Shoe removal in Malaysia and Asia: my pet hate

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ December 5th, 2011. Updated on December 7th, 2011. Published in: Travel blog » How to live overseas.
Stack of shoes and boots by a door in Asia

Who kicked my boots over, again?

How important is taking your shoes off in Asia?

Removing footwear is a cultural custom in Asia. At least indoors. In people’s homes and houses I understand this perfectly. But, in hotels and guest houses?

It’s one of the most irritating things I’ve come across …

My non-foot fetish

Anyone who’s been reading my journals from around about the Turkey travel blog section onwards will know I have a thing about taking my shoes off. I don’t like it.

It’s not that I have stinky feet or anything, I don’t. It’s simply a personal thing.

And, no I don’t wear sandals either. I hate them. I wear big heavy trekking boots, even in the heat. My feet remain hallowed ground in terms of hygiene; which after seven years of no-return travel is not that bad.

The shoe removal rules in hotels on my journey so far …

Aside from religious places, and homes, this is how it’s panned out in regards to shoe removal in budget accommodation.

Europe, never had a problem. Turkey & Iran again, I never had a problem. Pakistan homes certainly, but not in any guesthouse accommodation I stayed in, and so it continues on into India where it pops on occasion. Shoe removal in accommodation takes a break in Nepal, and Tibet. China is okay with shoes in hotels as is the Philippines. Again, this is for accommodation, not when visiting homes.

Then came Malaysia, followed by Thailand, and all of sudden it was shoe removal time in budget accommodation. Strangely, not in moderate to above accommodation.

Dirty backpacker feet

Dirty backpacker feet - Do I have to walk behind him? (click to enlarge)

Just a recap so far …

In homes and houses many people don’t like to wear shoes indoors for sanitary reasons. And, to a degree, cultural beliefs such as bringing in  bad luck etc. I regard this as a personal choice, and yes I still find it annoying – white carpets aside. But as you know, I respect local customs.

I can handle the whole religious thing of removing footwear too. Barely.

However, with guest houses and budget accommodation I have always found shoe removal very annoying and quite frankly: stupid.

In Malaysia this “custom” is commonplace in many budget hotels and guesthouses.

Upon my first hostel in Malaysia I was greeted by a sign outside of reception.

“Please show respect and remove your footwear.”

Let the games begin …

The annoying scenario of taking your shoes of in a hostel in Asia

There was a gaggle of shoes, rubber sandals and boots strewn everywhere. I put my backpacks down and began un-strapping my boots. Entered reception and asked to see a room. The girl showed me upstairs. I noted she was wearing sandals. Meanwhile, I felt my socks pick up bits of floor stickiness as we went.

I took the room and hustled back down to pick up my boots. They had already been knocked over. A giant stand filled with backpacker footwear glared at me as I snuck my boots upstairs to the safety of my room. My socks feeling very nasty by now.

It’s near impossible to get good socks over here, so bear with me on the sock preservation thing.

Man up, I hear people say. After seven years of travel, my feet are still as good as new. There’s a reason for that. I’ve seen the plasters, cracked skin and fungal infections of several fellow travelers. No thanks.

Footwear removal is an old obsession of no regard

Another town another hostel. Same rule, only this time there’s a human traffic jam as backpackers, student groups and various types in between all knelt, bent, sat and staggered in a cacophony of shoe removal and replacing. Then came me with backpacks in tow looking to do the same thing.

Bumping and nudging each other I watch a pair of shoes tumble-down the stairs.

Another reception ahead awash with dusty footprints. My room this time was 2 floors up.

A sign said “please remove your footwear when entering living area”

It said nothing about wearing footwear on the stairs. I was one of about 5% who dared to tout the rule and left my shoes on.

The insanity of shoe removal within hostels in Malaysia or quite frankly anywhere

Muddy shoes at the top of the stairs, but yours on top of mine and there will be trouble ...

Muddy shoes at the top of the stairs, put yours on top of mine and there will be trouble ...

