Cultural tips

The main overarching principle is RESPECT and adaptation. Please carefully consider what you are doing, avoid being intrusive in people’s lives, their village, their houses, their fields. Think, how would you feel if strangers were stepping into your life, behaving as if you were not there, taking pictures as if you were a decorative object, and acting in obvious contradiction to your cultural codes?

Respect the Host Culture

Pounding Rice at Huay Kee Lek, Thailand

Pounding Rice at Huay Kee Lek, Thailand

Each country, within each country, and each ethnic group may have their own etiquette and taboos. Learn them, adjust to their lifestyles, listen to your guide’s recommendations and read the ‘etiquette’ tips below. You may not understand the significance of everything, there is a large share of mystery, just enjoy it. Cultural diversity and exoticism is what you came looking for? So accept it, don’t try to change it.

Explain your culture, in turn you may tell locals about your own culture, many local people have a wrong idea of what your life is like.

And try to understand their aspirations

We admire the rural beauty of traditional houses made of bamboo and straw, or the sight of a farmer harvesting his rice field with his buffalo companion, doing everything by hand. But we tend to forget that these houses offer very little comfort, are vulnerable to climatic hazards and that strenuous tasks reduce the people’s life expectancy. Locals may wish to live in a concrete house with air conditioning and a tin roof, and to use electric engines and machinery to ease their hard work. Understand that they aspire to develop economically and have access to material possessions that we take for granted. The ideal would be to be able to explain how they could retain the best of their traditions while improving their standards of living. Another role you could play would be to portray a balanced view of development, showing its weaknesses and the advantages of old traditions or knowhow.

Dress accordingly

In urban contexts you may frequently see women dressed very lightly; do not consider this as usual. Being dressed in miniskirts, mini shorts, bra-less in body tight clothes or bathing in bikinis IS considered offensive by rural people and the older generations. They will not say so but will be embarrassed, and politely keep their opinion for themselves. An Asian will never reproach you directly for anything; this is not in their culture. Don’t take advantage of it, and be more subtle and sensitive. Look at the way people dress, how do they go swimming in clothes, and adjust your behaviour according to where you are. You are in their home town. Ask if you are not sure.

Dress modestly in all circumstances. In forests and jungles, long pants/skirts and sleeved shirts are definitely recommended to limit insect bites and sun burn. On the beach or at sea be aware that nude sunbathing or swimming is not accepted, whatever other tourists may do. In some places such as waterfalls in rural areas avoid bikinis and swimming suits, keep your tee-shirt on and maybe a sarong as well (check what the locals around you are doing). Don’t worry, it will dry in a couple of minutes.

In temples or religious sites both men and women should have covered shoulders and legs, while shoes and hats should be taken off.

© Haivenu Tours

DO NOT give gifts, money or sweets to children or even buy anything from them, as although you might think it helps, it only encourages them to stay in the streets where they have little hope of a better life and are vulnerable to abuse.

This encourages begging and ‘idolising’ of tourists. It’s much better just to play and interact with the kids and make a contribution towards a local project. If you have time, try teaching a few words / phrases of your language.

If you wish to support children and avoid unfortunate wrong behaviour check Friends International 7 Tips.

Answer questions ! Get ready to answer a thousand times the same questions like; ‘where are you from? where you are going? Are you married? How old are you?’ While you may find these questions disconcerting, intimate or too repetitive, remain patient and be aware that people are just being friendly and starting up an exchange. Asian people usually think that everyone must have a religion and that all women of a certain age should be married and have children. So don’t be surprised by their reaction if you answer ‘no’ to these questions. It’s up to you to decide what to answer, or subtly change the subject!

Connect with people before taking pictures

Always ask permission before taking photographs of people and respect their wishes if they refuse. Try to communicate with people before taking photographs. Monks, farmers, children etc. are not exotic, photogenic ‘images’ to be ‘snapped’, but real people. Ethnic groups in particular are often unhappy to have their photo taken. They may think they do not look attractive (not wearing their festival clothes), while other groups believe that part of their spirit is taken away. Avoid paying for the right to take a photo as this has been found to encourage begging. Take some time to chat. Your photo will then be a shared memory, which you can send back to your new friends.

In some small villages, homestays and remote communities, the local people consider filming to be too intrusive and recording aspects of their private lives.

Always ask permission before taking photographs of people and respect their wishes if they refuse.

Always ask permission before taking photographs of people – Myanmar

Drugs & Alcohol

In all Mekong countries the use and consumption of illegal drugs (opium, marijuana, etc.) is strictly forbidden. You are face harsh penalties, including the death penalty. Foreigners are not exempt from such penalties if convicted of such a crime.

The use of alcohol also needs to be carefully considered, especially in smaller villages and tribal areas.

Bargain within reason

With patience and a broad smile, you will not only get a better price, you will also enjoy shopping as an art. Some tourists take pride in paying the cheapest price they can, unaware the seller might accept such a low price, below its cost price, only because he needs cash. Whatever you buy, be mindful that it is peoples’ livelihood. Support the local economy by buying locally made food and handicrafts directly from local craftsmen and markets rather than in luxury shops. Prefer Fair Trade goods if available.

Cultural Etiquette: Dos & Don’ts

DOs

  • When entering pagodas or monasteries, wear decent clothes (no shorts, bare shoulders or chests) and take off your hat & shoes
  • It is respectful to remove your shoes when entering someone’s home
  • In Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, a respectful way of greeting another individual is to bow the head slightly with hands pressed together like in a prayer at the chest
  • When using a toothpick, use one hand to cover your mouth
  • Present business cards, money and gifts with both hands. Accept with both hands
  • Do let the oldest be served first; Do bend slightly in front of the elders
  • Small gifts such as foreign cigarettes, lighters, pens, liquor and perfume are generally appreciated by adults you may befriend or who assist you

DON’Ts

  • Don’t express anger in a raised voice. Becoming angry is considered a major weakness, the local people will be embarrassed for you. “Saving face” is a subtle but important standard of personal dignity. The only way to resolve conflict is to stay calm.  Be patient and keep cool. If you do get into a stressful situation asking for help always works better than pointing blame; Criticism should only be used when put among praise
  • Don’t show affection in public, it is considered quite offensive – definitely no kissing!
  • Don’t crook your finger to call somebody or point it at people’s faces. Asian people generally use a subtle downward waving motion to summon someone
  • Show respect to monks, novices and nuns, don’t offer to shake hands, don’t step on a monk’s shadow; Ladies, do not sit next to, or hand anything directly to Buddhist monks
  • Show respect by not taking photos or disturbing monks during prayer times
Monk cave, Kamalaya Koh Samui, an award-winning Wellness Sanctuary and Holistic Spa resort Thailand

Monk cave © Kamalaya

  • Don’t sit with your back towards Buddha’s image; Don’t handle Buddha images or sacred objects with disrespect or keep them in inappropriate places (on the floor for example)
  • The feet are considered the lowest form of the body and, the head the highest form. Don’t point or gesture with your feet, step over any part of the person or, put your feet on the furniture. Also don’t touch someone on the head
  • Don’t purchase historical artefacts
  • Don’t touch women
  • Don’t go where you are advised not to go
  • Please do not support the sex industry in Thailand… including the various shows in Patpong, Bangkok. Aside from the fact that people are best not viewed as a commodity, you risk putting money into the hands of some mafia