Malaysiaís protected habitats, such as the ancient rainforests of Taman Negara on the mainland and the untouched beaches of Bako NP, on Borneo, are testament to the nationís relationship with the natural world with more than half the country classed as richly biodiverse primary forest. Sepilok orangutan center and sun bear sanctuary present a couple more examples of how Malaysia stands out as a Southeast Asian environmental success story with a long history of conserving the countryís plentiful coral reefs further source for regional pride. A multi-cultural population has also turned Malaysia into a fascinating blend of temples, mosques and street food markets with the capital, KL, shimmering in the sunshine to tempt travelers inside air conditioned malls and young Malaysians away from rural areas in search of work. Ethnic tensions exist as do a huge disparity in wages but as a responsible traveler you can help by using local guides and going on organised tours, away from tourist traps, to increase understanding as you face up to the tourism issues facing modern Malaysia.

For more info on responsible tourism issues in Malaysia, read on and check out the links below or alternatively get in touch to find out what you can do to help and travel right in Malaysia.


Income disparity

From the prosperity oozing out of the Petronas twin towers to the designer boutiques and international food outlets to be found within any one of KLís air-conditioned shopping malls, itís pretty hard to believe that poverty still exists in the ex-pat haunts of Malaysia. Although the Malaysian government may insist that theyíre bang on track to reach the Millennium Development Goals set out at the UN summit in 2000, the truth is a little harder to stomach. Families living in rural areas, especially, receive far less income than their urban counterparts with the younger generation drawn from a life of agriculture into the obvious wealth exuding from Malaysiaís towns and cities. Even when young Malaysians do find work in the city, wages pale into insignificance when placed alongside English-speaking ex-pats who continually keep costs for housing, shopping, entertainment and mid-range dining at a western-priced premium. Although poverty in Malaysia is considerably lower when compared to other Southeast Asian countries, it still exists, and the disparity between those living on the breadline and those spending mega-bucks in designer boutiques and 5-star hotels is not levelling out, no matter what the government might insist to the contrary.

Source: UNDP in Malaysia

What you can do
Spending your hard earned vacation funds in street food markets instead of international food and coffee chains is one way to help alleviate the gap between those who have and those who have not. Getting out of KL allows you to explore in rural areas where village communities have started to benefit from tourism and in so doing encouraging offspring to stay local. Stay on an Iban longhouse in Sarawak or in homestay or small guesthouse accommodation in the Kota Bharu region as this will also help stem the tide of young people leaving rural areas in search of work. Volunteer to assist English teachers or work on community projects on one of the more remote islands; whatever you do, donít forget that as a Westerner your money can go much further than you might at first think.

Ethnic tensions

Despite the perceived harmony of multiple cultures living side by side in places like Malacca and Kuala Lumpur, ethnic tensions do bubble beneath the surface with Chinese, Indian and Bumiputera (indigenous Malay) communities all sharing space on profitable city streets. Some of this stems from the perception that each community will offer a better price or service for someone from their own ethnic background. Religious ideology is also an area that increases tensions, with Hindu Indians, Christian Chinese and Muslim Malay all celebrating major calendar events, such as Diwali, Christmas and Ramadan, against an ever-diminishing sense of Malaysia having one true identity.

What you can do
Itís hard to please everyone all the time but observing rules during Ramadan and dressing appropriately for temple visits or during cultural events is part and parcel of respecting the rights of all Malaysians and ethnicities. Traveling with a local guide is the best way to understand the reasons behind tensions as well as hearing more positive stories so visit with an open mind and donít expect Western ways to be treated as the all-abiding cultural norm.


Malaysia's zoos

In spite of Malaysiaís superb national parks, coral reefs and the globally renowned animal sanctuaries to be found on Sabah and Sarawak, there are still a number of zoos and aquariums to be found across the country. They exist for the entertainment of visitors Ė not for the conservation, rescue or rehabilitation of any of their resident wildlife. The continued existence of these facilities here, such as the one that used to feature a chain-smoking orangutan, is indicative of human entertainment being placed above animal welfare; if youíre looking for things to do in Malaysia we implore you not to visit a zoo or aquarium.

What you can do
Take yourself away from the cages and concrete pits and head out to Belum National Forest or Taman Negara National Park where youíll find wildlife flourishing in natural, protected environments. Places like Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and neighbouring conservation center for sun bears are genuine sanctuaries for rescued animals, who are able to live in virtually wild conditions in extensive reserves as opposed to existing in prison-like conditions purely for the benefit of the public. Please visit our animal welfare issues in tourism page to read more about our stance on captive animals.


The deforestation of Malaysia, and Borneo, has been well documented with palm oil and logging companies responsible for almost 10 percent of Malaysiaís forest being lost between 1990 and 2010. Endangered species, including sun bears, proboscis monkeys, pygmy elephants and clouded leopards, have suffered with extinction the natural next step unless something happens fast. Alongside Malaysiaís endangered wildlife, indigenous communities who have long depended on rainforests for medicine, shelter and cultural traditions are also suffering as a result of deforestation with floods and mudslides an inevitable consequence of a lack of protection during the rainy season.

What you can do
Go out of your way to visit Malaysiaís national parks and nature reserves where park entrance fees can be channelled back into protecting the natural environment and supporting the continued existence of indigenous and local communities. Only by showing how rainforests and the natural environment is vital to promoting and developing a long term, sustainable tourist industry as opposed to the quick profit making palm oil plantations and logging companies, can we start to change the tide of government and public opinion. Avoid buying products where palm oil is in the ingredients or keep an eye out for products with a Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) logo. Also go for Fairtrade alternatives that further increase awareness when it comes to making money through the forest without the need for complete and utter devastation.

Source: WWF-Malaysia


When visiting a temple or mosque itís always best to dress conservatively and ask your guide about etiquette before stepping foot inside a place of worship or observing a religious event or ceremony. When taking photographs always ask permission first, and respect notices asking you not to photograph in temples, museums or art galleries. Also, never use flash photography on wildlife. If youíre approached to have your photo taken then smile and go with the flow or politely decline the invitation. A polite, yet firm, Tidak, terima kasih (No thank you) will usually do the job. Never take anything from the beach, including shells and coral, and donít leave your rubbish behind. Only go diving or on boat tours with reputable companies who abide by international regulations concerning marine conservation and safety measures. Donít feed the monkeys around Batu Caves or at any beach as they can get aggressive and really donít need any encouragement when it comes to going through unguarded food bags. Opt for street food stalls and night markets for an authentic taste of Malaysiaís multicultural delights. Donít eat shark fin soup or bird nest soup. The former involves catching sharks Ė including some endangered species Ė slicing the cartilaginous fins off while the creature is still alive, then tossing it back into the water to drown. Bird nest soup is made using the nests of swiftlets found in caves, including those at Gomantong in Sabah. The highly valuable nests are gathered by poorly paid workers climbing up to 20 metres up rickety bamboo ladders; the risk of injury or death is high. Homosexuality is illegal in Malaysia so same sex couples are begrudgingly advised to avoid open displays of affection in public places, including holding hands, hugging and kissing.
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: Fish Ho Hong Yun] [Street food: aamantullah] [Deforestation: Ben Sutherland]