Respecting local culture.

Different places have different customs, and expected behaviours vary as you travel. The main thing you have to remember is that no matter how many tourists and travellers pass through a place, that doesn’t mean that the place should change to accommodate the traveller. You are the one who needs to adjust.


At the Songkran festival in Thailand yesterday – the New Year water festival that symbolises the washing away of sins and bad luck – some male tourists found themselves being arrested for indecent exposure. For walking around topless. Usually being arrested for exposing your chest is something only women have to worry about, but in a country where locals still sometimes swim in the sea wearing t-shirts and trousers, it is unwise to place yourself on a high street with your top off, regardless of your gender.
If you’ve bothered to do any research before you set off for Southeast Asia, you’ll know about rules like not touching people’s heads (the most sacred part of the body) and not pointing your feet at people when you sit down (the lowest/dirtiest body part). You’ll have read that women aren’t allowed to touch Buddhist monks, and that in Thailand it is illegal to insult the King.

But did you also know that in most Asian countries it can be seen as offensive to shake hands or ‘cheers’ with your left hand? Objects should be passed with either the right hand or both, as should glasses be raised when making a toast. In predominantly Buddhist countries (this has been true for Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam) you should show respect when thanking people or saying goodbye with what is known in Thailand as the Wai, and in Cambodia as Sampeah. You may know it as ‘bowing slightly with both palms pressed together infront of your chest/face’ , which is a lot less catchy.

Photo nabbed from

Whereabouts you position your hands as you bow indicates a different level of respect. The lowest position is for people your own age, and your hands get gradually higher up until the highest level of respect: bowing with them against your forehead, to Buddha. The bow should also be lower, the more respect is being paid. Whilst people understand that western tourists are not familiar with this practice and often forget, the least you can do is to return the gesture should somebody make it towards you.

At Angkor Wat you can expose shoulders or knees right up until the highest tier, hence the sneaky shoulder/knee action in the group here.

I must have mentioned it about 100 times now, but when you’re visiting temples or other sacred sights, COVER YOUR SHOULDERS AND KNEES. And incase it wasn’t clear, yes, everything in between too. Rocking up at a shrine in a crop top with your elephant pants isn’t just disrespectful/inappropriate, it also means you won’t be allowed in- and some amazing temples live at the top of hundred and hundreds of steps, so you’ll have walked all that way for nothing.
Back to the subject of your disgraceful dirty feet (and they will be dirty, when you’re spending months on end in flip flops wandering around seriously grubby roads). Whilst it is not true everywhere, many hostels and hotels – and some restaurants – will expect you to take your shoes off before entering the building. This is very very important at temples, too. You don’t wear shoes into someone’s home in Southeast Asia, much like you probably don’t wear them into your mum’s house at home, and plenty of other places expect a similar sign of respect. Usually there will be a sign to make this clear to you, but if not don’t worry- the piles of flip flops infront of the door should give the game away.

This dog may or may not guard the shoes.

I hope it goes without saying, but it would be polite to at least TRY and remember how to say ‘Hello’, ‘Please’ and ‘Thankyou’ in the language of the country you are in. If you can manage ‘How much is this?’ and ‘Where’s the toilet?’ as well, you’re onto a winner. Download free apps like Speak Khmer, Learn Vietnamese and Learn Thai so that you can hear the correct pronunciation of each phrase.

Aside from these things, just remember that just because lots of other tourists are doing something, that doesn’t mean it’s okay. Pissing all over the beach at a full moon party, littering beautiful natural sightseeing spots and generally behaving like a drunken mess are all disrespectful and will not be tolerated to the same extent as they unfortunately now are in Europe. This is not your home country, this is not your hometown, so do your best to act like a local and not a frat boy at an initiation.

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