On my first trip to Southeast Asia, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the land, the deliciousness of the food, the complexity of the history, and, especially, the kindness of the people.
However, I was also shocked by some of the tourist behaviors that I saw. As I learned more about the cultures, religions, and etiquette of this region, I was even more shocked.
The cultures in Southeast Asia stem from the Buddhist and Muslim religions which predominate here. Generally, Southeast Asian cultures are much more modest than those in Australia, Europe, the UK, and North America. What is the norm and goes unnoticed in the west can be very rude in Thailand, Indonesia, or Laos.
Some etiquette mistakes are just because western tourists just aren’t aware of the cultural norms in the places they visit. Most people who deal with tourists on a regular basis understand this and are forgiving of errors.
Here’s an example. Asking for directions, I’ve pointed down the street on several occasions, not realizing that it’s rude to gesture with your index finger in most parts of Southeast Asia. People who have helped me didn’t seem offended in any way, but after a while, I realized that people who live in the region gesture using an open hand instead of an index finger. I changed my habit and now gesture with an open hand too. I see warmth in people’s eyes when I do this, as they realize I’ve learned something about their culture.
But too often rude western tourist behavior is out of uncaring obliviousness. Some tourists, as they travel southeast Asia, assume that wherever they are is just like home, and treat it that way – wearing skimpy clothes, yelling after drinking too many Singhas, loudly complaining about something they’re not used to, and having a passionate kiss on the street. This usually is disrespectful behavior in Southeast Asia.
As travelers, we have an obligation to be aware of our surroundings and to adapt to them. It is not difficult to observe how others dress, speak, and behave and to follow suit. No one expects us to know all the nuances that a citizen would, but we are expected to mindful and modify our conduct. In fact, it’s an opportunity — one of the benefits of traveling is that our eyes are opened to how other people in the world do things.
Here are seven easy things to remember when you travel in Southeast Asia. For each, I’ve explained some nuances, but if you keep just the seven in mind — and remember to observe and copy the local residents around you — you’ll sail through your trip showing respect for the citizens of Southeast Asia and their cultures.
1. Dress Modestly
Sure, it’s probably hotter and more humid in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur than wherever you live, and you plan to spend most of your trip exploring outdoors under the hot sun. But wearing shorts and a tank top will not only make you hotter and sunburned, you’re being offensive.
How to dress in Southeast Asia?
In rural areas and on the streets of Southeast Asia’s biggest cities, exposing the chest/cleavage, shoulders, belly, and thighs are considered rude. It is much more respectful — and much more climate-appropriate — to wear a t-shirt, Capri-length pants or a medium-length skirt. Comfort-wise, you’ll protect yourself from UV rays plus leave a pocket of air between you and your clothes, which is much cooler than having tight fabric stuck to you. Courtesy-wise, you’re covering up body parts that most Southeast Asians show only to their intimate partners and only in private. Win-win.
My favorite shirts to wear traveling in hot climates are by Ably Apparel. These 100%-cotton shirts are treated with environmentally-friendly Filium technology to repel liquid. When you work up a sweat, the fabric won’t absorb the liquid (or the smelly bacteria swimming in it), and then the sweat evaporates away quickly. This means you stay cooler. And, as a bonus, these shirts don’t need regular washing to keep looking and smelling fresh. Testers have done a heavy workout every day for a month wearing the shirt without laundering, and it doesn’t stink. Ably Apparel is perfect for travelers who want to both pack light and avoid washing their clothes in the sink every night.
2. Respect religious ceremonies and places of worship
If you’re going to any religious temples, whether it be exploring Cambodia’s Angkor archeological site or poking your head inside a modest Lao wat, you need to dress conservatively too. At Angkor, modest dressing is enforced by police officers. You can’t enter the grounds of the major temples unless you’re covered from shoulders to knees.
In a mosque, women should cover their hair. In Bali, when you enter a temple (even the outdoor areas) both men and women need to wear a sarong covering their legs and tied with a sash at the waist. In temples where tourists are likely to go, such as in the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud, you’ll be given the items to wear and an attendant will help you put them on properly. You’re expected to leave a donation. In some places, there is a small charge. Don the clothing with dignity. No jokes about men in skirts, please.
You are welcomed to respectfully observe Southeast Asia’s religions. But religion is not a ride at Disneyland. Just because worshippers are carrying out a religious practice every day in the street instead of inside of a church on Sunday, it doesn’t make it any less sacred.
Luang Prabang, Laos is famous for its tak bat ceremony, with columns of saffron-dressed monks walking the temple-filled town’s streets at dawn to collect alms from devout Buddhists. You’ll see the alms-giving ceremony throughout the region, though usually on a smaller scale than in Luang Prabang.
Tourists are ruining Luang Prabang’s ceremony. They talk loudly and take pictures at close range, their flashes disrupting what is meant to be a form of meditation. Some tourists even join alms-givers, dressed in disrespectful clothing, they hand inappropriate food to the monks in improper ways. You should not participate in a religious ceremony unless you practice that religion, know what you are doing, and if participating would be meaningful to you.
