Backpackers! Give A Little Respect…

Buddha statues. Show some respect

Updated November 30th, 2017.

“When people travel to my country, it should not be our job to tell them what the customs are.”

This comment came from a gentle Khmer man just outside of Siem Reap as a couple of young girls rode past his cafe wearing tiny hotpants and bikini tops. I sat there listening to this interesting gentleman over a cup of coffee, and had to agree with every single word he said.

I cringed as I remembered that I too used to be the kind of disrespectful tourist he was talking about. I didn’t even realise it at the time. It was not because I didn’t give a shit and was just there for a drunken holiday; it was because I was ignorant about the culture I was visiting and never considered doing a little research before hand. It took some time, but I now consider myself to be a mindful traveller. However I see many other travellers out there who are like my past self, or even worse – the ones that just don’t give a damn!

Backpacker Respect South East Asia Boy In Temple

Every country in the world has its own set of unique customs, traditions and expectations.

While I have been traveling over South East Asia I have seen a lot of people openly disrespecting the customs. Some were not informed and had no idea that they were causing offence. Some knew exactly what they were doing, (even reading signs that said what was not acceptable), and made a conscious decision to disregard it.

If you make the choice to travel to this beautiful region, take the time to learn some of the most important customs.

The predominantly Buddhist nations of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, and the Muslim countries of Indonesia and Malaysia have more strict protocols. Don’t ignore them. Remember, you are a guest in these countries. Act like it.

Backpacker Respect Royal Palace Laos

 

If you don’t read anything else before your trip, at least take note of these 10 simple do’s and don’ts…

1. When entering temples…

When you enter a temple, you must be properly clothed. For females this means your shoulders and knees must be covered, and for males no singlets (vests) or shorts that end above the knee. In some places, full pants have to be worn. If you are dressed inappropriately don’t just step in for a quick look or photo. Come back later when you are covered up, or carry a sarong or scarf with you. Your shoes also must be taken off when you enter a temple.

2. Watch where you put your feet!

Never point your feet at any one, especially at a representation of Buddha or a monk, and never step over someone. This is unthinkably rude and can deeply offend the locals. The feet are considered to be the lowest and dirtiest part of the body, which is why it is terribly disrespectful to point them at anyone. When sitting in a temple looking at a Buddha statue, tuck your feet under your legs or sit with them to the side. If you are unsure, look at how a local does it.

3. Never touch someone’s head…

Don’t ever touch someone’s head, even young children. Opposite to the feet, the head is the most sacred part of the body. If you touch it, even if it is just to ruffle a person’s hair, it is like you consider yourself to be ‘holier’ than the person you are touching. Unless you are a monk, keep your hands off of someone’s head.

If you see a traveller making these mistakes, politely inform them. Chances are the person might not be aware of what is considered disrespectful, and they will appreciate being told in a friendly manner.

4. Cover up!

When you’re not in a beachside town, you should cover up in general, not just in temples. Wearing short dresses with your cleavage showing or shorts with your bum cheeks hanging out (you know the ones I’m talking about!) are very disrespectful. Look up the dress code of the country and follow it. The people in South East Asia hate confrontation and will likely not say anything to you. They may feel offended but keep it to themselves. Yes, South East Asia can be hot, but put the customs of the lovely people who welcome you into their home country above your own comfort.

Backpacker Respect South East Asia Short Shorts

 

Along with respect, show courtesy and politeness to everyone you encounter.

5. DON’T FORGET TO SMILE!

I read a quote the other day that said, “A smile is the same in every language”. I smile a lot. It makes me feel good, and others feel good too. Look at the countries in South East Asia – they all have had a tragic past. Yet the locals here are resilient and have managed to bounce back to be the incredibly friendly people they are known as today. They smile a lot too. Don’t fail to notice this. Traveling isn’t always smooth sailing, but never stop smiling. If someone says hello to you, say hello back and smile. Doesn’t matter how bad your day is, a smile will go a long way.