Worse still are the bathrooms. Some Malaysian bathrooms are spotless. Others, well, even a greasy wet floor is enough to make me run back for boots or sandals. Worse yet is in a hostel overrun by teenagers who can’t aim, nor flush, nor grasp the concept of a paperless toilet.

I want my feet totally covered up, and I don’t want to wear the dusty rubber sandals provided in the room that 1001 people have also worn too. I have my own for the shower. But I’m wearing my trekking boots in those shared toilets.

Yes, I have been traveling for a long time, and yes this still bugs me.

In a house I perfectly understand all the shoe removal thing. Shoes bring in dirt.

Though, looking at some people’s feet, perhaps a foot-bath before entering a house would be an added bonus. Open feet in sandals collect the same amount of dirt as the top of a shoe. Probably more when you consider what’s going on in between the toes and skin fissures of some feet.

But in hotels and hotels??? Sorry Malaysia, and everywhere else that insists on shoe removal in budget accommodation, you may have some of the most welcoming people; But this whole shoe removal thing just has to go.

Business, culture, respect, tourism

You run guest houses & hostels, not homes. The average “primate” backpacker is a dirty creature who has feet blacker than the average shoe sole. And, they run around your accommodation like that throughout the day and night.

Your receptions and stairwells are awash with people falling over themselves taking them off.

It’s not about Malaysian custom nor culture. If it was then the 3 + star hotels would be doing the same. Likewise restaurants.

And, if that doesn’t make sense. For some reason Malaysia has most of their receptions built at the top of a flight of stairs in budget accommodation. Just where a parent funded GAP year student is likely to topple over and plummet to the sound of a lawsuit. All due to the foot removal frenzy you insist on.

Note to the Malaysian Tourism board

Why can I walk into a 3 star and above hotel and not have a problem leaving my shoes on (boutiques, and “experience local custom type hotel/resorts” excluded)? But then when I walk into a budget guesthouse or hostel it’s a rule?

What’s that you say? You’re trying to give tourists at this income level the warm feeling of a home …

Balderdash. Sorry, but when was the last time you actually stayed in a budget “backpacker” style hostel here? Beer for sale, DVD movie nights, the odd bit of bed swapping and the frequent sound of someone stumbling down the stairs during the early hours. I don’t think this is like an average culturally authentic Malaysian “home”.

In turn my friend, that excuse of trying to make people feel at home is a rubbish excuse.

Nice bamboo blinds, wall hangings and lounge chairs do not make a home like environment alone. Neither does seeing a dozen blackened soled  backpackers stomping around the place.

Do your tourism sector in Malaysia a favor. Send a note out to all your budget accommodation asking them to do away with this stupid, dangerous, unhygienic rule. Or if you want to save face, “just ‘suggest’ it at your next conference”.

Save shoe removal for homes, not tourist accommodation!

And yes, I know some budget accommodation is located in homes. This is then the owners choice. Common sense needs to prevail in such circumstances. But do take note of the following.

Kuala Lumpur honesty

Before, booking a place to stay in Malaysia (and Thailand), I always ask if they have WiFi. Now I also prioritize a question along the lines of, “do you make people take their shoes off?”

A Kuala Lumpur guesthouse owner laughed loudly when I told him this. And, that I was very happy to wear my boots inside his establishment. He agreed, and said shoe removal had no place in a hostels anymore.

We then both stared at a British backpacker who seemed to have not found his way to a shower for quite a few days. The owner nodded that this was one of the reasons he didn’t like to take his shoes off at work anymore. (he lived there too)

Grouchy old man, or reality?

Yes, I am that (slightly older) traveler who wears big heavy trekking boots. Yes, I notice the outraged looks on the faces of some of my fellow travelers as they lay sprawled out on the floor removing their footwear and I refuse to stay in such places.

Instead I seek out the guesthouses who know all too well that with a high turnover of guests: keeping shoes on makes sense on so many levels.

That’s my rant, and argument done. Am I the only one who feels this way?

Coming soon:

Wrapping things up in Borneo

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30 Great responses to Shoe removal in Malaysia and Asia: my pet hate

  1. Stuart says:

    To each there own — I much prefer taking shoes off and I feel quite odd not doing it!

