Southeast Asia: How to travel respectfully in a Buddhist country

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Travelling in a Buddhist country like Thailand, Cambodia or Laos is a beautiful and enriching experience. The golden temples and stupas, the serene Buddha statues, and the monks in saffron robes make for beautiful sites and photographs.

But many tourists forget that these are not tourist attractions, but holy people and places. This is especially the case in Luang Prabang, the ancient royal capital of Laos, which has 34 temples and hundreds of monks who seek alms every morning in the mists — a site tourists find impossible to resist.

It isn’t hard to be respectful in a Buddhist country. You just need to be mindful (a practice that Buddhism teaches). I’ve outlined some basics below.

Watching an alms-giving ceremony — one of the main reasons tourists go to Luang Prabang — also needs to be done respectfully. For how, please click HERE.

Basics for respecting Buddhist culture and traditions

Respecting the culture and religion of the country you’re in is simply the right thing to do. And there’s a win-win: you will have a much more engaging and enjoyable experience and will have greater opportunities to interact with local people. You’re also doing your part to maintain that culture and tradition for both local people and future visitors.

While I give detailed tips below, there are two main rules to remember:

1. Modesty.

Buddhist culture is a modest one. Buddhists (and Lao people in particular) are very modest, and it can make many uncomfortable to see those who are not. Keep this in mind when dressing and in your behaviour.

2. Stop and think before you act, and when in doubt, ask.
Especially ask before you take a photo of someone or their property — people are not tourist attractions.

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Clothing

Dressing modestly throughout your visit is appreciated by local people, and especially when you enter a temple.  In Cambodia the situation got so bad that there’s a new rule (mostly enforced by ticket checkers): you are not allowed in Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom without knees and shoulders covered (and yes, everything in between).

I’m in Luang Prabang, Laos in winter as I write this. Two women in their twenties just walked by in tight tank tops and cut off jeans with their cheeks hanging out. It is 22 degrees Celsius, so they don’t even have the heat as an excuse. I was offended. What about a monk?

Gentlemen — you need to keep your shirt on too, unless you’re at the pool or the beach. Yes, even when it is stifling.

Tourists also need to wear shoes, flip flops are fine, but walking barefoot down the street is unwelcomed (surprised I’m listing this? Several hoteliers asked that I do; the problem is that bad).

If you’re swimming in the waterfalls in Laos, ideally women will copy the Lao custom of wearing a long t-shirt over their bathing suit; men are fine bare-chested with shorts.  Never swim nude.

And if you’re visiting during a water festival, know that you will get soaked walking down the street, so choose your clothing so that it won’t be see-through when wet.

Touching

Public displays of affection should also be avoided. A cuddle or a smooch may seem modest at home, but it can offend people here.

Women should never touch a monk or his robes – in crowded areas please be extra careful.

Body Parts

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Feet: remove your shoes before you enter a temple or someone’s home. Some shops and lodging will also ask that you remove your shoes. There will be a sign (in English) or a few pairs of shoes at the entrance. Be observant and follow suit, and ask if you’re not sure.

Avoid pointing your feet at someone or something. It is very rude, for example, to gesture towards a vendor’s product with your foot. Similarly, do not step over someone who is sitting on the floor; walk around them. Do not put your feet up on the furniture or point them at a person or a Buddha statue (tuck them underneath you when sitting on the floor).

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The head: avoid touching the head of another person, even tousling the hair of a child. Mistakes with the head are much more easily forgiven than mistakes with the feet.

Mouth: A low voice and quiet demeanor will have you fitting in well.  Don’t shout and keep your conversation so that only your small group can hear it. If you’re travelling in a large group (meaning perhaps more than 6 people) this can be easy to forget.

Even if something goes wrong, losing your temper will make the situation worse. Things will be worked out better and faster if you remain calm.

Think about what you say as well as how you say it. Most likely the country you’re travelling in has a much lower standard of living than your home country.  Don’t let other people overhear you exclaim about how cheap everything is, how the cost of that item is “practically nothing”, how dirty things are, or how you can’t believe people eat that, live there, or whatever. How would you feel if a tourist said this in your country?

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So … Pretty much common sense, yet so many tourists seem to forget.

Have I missed anything? What else can we do to be more respectful in the countries we visit?

6 responses to “Southeast Asia: How to travel respectfully in a Buddhist country

  1. Very tactfully written. I hope a lot more “travellers” take note of your suggestions. Especially the covering up 😆

    Liked by 1 person

    • Many thanks — that’s very kind of you to say. I hope that more people will cover up too — an easy thing to do and makes such a difference. I think most people are just unaware of the consequences of their actions. How can we spread the word more?

      Like

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