So you’re thinking of backpacking around Southeast Asia. We get it. You’re gaining that life experience, ticking off your bucket list with YOLO moments, and posting some Instagram pics that are sure to make your friends back home break down in tears inside their cubicles.
Sounds good! But do you know how to behave when you’re in the region? We don’t mean just preparing yourself how to say “thanks” and “please” in various languages, but how to act, whether you’re going from Phnom Penh to Kuala Lumpur, or from Hanoi to Manila.
Follow these tips and you won’t be left red in the face when traveling across this culturally rich and diverse region.
Greet with Care
They say first impressions count, and you sure don’t want to stumble right off the blocks when you’re in a country for the first time. While the universal handshake is now becoming common through most of Southeast Asia, it’s still good to avoid physical contact to see what the other person initiates first. While in cosmopolitan Singapore, a firm handshake will do, in countries like Cambodia and Thailand, your hands clasped together (like praying) and a slight bow will make for a good start. In Muslim-majority countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, it might be wise to refrain from physical contact altogether, especially with the opposite sex.
Some Food for Thought
There’s no better way to understand the region’s culture better than to dive into its delicious and flavorful cuisine. The important thing to remember when visiting locals is that they’re super generous and will offer you drinks or food. Even if you’ve just eaten, you have to accept, even if it is just to take a bite or a sip. A refusal would be considered rude. If you are invited for dinner, a gift would be a smart move and fruit or flowers are safe bets. Be prepared to remove your footwear at the door (sandals are always an appropriate and comfortable choice just in case).
Ever tried nasi lemak, mie goreng, or char kway teow? Bite into these delicacies when you visit Malaysia!
Turn Down for What?
So you’re probably used to being loud with your friends at the bar, but even the most raucous events in the region will not take lightly to a foreigner being boisterous in public. In countries that are predominantly Buddhist — like Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam — there’s a lot of emphasis on being polite and mellow, and that means no angry, loud, or disrespectful banter. Keeping your volume down, regardless of which country you’re in or what social situation you’re in, will draw respect and not unkind stares.
Dress: Modesty is Always the Best Policy
Remember that showing a lot of skin, regardless if you’re a man or a woman, is a no-no. Of course, this doesn’t apply to when you’re on the beach in Bali or Koh Samui, but in other places, make sure you’re dressed to cover the shoulders and torso, comfortably. Plus, try to avoid wearing really short shorts and skirts and wear footwear that can be easily removed. You may find that entrance to temples, mosques, churches, and other sacred sites may be restricted if you’re not covered up enough. Also, be considerate. For example, if you’re in Thailand, which is still mourning the loss of their beloved king, then wearing a black ribbon on your left sleeve, or wearing white or black clothing (even though it’s not mandatory) would show that you empathize with your hosts’ loss.
Thailand is full of pleasant surprises. Start planning your trip here.
Head to Toe Consciousness
Remember never to point your feet in the direction of someone, or a sacred building or statue. The feet are meant to be unclean, so make sure they’re tucked under or behind you if you need to sit on the floor (it’s okay for men to cross their legs in the lotus position). In most Hindu and Buddhist cultures, the head is regarded as sacred, so don’t ever pat anyone on the head. You should also avoid using your left hand to accept gifts, eat, or even point at something. In places that have a strong Hindu culture, like in Malaysia, Singapore, and Bali, the left hand is meant to be used for personal hygiene (AKA cleaning your posterior), so the right is the preferred hand for social interaction.
To Click or Not to Click?
While everyone will be clicking away taking pics of statues, buildings, and landscapes, it’s always good to watch where you’re clicking. Are you taking a selfie, arm-over-shoulder of a revered religious statue? Are you taking a selfie in front of a locals-only event or private party?For example, you wouldn’t want to intrude on a procession of monks with your selfie sticks if they are collecting alms in Siam Reap, as that could be disrespectful to the entire ritual. Knowing when to get click-happy can be crucial in some places of the world.
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Drop Politics, Pick Up New Friends
Regardless of what your political beliefs are, it’s a general known fact that discussing politics with a local is not a smart move. There may be sensitive issues you are unaware of, and certain areas of town may be strongholds of a certain political group that is opposed to the group in power, so you have to tread lightly and with maximum caution. It’s important to know that some countries like Thailand and Myanmar have faced many political changes in just the past 5 years. Hey, if someone tries to coax some political sentiment out of you, just keep it cordial and non-committal.
Have you traveled a lot in Southeast Asia? What other tips on travel etiquette can you share with us?