When you see a religious procession, whether it be of monks in Laos or Thailand, or women carrying offerings of fruit on their heads in Bali, do not cross through it, interrupt it, or make loud noises near it. Watch quietly from a respectful distance and wait patiently for the procession to pass. Consider yourself lucky for being able to witness it.
Inside a temple or wat, don’t step directly on the threshold when you enter (it’s like you’re stepping on the Buddha’s back), Never walk in front of someone who is praying. Try not to stand or sit somewhere where your head is higher than a monk’s or priest’s. Don’t turn your back immediately on a Buddha statue — take a few steps backward away from it first. And never take a selfie with your back to the Buddha.
It is ok to interact with monks when they’re not at prayer or in meditation. If you’re not sure, wait for them to make the first sign that they’re happy to chat and practice their English. It is forbidden for women to touch a monk or his clothing, so don’t offer to shake hands and be careful in crowded areas not to accidentally touch his robes.
3. Keep your hands to yourself
The modest cultures of Southeast Asia are generally much less touchy-feely than western ones. This goes for goods as well as people, and not just for monks.
Don’t paw over scarves in a display or fruit at a stall, especially if you’re just browsing. The shopkeeper will happily unfurl scarves you’re interested in and choose the best fruit for you.
Touching is reserved for the closest members of one’s family, but only in private. This means that unless you’re in your hotel room, keep your hands to yourself and avoid public displays of affection. The further you are from a big city and the closer you are to a religious temple, the more you should be sure not to smooch or hold hands.
Many Southeast Asian citizens have adopted western handshakes, but not everyone. Wait for the other person to offer a hand first, especially a monk or a Muslim woman.
Never touch someone else’s head. At home it might be okay to tousle a kid’s hair, but not in Southeast Asia. The head is considered the most sacred part of the body.
Especially keep your left hand to yourself. In Muslim, Buddhist and Balinese Hindu cultures, the left hand is used to wash after using the toilet, so it is not used for eating, waving, giving someone something, or touching goods in a shop.
4. Watch your feet
Feet and shoes are also considered dirty. When traveling Southeast Asia and entering a temple, shrine, someone’s home, and even some shops, remove your shoes. If this is expected, it will be obvious — there will be a rack for shoes or a small collection of flip-flops near the door.
Take care not to point your feet at a person, items of value and, especially, at religious objects such as statues of the Buddha or shrines. This means that you should sit on the floor cross-legged or with your legs bent and to the side. Don’t sit with your legs stretched out in front of you with your feet toward a person or the shrine. In a chair, don’t sit with one ankle on top of your knee, exposing the sole of your foot, and don’t prop your feet up on something.
Many Southeast Asian shopkeepers display their goods on tarps on the ground. Do not use your foot to gesture towards an object of interest. Bend down and use an open hand to indicate which item you want.
In Bali, you’ll see small rectangular baskets of flowers and incense on the sidewalks and steps. These offerings are called Canang sari, and worshippers leave them on the ground in the morning. As the day heats up, the flowers wilt and the baskets can start to fall apart. Do not mistake them for garbage and take care not to step on them. Balinese people are deeply offended if you do this.
5. Understand the local economy
Know the fair prices for goods, services, and tips, and pay accordingly. Bargain fairly, and don’t drop a 50% tip just because, for you, it is cheap. A community can’t survive if a person can make more money selling cold drinks to tourists than being a teacher or a doctor. If you pay too much, you can cripple an economy. If you bargain too hard and pay too little, you insult the maker of the goods and may even be preventing them from sending their child to school or ensuring they have protein to eat that night.
Never buy from kids, or even give them gifts — children need to stay in school and learn that things of value come from working hard, not from handouts.
You protect a local economy — and yourself — by being on the lookout for scams. When too many tourists fall for the milk scam, currency scam, or the hotel-is-full scam, honest workers have more trouble making a living wage and are tempted to join the corruption. Distrustful relationships abound.
Volunteering affects the local economy too. You may think you’re giving back by volunteering on your trip, but if you do, choose your volunteer organization with extreme care. Most of the time, you’ll be taking jobs away from local residents and diverting money to training you in English and providing you with a western toilet when that money would better go to people in need. Sometimes you’re even lining the pockets of an industrialist who has created a fake orphanage or charity.
6. Be modest
Southeast Asian citizens go about their lives behaving modestly and talking in low voices. Yelling, laughing loudly, and getting angry is rude. A respectful traveler follows the lead of local residents.
If for some reason you need to express disappointment, complain about something that has gone wrong, show that you respect the person’s dignity by taking them aside where others cannot witness the conversation.
7. Remember that people are not tourist attractions
Yes, women wearing traditional dress look beautiful, men working in fields are photogenic, the wrinkled faces of grandparents are captivating, and laughing kids are beyond cute. But the people you’re tempted to put in your Instagram feed are going about their daily lives and just happen to live in a city popular with tourists. Don’t take their photo without asking them AND without waiting for them to agree.
Put yourself in the place of citizens in the countries you visit. You expect people who come to your hometown to adapt to the cultural norms. Provide the same courtesy when you travel. Not only are you being respectful, but you’ll help preserve the culture both for residents and for visitors in the future.
What things do you do to help show respect for the culture you’re visiting?