel or hostel safe) towards the back section of the rucksack. Backpacks are often divided into at least two sections and, whilst a knife can easily penetrate the first layer of material, it may not be so easy for a thief to reach the second section without causing a scene and making you and others aware of what is going on.

In addition, always wear a money belt to keep your valuables in and keep this well hidden under clothing whilst walking in public. Keep a small amount of cash handy in order to pay for things at the market but make sure you never flash a large amount of cash around.

Transport issues

If you decide to hire any kind of vehicle during your stay in Malaysia, you should check with the company providing your travel insurance that you are covered. Be careful in busy urban areas of Malaysia, where traffic can be a real problem. Motorcycles in particular can cause problems, since they weave through the dense traffic and often take no notice of pedestrian crossings and traffic lights.

If you decide to go on any kind of guided tour, you should be aware that safety standards are probably not going to be up to scratch and will certainly not meet the standards you will be familiar with in the United Kingdom. Vehicles used for transporting you on the tours may not have been properly maintained and seatbelts may well not be provided.

As a final word on safety, bear in mind that the activities undertaken on such guided tours may not be completely safe. This is a particular problem with diving tours, which are becoming increasingly popular with British tourists. The diving equipment provided may be old and may not have been rigorously checked for a while. On this note, you should remember that the standard of medical care provided in many areas of Malaysia is sub-standard. This may be a particular issue in rural areas, such as coastal towns where diving tours may take place. Furthermore, decompression chambers, which can be imperative for those who encounter trouble whilst diving, are only located in the regions of Kuantan, Ipoh, Lumut, and Labuan.

Drink spiking

Drink spiking refers to the practice of an individual adding a mind-altering substance to another person’s drink without their knowledge. These substances include drugs and alcohol. Drink spiking may be a precursor to further criminal activity, including rape or robbery.

Unfortunately, drink spiking can be a problem in Malaysia. Local criminals often plague the bars of major towns and smaller, rural areas, in the hope of targeting a naïve backpacker who has let their hair down in an environment which seems safe. However, the good news is that drink spiking can be avoided, by following these simple tips:

  • Always keep your drink firmly in your hand
  • Try to drink from a bottle, since you can then keep your thumb or finger securely over the opening at the top, preventing anyone from slipping in a pill without you noticing
  • Be aware of how other people around you are acting at all times
  • Keep an eye out for the drinks of your friends
  • Never leave your drink unattended. If you leave it for even one moment, simply leave the drink alone and buy a new one. It may seem unappealing to take your drink into the toilet with you but this is far preferable to risking having your drink spiked
  • Never accept a drink from a stranger. No matter how friendly a person seems, they may have ulterior motives. It may seem rude and unfriendly to decline a drink but it is better to cause slight offence than to end up being raped or robbed
  • No matter how strapped for cash you are, or how drunk you become during a night out, never drink leftover drinks which may be scattered around the club or bar

If you start to feel unwell on a night out and think that your drink may have been spiked, raise the alarm in as public a manner as possible. Embarrassment really should be ignored in situations such as these. All that matters is that people are aware that you may be in a dangerous situation and need help urgently.

Finally, with regards to alcohol, you should always remember that drinks served in Malaysia may be of a very different composition to those you are familiar with in the United Kingdom. Generally, we know how many drinks it takes for us to reach our limit and we know how it feels to go slightly beyond this limit. However, whilst the effects of one cocktail consumed in a trendy bar in Soho may go unnoticed, a cocktail made in a foreign country may provide you with more alcohol than you were bargaining for.

It is not unusual for backpackers travelling around foreign countries to feel that they are losing the ability to handle their drink. However, more often than not, this is not the case. Rather, our bodies are simply not used to the composition and nature of the drinks served in foreign bars and clubs. If you feel that you have had enough after just one cocktail, do not feel pressurised into having another drink just to prove a point.

Conclusion

Ultimately, if you use common sense at all times during your travels around Malaysia, you should have a really good time. There are some situations which you may be unlucky enough to become involved in, including terrorist attacks, but there are ways of minimising such risks. If you do become the victim of a crime or encounter trouble of any kind during your stay in the country, you should rest assured that there are many people out there who will be able to help you. Make sure that you carry the contact details for the British High Commission with you and check the Foreign Office website periodically for up-to-date advice.