    On the guesthouse topic though, guesthouses often are people’s homes. So while they are renting rooms out by the night, there is often still a family living and eating inside the house.

    I’ll meet you down the beach when you’re in Bali ;-)

  2. Anna's World says:

    I would hate the idea of removing my shoes in a place with complete strangers. Just like you wrote, who knows what they are carrying!

  3. Meei says:

    Why don’t you pack a pair of bathroom/indoor slippers with you, i think wearing those indoors is acceptable in Malaysia and most part of Asia.

  4. Haha, I’m with you. What gets me here in Latin America are the hippies who don’t wear shoes ANYWHERE. Even in the streets of cities. I suppose they want to feel at one with the earth (i.e. sewage, broken glass, garbage, dirt) or something like that. It is really just them trying to be trendy, of course. What is more funny than watching the looks these kids get from locals — it is not a “Oh, you’re so spiritual” kind of look, but rather one like “Go home you rich kid.”

    One of my bouts of travel was in a 14 eye pair of logging boots. I know what you’re talking about here with the hassle of removing them constantly.

    One exception that I have with your take on the no shoe rule is in Japan. Everyone takes their shoes off everywhere and the floors are clean and slippers are provided (there is even a separate pair for bathrooms) and socks are a must. The no shoe thing is done well there. I have never observed this being done well as a rule elsewhere.

    • I’ve seen those hippies in Thailand. Thankfully we seem to stay in different places. How the hell they can walk around bare foot in this part of the world I don’t know. Not even the monks do it.

      Though, by looking at some of them, you can tell they’re not too with it.

      A place like Japan. Not been so can’t really comment. But if, as people say, it’s super clean, I don’t really have a problem with it. Live 24/7 like that, no chance. As you say, the lacing up of big boots takes up far too much of my patience for that.

  5. Kristina says:

    I agree with you on the boots for travel. On my last trip to Cambodia I wore my hiking boots and din’t regret it in the slightest. I got a lot of quizzical looks and questions from locals and expats, “Aren’t your feet hot?”, but I was happy. There’s too much uneven/broken pavement there and having open toed sandals is a recipe for disaster. I thanked God every time I tripped or stubbed my toe on a rock while walking that I had closed toe shoes.
    Our guest house in Siem Reap asks people to take off their shoes, buut yes, it is the family home as well.

    • I hear you Kristina! I went out squid fishing in The Philippines and had to wear rubber sandals. I came back with bloodied toes. Hated it!

      Went to the town and bought a pair of fake crocs (the ones that cover your feet) was much happier. But happier still be back inside my boots!

      I don’t have time for the home/guesthouse issue. If you are going to turn your home into a business, then you need to change some rules. Removing shoes really does nothing for hygiene in carpet-less environments. Not unless they provide a foot-bath with disinfectant :)

  6. iamthewitch says:

    I’m from Malaysia myself and yet I wouldn’t want to take off my shoes in hostels, unless when I’m in my own bedroom. I agree with you, I wouldn’t want to walk on sticky floors especially to and fro the bathroom! Imagine the dirt! I guess in KL accommodation mostly don’t enforce this rule… so come over! :)

  7. I totally agree w/ this! My Malay hostel did this as well as, one of my Bangkok, Vietnam and Laos hostels/guesthouses. It’s speckled thru SEA. I’m from Hawaii & lived in Korea last year and in a private residence, I totally get the shoe removal thing. But in ghs & hostels, where travelers have been trodding in their shoes the whole day …or months on end? Gross and unhygenic!

    I get bothered when I see muddy footprint tracks in places I’d prefer to be clean and hello, athletes foot?! Yech.

    Then again, I guess going barefoot in temples in India is a good runner up to that experience!

    • I laughed when I read your comment about going barefoot in Indian temples. I remember doing that a few times, and really not enjoying it.

      So after the Taj, I kept the little foot sock things they were giving out, and used that everywhere else. When that broke, I set aside an old pair of socks. No one complained, and if they did I had a speech ready about having a really nasty foot infection and couldn’t remove my socks!

