Despite the Western colonial influences and increasing tourism’s impact on the modern culture of Southeast Asia, Buddhism has always had the biggest impact on the mainland countries of Southeast Asia (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar). As this may be your first time encountering Buddhism and being immersed in a predominantly Buddhist culture, it’s a good idea to learn more about the local do’s and don’ts to avoid standing out as the typical ‘ignorant tourist’.
Buddhists regard the head as the most sacred part of the body, so you should never touch someone else’s head. This probably isn’t something you’d do normally, but be aware and just don’t do it!
Just as the head is the most esteemed body part in Southeast Asia culture, the feet are the most unholy. Do not point at something with your feet and never show the soles of your feet to someone, especially at a religious site. This is considered the ultimate insult.
Take off your shoes when you enter someone’s house, and also when visiting temples. If you notice shoes by the entrance way, you should take yours off.
Public displays of affection (PDA)
Southeast Asian countries are more conservative when it comes to physical relationships so it’s best to avoid all kissing and hugging in public, even if you’re in a committed relationship.
Be considerate about how you dress on a day to day basis (we’ll cover specific temple dress codes in a minute). You’ll probably notice that the locals dress more modestly and show less skin, despite the heat. Wearing your swimwear on the beach or at a resort is absolutely fine, but it’s best to cover your shoulders/chest or have something like a sarong that you can quickly use to cover up when interacting with a local community. When in doubt, take your cues from what the locals are wearing!
Interacting with the locals
Smile & be polite!
You’ll generally find that the people you meet are friendly and helpful, especially when you greet them with a smile.
Learn some basic words
Your best bet is to learn a few basic words & phrases, like how to say ‘hello’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, in the local language. This earns you bonus points as it shows that you’ve taken an interest in learning something about the local culture.
Respecting your elders is very important in Asian countries. You don’t have to go out of your way to help them, but simply lowering your head when passing them is appropriate.
They may be super cute and friendly looking, but do not give candy or money to children. You’re not helping them or teaching them good lessons if you do.
The concept of face
‘Saving face’ and ‘losing face’ are big factors in all social interactions in Southeast Asia’s culture. You will probably have a certain amount of leeway as a visitor, but the key things to remember are to avoid pointing out anything that might be embarrassing for someone else, such as a mistake, and don’t lose your temper. Getting openly angry or hostile is the surest way to ‘lose face’ and will only work against you when dealing with a local. Interact calmly, with a smile, and you should have no problems.
You’ll find Buddhist temples, pagodas and monuments throughout Southeast Asia, and generally the same basic rules apply when visiting them, no matter how big or small.
Monks, novices & nuns
Those who are dedicated to religious servitude are revered within Southeast Asia, so always show them the necessary respect. It’s best for visitors to avoid touching them or their robes, as this is viewed as disrespectful. Women especially should not touch or walk in the path of monks, as it is considered sinful.
Temple dress code
The dress code for both men and women requires you to cover your shoulders and knees when visiting a temple. It’s handy to keep a spare t-shirt, shawl, or sarong in your day bag, ready to whip out and cover any exposed body parts at a moment’s notice.
You must also take off your shoes and socks when first entering the temple – you should see a place to leave them by the entry. Remember to remove your hat if you’re wearing one too.
The rules around the Buddha
Greeting the Buddha with a simple bow is a way of showing reverence. As you move through the temple, walk to right (or clockwise) around the Buddhist monuments – or just follow the locals if you’re unsure! Remember to tuck your feet under your bum if you sit or kneel down – your feet should never face or point at the Buddha!
A good rule of thumb is to always ask first if you would like to take a photo of a local person. (Would you ever just take a picture of a random stranger in your home country? Didn’t think so!) They will certainly appreciate it if you show them the picture afterwards too.
General don’ts to keep in mind:
- Don’t take any photos that may embarrass the other person.
- Never take photos of prayer and meditation sessions.
- Don’t start taking photos within a religious site without permission - check for signs first, and if you don’t see any, ask someone.
- We know extreme yoga poses and naked backpacking pictures look cool on Instagram, but think twice before you snap that handstand or naked pic in a place like Angkor Wat*. It’s incredibly disrespectful to both the locals and the religious site itself. We’re not trying to stop your artistic expression – just hoping you’ll be a bit more of a savvy traveller and helping you save face!
(*You will actually get arrested for being naked at Angkor Wat – there are signs that say this at the entrance!)
Part of the appeal of travelling around Southeast Asia is immersing yourself in a culture completely different to your own – otherwise, you’d just stay home. Make the most out of your trip by keeping an open mind and observing how the locals do things without judgement – those authentic experiences with the local community usually make for the best memories!