Although I like to consider myself an intrepid traveler, I admit that the first thing I do before I go on any trip is to check out a travel guide for the area I will be visiting. It’s not that I want to map out my trip down to the finest detail (although I do like to check out what’s on offer), but it’s more so to get a feel for the country, and more importantly, the people and culture. The reason for this is that I want to know that when I travel to a country halfway across the world from my own where I don’t speak the language or know the local customs, I won’t be pissing off people left right and center with cultural faux pas that could be easily avoided. To me, learning the local cultural etiquette is one of the most important preparations for any trip.
Although each country in Southeast Asia has a myriad of unique cultures and customs, there are some common themes when it comes to basic etiquette in the region. Here are some tips on how not to piss off the locals in Southeast Asia:
1. Dress appropriately
While a visit to the girlie bars in Bangkok or Phnom Penh might have you thinking otherwise, the people in Southeast Asia are relatively conservative when it comes to dress. This is particularly true in Muslim areas, local villages and when visiting temples.
I remember visiting the beaches of southern Thailand and being appalled by the number of women sunbathing topless just steps from beach vendors dressed in hijabs and Islamic prayer hats. Sure it may be ok in your country, but in another culture, you’re simply reinforcing the fact that Western people are vulgar and promiscuous.
A good rule of thumb is to watch how the locals dress. If they’re not flouncing around showing off their cleavage, walking around shirtless or wearing miniscule shorts or skirts, neither should you. You don’t have to don a hijab, but try to show a little respect for what passes as acceptable in the country/city you’re in.
2. Mind the Head and the Feet
For the majority of Southeast Asians, the top of the head is considered closest to the gods, while the feet are considered dirty. This means that touching people on the head is a big no-no, as is pointing the bottoms of your feet towards others, especially monks or elders.
I once had a good Cambodian friend who nearly lost his mind when a friend of his reached out to tousle his hair. To my friend, the gesture was purely derogatory and indicated that the tousler was showing that he had little or no respect for my friend. In fact, it was considered a huge loss of face for my friend, considering it had happened in a very public place.
In keeping with this theme, Southeast Asian people also consider it very rude to wear your shoes inside a home, temple, mosque and even some places of business. When in doubt, always take your shoes off and leave them at the door before entering one of these places. And never EVER wash your shoes or place dirty footwear or socks next to places where people eat or sleep.
3. Control Your Temper
One of the first things that you will probably notice about Southeast Asia is how friendly and quick to smile the people are (Ok, maybe not everywhere—there are always exceptions to the rules right?). This is because politeness is revered in most Southeast Asian cultures. Losing your temper, yelling or getting physically aggressive are frowned upon here.
It’s easy to get frustrated and upset when you’re in a foreign country and things aren’t going your way. And yes, of course you will encounter the occasional scammer, annoying vendor or downright dodgy individual who might make your blood boil. However, try to resist the urge to scream and make a scene. This will only make the locals lose respect for you, as they will think you cannot control your emotions, much like a child or animal cannot control their behavior. Better to grin and bear it and try to work out another way to deal with the situation calmly and cooly.
4. Purge the PDAs
Maybe you’re on holiday as newlyweds, traveling as a couple, or you’ve met someone special along the way and you just can’t seem keep your hands off each other. Well, I’m sorry to say this ain’t Paris, Sydney or even Des Moines. In most Southeast Asian countries it is considered very bad form for couples of the opposite sex to kiss, touch or even hug in public.
On the flip side, you will often see same sex friends in Southeast Asia holding hands, linking arms or even sitting on each other’s laps. This is considered acceptable and not an indication of sexual identity whatsoever. While this may be a godsend for gay couples traveling in the region, remember that homosexuality is still not widely accepted in many cultures here, so sure, go ahead and hold hands, but don’t go overboard.
5. Right is Right
In countries with large Muslim and Hindu populations like Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei, people typically use the right hand to eat with, while the left hand is reserved for toilet duties. This means that you should always shake hands, pass and receive business cards, money and gifts, and point using your right hand. Avoid touching anyone or picking up communal food with your left hand at all costs.
Eating with your hands may seem like such a simple task, but when you add the challenge of using only your right hand,especially for rice of all things, it can get a bit hairy. In Southeast Asia, rice is a given at almost any meal. The best way to eat rice using your hand is to gather small amount of rice and a small amount of meat or veggies and press them together into a ball (using only your RIGHT hand of course!). Use all five fingers to pick up the ball, and then use your thumb to push the ball into your mouth. With a little practice, you’ll be eating like a local in no time.
For more tips on cultural etiquette in particular countries in Southeast Asia check out the Culture Shock! series. I’ve found them particularly useful for pointing out major dos and don’ts, as well as giving great insight into the people and culture of each country they cover. Click on the images below to check out the various Culture Shock! titles for Southeast Asia.
Do you have any other tips on how not to piss off the locals in Southeast Asia? If so, feel free to leave us a comment or drop us a line.