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!
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.
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.
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.
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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