6. Don’t forget manners you wouldn’t forget at home.

One thing you cannot avoid is people trying to sell you things or offering rides, but this is their livelihood. Most of these people have a family, and the income they are trying to make helps them survive. Ok, you may not need a suit, some food, a massage or a lift somewhere, but acknowledge everyone who talks to you. Learn how to say “No thank you”, or if you don’t know that, at least SMILE and shake your head. Do not brush them off and NEVER ignore these people! You would be mortified if someone treated your parents, grandparents, siblings or children like they were not worth the time of day…

7. Don’t take the piss!

Getting a shirt that says, ‘No Tuk Tuk Today Or Tomorrow’ may seem funny to you. In reality you are giving the middle finger to someone who is just trying to make a better life for themselves and their family. If you are offered 100 boat rides a day, give back 100 cheerful “no thank you’s”. Don’t get annoyed and keep in mind you have chosen to visit THEIR country.

Backpacker Respect South East Asia Kids

8. Never raise your voice.

When you travel to a place where the native language is not your own, communication can be difficult. Despite this, never, ever raise your voice. This does not help and is actually one of the worst things you can do. Saving face is very important to the people of South East Asia. Yelling strips them of this (and you as well).

9. Learn THEIR language.

Asian languages can be notoriously difficult to learn, and sometimes you are only in a country for a couple of days or weeks before moving on to the next destination. Still, try your hardest to learn at least some of their language. Even just a “hello” and “thank you” can go a long way.

10. Remember we are all the same.

In my eyes, every person in this world is equal. No matter what country you are from, your age, how much money you earn, what religion you are, or what colour skin you have. We all want to be happy and we all want to be loved and treated with respect. We all live in the same world, so we all have something big we are sharing together.

My mum always told me from a young age, “Treat people the way you want to be treated”. This quote is very true and people tend to forget this when they travel.

Please pay more respect to one another.

About the author: Written by S.E.A Backpacker Ambassador Alesha Bradford, who is currently backpacking around South East Asia. She is travelling overland to South Africa without taking any air transportation. You can also read all about her adventures on her travel blog, NOMADasaurus.

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21 thoughts on “Backpackers! Give A Little Respect…

  1. Mina says:

    I agree with all of it. Actually the dresscode around SE Asia is not that difficult.
    Just ask yourself:

    Are you on a beach or at the pool?
    If the answer is no, do NOT wear a Bikini Top or Walk around with your shirt off. I do not see people in my homecountry wearing a Bikinitop in the city. Even on hot days. So don’t do it there also.

    Also, the more local you get, the more you should cover up.
    If you are in Bangkok, shorts are ok. Chiang Mai as well. These cities are pretty modern. Nobody will blink twice at your shorts and locals wear them except if you wear beachwear/backpackers type of shorts and tank tops, which always tend to look a bit sleezy. Not sure why it is liked so much?

    Although, I would add, smiling at everyone isn’t always the best thing to do for women who travel alone. Being to nice to men here might be seen as an invitation. Some men with not much exposure to the west western women come off as being easy. So girls, be wary about this stereotype.

    When it comes to men greeting me on the street or trying to talk to me (others then vendors that is) I act as any Thai woman would: I ignore them.

    Again, most of the time I just try to do what local women would do too. Just to be safe. But I agree the need for most backpackers to just read the general do’s and don’ts a bit. Takes like 10 minutes.

  2. giselleandcody says:

    One of the first things we do before travelling to a new country is read up on the customs and culture. It is very important to us to always respect locals wherever we travel. We just spent 10 days in Koh Lanta and were shocked the way some people act. Girls walking into 7-11’s in bikinis and guys walking around the main area in speedos……Come on.

    We saw a sign which should be posted everywhere “If you are on the beach or your resort it’s ok to be in your swimwear but please put on some clothes when you leave. Please have respect for the locals”

    We always travel to a country and try to fit in rather then stand out. 🙂

  3. Stephanie Melhuish says:

    One of my pet peeves is seeing westerners wander round temples without covering up. It’s ignorant and rude. Don’t these people do ANY research before travelling?

  4. Anthony says:

    Great advice. Especially with those tourists recently who went nude in the angkor temples in Siem reap, Cambodia. Thats like the western equivalent of going nude in a church. Outrageous.

  5. Aaron says:

    I partially disagree with #6. At first, I tried to be polite and say “no thank you” to the numerous people trying to sell you suits, sunglasses, bracelets, and other things but many of them are relentless and will follow you down the street if you give them any acknowledgement, even grabbing at your arm. The only thing that seemed to work was to not acknowledge them at all, not even eye contact. Many of them are scammers who are only interested in extracting as much money out of you as possible.

