Malaysia has always been an Arab favorite as far as vacation spots go, especially for those coming from the Gulf countries, and for good reason: it’s a Muslim country, for one, which means that they have the option to go full Khaleeji appearance-wise and not be called out on it (in fact, it’s common to see Muslim Malaysians sporting the white thobe for men and the black abaya for women).
It’s also a country that houses two other non-Muslim cultures and peoples, which means the visitors have everything else available to them that the free world can offer if they were so inclined. (Moderate) best of both worlds, we can say.
My parents, though not fully Arab, feel no differently about this place – they came from Saudi Arabia for a 3-week visit this past January, and since I’d been living and working in Kuala Lumpur for 4 years and because I am officially an adult, I thought I’d be a superhero and offer to pay for their stay.
But being an Other Expat meant that I have limitations when it comes to entertaining them (especially at my own expense). People coming from the Gulf States of the Middle East are used to a certain level of lifestyle, sometimes subconsciously, but mostly because life in the fast-growing rich countries in that area really is pretty luxurious compared to Southeast Asia.
Here are some things that I got my parents to do – my dad in his late 60s and physically limited due to a heart condition, and my mom in her late 50s who loves all things Southeast Asian – while they were in Kuala Lumpur, at minimal cost to me.
Skip the Hotel
The first thing I did to avoid spending so much was to play up the fact to my parents that they are supposed to do things differently on vacation, that they must experience life here like a local, or at least like how I lived. This meant staying with me in my one-bedroom condominium unit (in a relatively chill and middle-class area in Petaling Jaya).
I’m not a complete asshole – I did plan on getting my parents a room at one of the 4-star hotels near me (at a discounted price) so they could enjoy a “proper vacation,” but I soon realized that I just… well… couldn’t afford it.
In any case, my parents preferred staying at my place because I have a full functioning kitchen, laundry area, and a balcony, unlike most hotel rooms.
Zero ringgit spent.
Eat Like a Local
Obviously, they had to try the food here. But both my parents are on strict diets for medical reasons, and so we couldn’t really rough it out as much. What they did enjoy, though, was literally eating like a local.
This also meant staying away from franchise and/or Western restaurants, which was just as well because they tend to be pricier than local places.
I took my parents to a mamak (a Muslim-Indian eatery) in my neighbourhood where they got to eat with their hands in a restaurant. I took them to a Kopitiam another time and had them eat noodles with chopsticks.
Each time, I spent less than RM 60 for all three of us.
Speak the Language
I taught my parents some Malay phrases (even though I barely speak the language) and made it a thing, challenging them to learn to talk to shopkeepers, Uber drivers and just about anyone who would, in their language. Most locals are friendly and are more than willing to teach them more.
My dad, ever the cunning linguist master orator debater, taught the locals Arabic and Maranao phrases in return. It was hilarious.
I spent zero ringgit on this.
Mosques and Museums
My parents are a 5-times-a-day-of-prayer type, so naturally, they had to go to the mosques. I took them to Putrajaya’s Pink Mosque, which was the highlight of their trip as the culture was so different from what they’re used to in Saudi (the segregation was only inside the mosque, but the surrounding compound/area was a mix of Muslims and non-Muslim visitors and tourists). But my parents were also really okay just going to see the small prayer areas in our neighbourhood and the prayer rooms in malls and popular public places (they’re called surau).
They also loved the National Museum, as my dad is a big nerd about history and my mom loves that Malay culture is so similar to our Maranao one. We spent hours there.
On average, I spent about RM 20 on entrance fees for the museums (none for the mosques), and about RM 40 a day on Uber rides to and from my apartment. Putrajaya from Petaling Jaya set me back about RM 50 one way in an Uber.
Technology is Your Friend
I didn’t take time off from work when my parents were here (#OtherExpatProblems), so they were left to their own most weekdays during the day. They’re not the adventurous type – my dad (like me) is super okay just being holed up in the house with the internet – but my mom gets so easily bored. I taught them to use Google Maps and just read the road signs to get around the neighbourhood, which I know, I know, seems so basic, but for my non-tech parents from Saudi (where pedestrian life is mostly not existent), is a pretty big deal.
I also tasked them with taking photos of the “most Malaysian things” they come across during their walks, and it gave us some good laughs when they’d show me really ordinary things (like dogs on the street, the rain, the trees and forests around my neighbourhood) that I’ve started to take for granted this whole time I’ve been away from Jeddah.
Totally not about that life anymore.
I spent RM 35 each for my parents to get a local SIM card for their smartphones and have 2 gigabytes worth of data on it for a month.
I’m not gonna lie – I only went to the wet markets/farmers markets here when my parents were in town. And they’re so awesome. My parents loved going to the markets in the mornings, where they can get all kinds of tropical fruits and vegetables that are not available (or are at a very high imported price, if at all) in Jeddah, for relatively very cheap.
It’s also a great alternative to going to malls, because, well, malls here are just like the ones back home, to be honest. Markets have that local vibe, with cheaper products and souvenirs that are not very tourist-priced, and this is also where my parents practised their Malay phrases.
I spent less than RM 70 every trip and always came home with a few days’ worth of food for all three of us.
This one was by far the best. Kuala Lumpur’s public transportation system isn’t very easy to learn, to be honest, but it’s very comfortable compared to other Southeast Asian countries, and very existent, compared to Saudi Arabia.
My parents had a hoot. Taking the train and the bus itself was the whole point of the trip, and they got to see the city.
I spent less than RM 20 each time.
The result of my penny-pinching was that I had such a healthy, chill time with my parents around while they were here. The best part? I got to actually experience all those things I mentioned because the truth is that I never did any of them. My life here is all about work and, I realize, survival, not so much enjoyment or experience.
The other best part? When I’d get too stressed about money, it would show, and my mother would step in with her trusty wallet and just… take care of everything. (Happy Mother’s Day!)