Asia is a wonder-filled treasure trove but can be perplexing and baffling at times. Social etiquette in particular can be a minefield for first-time travelers to Asia. Many rules of etiquette are simply common sense – if you wouldn’t do it at home, don’t do it in Asia. Of course, today’s modern Asia is more liberal than in the past, and forgiveness is easily given to those who misinterpret local customs, or accidentally offend with improper behavior, but we certainly believe that ignorance is no excuse for rudeness.
Religion plays a major part in the rules of etiquette, and Buddhism has had a strong say of what’s right and wrong. For example, in Buddhism the head of a person is regarded as sacred and the feet…well, repulsive – unclean at best! Whilst in Southeast Asia one should avoid touching the head of another person, especially a stranger. You should also never point at or touch a statue of Buddha, especially with your feet.
The sole of the foot is considered such a dirty thing that it is even seen as an aggressive, rude gesture in Thailand to show someone the sole of the foot – similar to ‘flipping the bird’ in the USA, or ‘putting two fingers up’ in the UK. Continuing the theme on feet, shoes must also be removed when entering someone’s house in Asia, and in Thailand never, ever stand on anything with an image of the King on, like money or postage stamps for example.
Monks are considered rather sacred individuals around Southeast Asia, so it’s important to be wary in their presence. For example, never touch a monk. You probably don’t need to worry too much about this rule, but if it was your plan to go around poking monks, you’d better think twice. Don’t be afraid to approach them however, it’s very common to see monks pose for pictures with tourists now and again…just don’t put your arm around them!
Dress codes are also a subject of confusion for many travelers, especially given the warm climate of most Asian countries. In Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar especially you will rarely see a local with bare arms and legs as showing skin is not a social norm. Even in the more liberal Thailand it is common to see locals swimming at the beaches fully clothed – which is an interesting juxtaposition with Thailand’s ‘darker’ side.
It is understood and accepted by locals in all these countries that foreigners are unlikely to cover up as they do, but it’s important to at least meet them halfway. Shorts and t-shirts are acceptable everywhere (except temples, where the rules of being fully clothed must be strictly followed) but avoid anything too skimpy, especially going topless (men or women) or wearing bikinis anywhere except the beach.
Public displays of affection are also a major no-no throughout Asia, and are rarely seen and often frowned upon. Controlling one’s temper is also expected, and no matter what the circumstance it is considered bad form to shout or project anger in public – so don’t let the climate get you too hot under the collar!
One important thing, perhaps the most important of all, is to smile. A simple smile will always transcend language and help break down barriers – it’s a universal tool so use it freely!