      The whole thing just grosses me out. I’ve seen athletes foot on backpackers, and seen them scratching in common rooms … yea … enough!

  8. bernie says:

    yeah we came acoss this in a few places in Thailand.. even in some internet cafes and shops!!!

  9. Eddy says:

    I’m agreeing with you here 100%. When we were in Thailand I hated removing my shoes for the same reason. And one morning I found some bug inside them after leaving them by the doorway at night.

    • I have that fear too. As an add on: I don’t leave my shoes outside anywhere due to theft and humidity. I did it once before, and the next day my boots where clammy and wet from being exposed to the humidity all night on a doorstep.

  10. Giovanna says:

    Why don’t you wear over your boots sanitary(surgeons like)green one use socks?Maybe they understand…if not,I never take my money where I don’t feel at ease.Here(Spain),I was allowed into the Nursery to see my just born Grandson,and always when having a NMR or the like. If you don’t find them, I can look for and send them. Surely you and the others are having a lot of contacts with strange uses indeed!

    • Hi Giovanna,

      They gave out little slip-on covers for peoples feet at the Taj Mahal, I kept them for as long as I could! Thanks for your idea, and kind offer.

      I am however following your line of “never take my money where I don’t feel at ease.” So I simply call ahead and ask at the accommodation if they insisted on shoe removal, if they do, I call and go somewhere else!

  11. Gianni says:

    Inversely I discovered this habit in Asia and now I use it at home.
    it’s very healthy,for your feet and the house. Considered that floors are always kept clean.
    if you always wear boots, in my opinion, you have a problem, and look sick.

    • Sure in your own house it may be clean. But is a budget guesthouse a clean as your home? I don’t think so. Certainly having your feet wrapped up in shoes 24 hours a day is not good. But protecting them is also important when traveling.

  12. Jason says:

    Hey Dave, I wish I had of followed your method and wore boots more often. As a young fellow, the problems I got with my feet, including worms, jiggers and all manner of other nasties from wearing sandals throughout Africa was in the end just not worth it.

    When it comes to guest houses or hostels and removing shoes, I suppose if it’s someone’s house and you are within some confines of the house then you follow their wishes, but If it’s just a standard arrangement then I’m with you and just don’t see the point.

  13. Gianni says:

    I’m just back from Thailand, most of the floors are repeatedly cleaned all day long, even in the most basic bungalow I found outside water just for the feet.
    the pressure of a shoe really damages ,try at least to have many.
    on the floor use socks, they need washing anyway anytime

    • How much a night were you paying for your bungalow? Sounds like a very nice place with outside water just for foot washing!

      I’ve trekking socks, so replacing them over here is not so easy, nor cheap!

  14. Sabina says:

    I hear you loud and clear, Dave. I understand completely why you don’t want to take off your shoes. And kudos to you for keeping your feet nearly pristine after seven years on the road! I too began having to remove my footwear (although they were flip-flops and sandals) in Malaysia and the rest of SE Asia and found it a little peculiar, as it seems to me the bare foot, with the possibility of communicable disease and fungi, would be dirtier than the sole of shoes. But to each his own.

    I for some reason am not annoyed by this Asian requirement and took to it quite well, although I didn’t really agree with its principles. I took to it so well, in fact, that I began routinely removing my shoes several months later when I would enter my friend’s house in Israel. Once day he said “Why are your shoes off? Put them on.” Oops. Not everyone thinks bare feet are clean after all!

    • I smiled big time when I read about the Israeli house where shoes on are a must. I think I might have even dreamed about it last night. Might have something to do with having to take my shoes off yesterday and forgetting that I had my “good” socks on. Not too, bad as the place was clean. Well, aside from the locals wandering around with rubber sandals on. One rule for all did not equate!

      Still, our feet are still feeling good, so we must be doing something right!

  15. Ellen says:

    what a big problem, isn’t it? what is the problem if you have to remove your shoes? Maybe you need more emotion into your life, to think about more important things about…