Mother and child in Kampung Ayer, Brunei. Image courtesy of the Brunei Ministry of Primary Resources and Tourism, used with permission.
Southeast Asia’s cultures are steeped in traditions and customs that live to this day, in spite of growing Westernization. Proper etiquette is vital as a way of showing respect to the culture, the locals, and the values they hold dear. Bear these tips in mind when you’re travelling through the Southeast Asia:
Respect the monarchs. Brunei and Thailand have strict laws against any form of disrespect to their monarchs. In Thailand, an innocent joke about the king may violate the lese-majeste law, and get you in hot water with the authorities. Bruneians, likewise, hold their sultan in high regard, and speaking ill the royal family is straight-out looking for trouble. Give due respect to the countries’ monarchy and the places, as well as objects, that bear their image.
Mind your feet. Feet are symbolically unclean to the Thai. It’s considered rude to expose the soles of your feet to another person, to put your feet up on furniture, or to point withyour feet, especially at people or objects of importance, such as statues of Buddha at the wats.
Likewise, if you’re in a mosque in Indonesia or Brunei, make sure your feet don’t point at the Qibla, the wall that marks the direction Mecca is in.
Remember that it’s also a major faux pas to touch someone else’s feet, almost everywhere in the region!
Hands off someone else’s head. The head is another body part that one shouldn’t touch on another person. But unlike the feet, the head is believed to be most sacred part of the body, particularly in Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar. If you touch someone’s head by accident, apologize immediately.
Almsgiving to Buddhist monks in Laos. Image courtesy of Laos National Tourism Administration, used with permission.
Use your right hand for everything. The left hand, like the feet, are thought of as undesirable and unclean. (Some context: toilet paper is unheard of in most rural areas; cleaning up in the toilet means washing the nether regions with water and one’s left hand.)
Keeping this in mind, use your right hand to interact with the world around you. Give, receive, pick up, and use items with your right hand. Eat with your right hand. Shake hands with your right hand. Just use the right hand for any required manual activity! It’s a predominant custom in almost all the Southeast Asian nations, so it’s best to make it a permanent habit wherever you may be in the region.
Leave your shoes at the door. Households in Southeast Asia require inhabitants and guests alike to leave their shoes at the door. Shoes bring dirt into the home – a proven fact, not merely belief – and many locals mind this quite a bit.
The no-shoes policy is a stringent rule at mosques and at certain temples, too. Bear this in mind if you’re touring Brunei and Indonesia, in particular. Typically, mosques will have a shelf or a designated spot by the entrance where you can leave your footwear.
Dress appropriately. Southeast Asians are, in general, more conservative than American or most European cultures. Showing off a lot of skin in public – even at levels considered modest in the West – may be lewd and distasteful in many parts of Southeast Asia.
It’s also downright rude to enter religious sites with your upper legs and arms bare. Dress appropriately by wearing sleeves and pants that cover as much skin as possible, but take off your hat, shoes, and sunglasses when you’re entering temples and mosques.
Respect the monks. Monks are treated with utmost respect in Buddhist nations. Monks are not allowed to eat after noon, so be polite by refraining from eating in their company. If a monk is seated, one should also take a seat before engaging in conversation — but make sure that the monk is seated on a chair or at a position higher than your own.
Finally, women aren’t allowed to touch or be touched by monks. If a woman has to hand over an item to a monk, she has to place the item within his reach, or into his “receiving cloth.”