Cultural etiquette tips for travelling in South-east Asia

Aug 29, 2017

Don’t let culture shock get in your way of a great trip in South-east Asia; be mindful of these social customs when you are in the region.


Etiquette in religious institutions

At all religious institutions in South-east Asia, dress modestly. That means no low-cut or backless tops, miniskirts and shorts; the shoulders and knees should be covered. If you are visiting Hindu temples, do not wear or carry anything made of leather.

For mosques, do check for signs at the entrances – some, but not all, will have separate designated entrances for men and women. If you are a non-Muslim, avoid visiting during prayer times. When entering temples, you’ll notice that most have raised thresholds; always step over them, never on them. Both Hindus and Buddhists believe that the thresholds act as barriers to keep out evil spirits.

There is also a standard of behaviour in the temples. In adherence to the Buddhist and Hindu devotional practice of circumambulation, you should walk in a clockwise direction around sacred idols. If you sit on the floor, make sure that your feet are not pointed at the religious statues or their images; this is considered extremely disrespectful.

SEE ALSO: Temples to visit for a different side of Bali 

Bear in mind, too, that women should be careful to avoid touching a Buddhist or Hindu monk, as he will be required to go through cleansing rituals as a consequence. When offering alms to Buddhist monks, for instance, women should avoid passing them directly 
to the monks; instead they should put their offerings into the alms bowl or cloth provided.

sit cross-legged south-east asia

Social proprieties

According to Buddhist culture, the head is the most sacred part of the body, so avoid touching it – this includes patting a child on the head – in predominantly Buddhist countries such as Thailand and Cambodia. Conversely, the feet are thought to be unclean, so avoid exposing your bare soles to others. This means that when seated on the ground, you should sit cross-legged, or with your feet tucked under you or legs by your side, soles pointing backward.

In traditionally conservative Muslim societies, avoid excessive public displays of affection. Although handshakes are
 a fairly common form of greeting, some Muslim women in Malaysia may avoid handshakes with men. Allow them to initiate the greeting, and if they simply nod and smile, reciprocate in kind.

In countries with significant Hindu or Muslim populations, such as Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, remember to use your right hand for all manner of activities, including paying, pointing and eating. The left hand is typically used in the lavatory and considered unclean.