I've been in Johor Bahru over two weeks now and I've been to Malaysia quite a few times, and I've been around Southeast Asia a fair bit. But I can't figure this out and haven't run into it elsewhere.

My guesthouse is in a residential area where most of the locals and eateries plus a few Indian but no Chinese.

Sometimes I just can't figure out how to order, who to order from, how a place even works. I can walk in looking like a hungry customer, nobody asks me to take a seat or take my order or to go to a specific person. Usually there's no uniforms so it's a bit unclear who is staff. The kitchen or half the kitchen may be out in the open. No visible cash register. Often no menus. But you can see there's food and there are customers sitting and eating. Sometimes you can tell the staff are kind of talking about you but even if you approach one or try to make eye contact they just go about whatever they were doing as if stirring or chopping is their job but taking customers' orders isn't.

This never happens at Chinese eateries and I've never experienced it anywhere else in Southeast Asia and I've eaten at many tiny places on the side of the road in the sticks or in random suburbs. In places where English speakers are much rarer than here.

Also it doesn't always happen here in all Malay places. I walk in looking lost and hungry and even if they don't speak any English they treat me like a customer.

But it has happened multiple times at multiple restaurants. I must be missing something.

Is there a trick? What do locals do?

  • Have you tried just sitting down? Or sitting down and catching someones eye and mime eating?
    – Willeke
    Jun 23, 2022 at 8:15
  • @Willeke: Last time it happened a bit before posting I was going to but I thought I'd feel even more awkward than I already did standing in the middle of the tables... Jun 23, 2022 at 8:18
  • 2
    I found it funny that I went back to one of these places tonight and a guy from my guesthouse was there. He's a Malay but from Singapore. He was also puzzled about out how that place worked (-: But at least he spoke the language. The dinnertime crew was also not as shy of me as the morning crew was. Jun 23, 2022 at 12:43
  • I am seriously interested to know how someone can "look hungry"
    – WoJ
    Jun 24, 2022 at 10:20

1 Answer 1


The best thing to do is act like you know the language, ask anyone who is passing by "Kerja di sini?" which means "do you work here?". This will usually get their attention and even if the person is not working there he/she will at least point you to the right direction.

I think the main reason why they are avoiding you is the language barrier especially in place were foreigners do not visit, faced that personally in similar eateries in Jakarta. However, after they know your face, they will come to you next time.

These places have no specific order (sit then order, order then sit) either way it will work.

A few more words will make the order much easier:

  • Nasi: Rice
  • Ayam: Chicken
  • Daging: Beef
  • Air putih: Water
  • Mi: Noodles

and you will do fine...

  • Saya nak nasi goreng padprik ayam, makan di sini (-: I knew what to say when I went back for dinner, but I wasn't sure what they had at breakfast time. They do have different stuff morning to night though. Jun 23, 2022 at 13:30
  • @hippietrail, just order something with a question mark in your voice, they will help you once they understand that you want to eat something. (And they might have the same stuff whenever they are open, different breakfast items is very European, exported with English to the New World.)
    – Willeke
    Jun 23, 2022 at 15:20
  • @Willeke That was actually my plan once I could figure out who to address who wasn't ignoring me. I decoded part of a sign on the wall to see that they have nasi lemak for breakfast and other stuff later. I know many places are only open for breakfast or close in the early afternoon. Because I've arrived too late on subsequent visits to places I'd been to before (-: Jun 23, 2022 at 15:28

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