  6. keoki says:

    What a great contribution!! You’re so completely right! We have to adape ourselves if we travel in another country. We are guests, so we have to act like it! It doesn’t matter how unusual it would be to us. I’m back from Indonesia for three weeks and i saw many folks that didn’t adaped themselves to the locals, their culture, their behaviour. In some moments i’d shamed myself to be white. It doesn’t matter if i pay for something. I have to respect the locals. There are so many possibilities to inform myself about the social behaviour in a foreign country! I’m left handed but i got no problems, because i prepared myself enough. Alesha, like your mum told you: Treat people the way you want to be treated. It’s an offering, a gift to be in the position to travel to one of these amazing countries and spend time with these very kindly locals. We should be grathful for this and act in this way. Like Rachel commented, everybody who travel to south east asia should read this!!

  7. Darren C says:

    All very good points which visitors to foreign countries should observe. I can understand people wanting to catch the sun while they are on holiday, they don’t want to go back to their native country without a tan. But there is a time and a place for everything.

  8. Steve says:

    #2 can be a little harder than it seems in practice. I hate to draw a stereotype, but people throughout SEA, particularly in Thailand, tend to sit or lay down or even fall asleep in places that oftentimes make them unavoidable in stepping over.

    And #4, while it may not be as common or blatant as bikini tops on western tourists, many locals will wear just as risque and cloths as foreiners in their daily lives walking about the main cities.

  9. Tom says:

    When I started to travel, the guidebooks said that you should wear long pants in cities like Bangkok. 5 years later, the hi-so Chinese population there wears shorts. Culture is changing, everywhere.
    Let’s be a part of it and help to open it up.

  10. Emine El-Shabazz says:

    ok this last comment is obviously too sexist. You using the argument of “they asking for it” and thats very uncool. Don´t blur the lines here…

  11. Jackie Tearle says:

    My best advice from an old-old backpacker; move away from the herd, travel alone or just 2 people and don’t follow the backpacker trail. This way you actually see the people and the culture of the country rather than the artificial culture of the traveller community (which, sadly seems to revolve around short-shorts, outrageous behaviour, watching DVD’s, booze and drugs). Once you start looking around you at the locals, you quickly realise what’s appropriate and what’s not – coincidentally you’ll really start to have a good time, maybe not a party but a fantastic adventure 😉

  12. Luís Sequeira says:

    As if problems with visitors come from backpacking. Most direspecting travellers I have met were not backpackers. Good post anyway 🙂

  13. melissa says:

    #4!!!!! It’s not even just in SEA. I seriously want to go up to some of these people and say “heyy, you’re ass cheeks are hanging out. Just thought you should know.”

  14. Sabine Schmitz says:

    For some people, it might be helpful to be reminded on that. And unfortunately, some people also often forget that we are all equal. So thanks for sharing that one.

  15. Emine El-Shabazz says:

    Really good list! But I feel like to add one thing: Don´t take picture of people without asking them for permission. I saw a lot of people taking pictures of women and men who were doing their daily hard work. For tourists it may seem “exotic” or “interesting” when a woman carries heavy stones on her head. People just take out their camera and wanna memorize that. But the thing is, you wouldnt like stangers taking your pictures without even having the respect to ask you just because they think you look “different” or “interesting”. Especially not when they are enjoying their vacation while you do a really hard job to efford living. Sometimes jobs they don´t like to do. Imagine yourself being stared and photographed while doing something you might not enjoy but you somehow have to do. Don´t forget that you offend a lot of personal rights by acting like that.

  16. Helene Jermolajew says:

    Great post Lesh, I really do think that in the main some people just don’t care, I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t have manners at home either. Unfortunately the dissrespectful come from all sorts of countries and travel to all sorts of countries spreading their attitudes around. Those who care pick the idea up pretty quickly just like you did.

    Keep on writing.

  17. Megsy says:

    Great post! I am often dumbfounded at the disrespect people show while in Asia.

    Before I first travelled there in 2006, I was told straight away of the dress code and customs. it’s written in every guide book, in articles like this one, it’s pretty well known now – I’m starting to think people just don’t care. As for the short shorts – well they offend me no matter what country I’m in!

    I totally agree that a smile will get you everywhere in life. As Marilyn Monroe said (well I think she did, you never know for sure these days) “keep smiling, because life is a beautiful thing and there’s so much to smile about.”

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