A guide to the travel taboos of Southeast Asia

A guide to the travel taboos of Southeast Asia

Ah, Southeast Asia: home to the Land of Smiles and the misty jungles of Laos, the great S-shaped nation of Vietnam and the gorgeous isles of the Philippines. Rarely has a place been at once so enticing and exotic, so beautiful and wild. From the paradisiacal beaches of Koh Samui and the party-mad beach bars of Haad Rin to the spice-smelling bazaars of Singapore’s Little India, the veggie eateries and yoga haunts of Chiang Mai to the mysterious Hindu temples of Bali, the region has plenty for the budding globetrotter.

Some of LBW’s most popular Asia tours unfold between its boundaries, taking visitors across buzzing Bangkok and to the breath-taking karst hills of Halong Bay, from Ho Chi Minh to the rugged reaches of Railay and beyond.

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And while you can rest assured there’ll always be thousands of other visitors in this much-loved corner of Asia, it also always pays to be a conscious traveler. That means getting up to speed with the dos and don’ts of every country on your itinerary. It means learning the ubiquitous ‘hellos’, ‘thank yous’ and ‘pleases’ in the native tongue. And it means avoiding any local taboos you may not know about! Cue this list of the region’s best-known no-nos, which deals with everything from the proper way to treat a robed Buddhist monk to royal etiquette in Thailand. Give it a read through before you touch down to help avoid those awkward cultural encounters and moments of embarrassment on the road!

Treat your cash (and king) with respect

Every traveler who’s been to the Land of Smiles will know the sheer level of respect and adoration that’s directed at the nation’s monarch. In Bangkok, daily renditions of the national anthem are played over urban loud speakers, allowing the city dwellers to pledge allegiance to the king both morning and night. There’s also not a trace of republicanism here; debates about the kings and royal family are simply not kosher, and there’s virtually universal respect for the institution (there’s even a law to protect the reputation of the Thai royals, known as the Lese majeste). That also means that anything with the king’s face printed on it is considered sacred. So, be careful when handling that cash, don’t drop your coins on the floor, and always treat postal stamps with esteem!

Don’t go touching folk on the head

In the Western Hemisphere we might all enjoy a pat on the head, a friendly rub of the noggin, or a ruffle of the hair, but in Southeast Asia any form of physical contact with another person’s head is a tricky business. Why? Well, many folks in Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia believe the head is where the soul lives, meaning a tap on the forehead is like rattling the very temple of the body. Best to just stick with the tried and tested bow and clasped hands, don’t you think?

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Showing the soles of your feet

While it might be a little tricky to keep an eye on where the underside of your feet are pointing, what with all the time you’re going to be spending in flip flops and board shorts, wandering the sandy beaches from Bali’s Seminyak to the palm-backed reaches of the Andaman coast, it’s something you’re just going to have to get used to! Why? Well, because exposing the soles of your feet is a big no-no in Southeast Asia. That’s because this part of the body is considered unclean, particularly by monks and religious folk. In fact, revealing the arches of your barefoot is probably one of the most common mistakes made by folk on their first Asia tours. That might be because it’s a taboo right across the region, from Malaysia to Thailand to Nam to the Philippines!

Wearing Chang tees to temples

Just like the zealous Swiss Guard protect St Peter’s and the Vatican in Rome from scantily-clad holidaymakers, so the taboos of Southeast Asia mean you should think twice before donning the beach wear, a bikini or hot pants to that Thai temple. Yes, it might be hot outside, but these sacred spaces are not the place to showcase the skin. As a general rule, visitors to wats up and down the country should cover any bare shoulders and knees – having a lengthy shawl handy is always a good shout. Oh, and while we’re taking about high temple fashion, let’s stick those branded Chang and Beerlao tees in the same Room 101 shall we? No reclining gold Buddha was ever made better by the presence of a branded boozer vest!

When meeting monks…

It’s virtually impossible to travel anywhere on the mainland peninsular of Southeast Asia (Those on Asia tours through the likes of Malaysia, Indo and Bali might not meet a monk on account of those countries’ different faiths) and not come into contact with a monk. Often dressed head to toe in coloured robes, they can be seen everywhere, from the city streets of Bangkok to the rural rice paddies of central Cambodia. Monks are treated with the highest level of respect in Southeast Asian society. Often, it’s considered inappropriate to simply touch a monk (especially for female travelers), so always try to avoid squeezing through tight-knit spaces when a monk’s coming at you, or sitting on the same bus seat. Also, try not to take photos of monks without permission, and never hand a gift to one without first letting them know!

Don’t dust off your entire meal

If you’re lucky enough to be invited to eat with a local, then it’s high time to throw out all those dinnertime manners you’re used to in the West. For starters, whiz up on which utensils the various countries across Southeast Asia use to eat with – from the hand foods of Myanmar to the chopsticks of Vietnam. Then, bear in mind that dusting off your entire meal is a sure way of letting your host know you’re not full enough. No matter how delicious that homemade masaman curry was, or how awesome the peanut and chilli satay; leaving some on the plate is just good practice! 

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Remove those shoes!

Probably amongst the most obvious things any traveler on one of their first Asia tours will notice about this corner of the continent, removing shoes to go inside is simply the norm. In Thailand, you’ll often see piles of walking boots and flip flops outside the restaurants and bars, so just be sure to deposit your own pads there before you head in! The rule is especially important when visiting someone else’s home too, but just be sure not to go revealing the underside of your foot once you’re in! Oh, and be uber-careful about picking up the right shoes on return. Many a pair of Havaianas has been lost…

Can you think of anymore Southeast Asian taboos we’ve missed? Or, do you have anything to add to our list? We’d love to hear about it in the comments. Perhaps you’re considering taking one of LBW’s Asia tours? Then head over to our itinerary page to check them all out!


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"Rich is a traveler, writer and filmmaker who's always after somewhere new to go. He's been hopping around the globe since 2011, from Poland to Paris, Mumbai to Ho Chi Minh. He runs several travel sites of his own, from Ski Eastern to Live Krakow to Crabs Move Sideways. When he's not planning his next trip, he's usually listening to 50s jazz, surfing in Wales, skiing in the Alps, or just swigging (too much) great craft beer."

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