From choosing numbers because they feel lucky to not walking under ladders, most of us have a few superstitions we observe whether we really believe them or not – as the saying goes, ‘it’s better safe than sorry’. Here are some South-East Asian superstitions that our Destination Specialists have come across on their travels.
As Halloween approaches, the telling of ghost stories reaches its annual peak. Do ghosts exist? Have you seen any? One Thai tradition states that if you look behind you through your legs you will see ghosts and spirits from another realm. This may stem from the ‘between the legs’ area being a social taboo, which then morphed into a fear that this space could show you supernatural sights. Ghosts feature heavily in Thai folklore and might also enter your house if you stand in an open doorway, or steal your rice if you joke while eating. You have been warned!
The Chinese system of numerology, which has echoes throughout Asia, gives significance to different numbers based upon the sounds of their names. Four is unlucky as it sounds like the word for death or suffering. It is avoided to the extent that buildings sometimes ‘skip’ the 4th floor, labelling it as the 5th, which can be confusing if you’re deciphering levels in a lift! Two is considered lucky due to its connection with doubling and symmetry, and 8 is thought to bring good fortune. Nine, lucky in some places, is unlucky in Japan, but 13 is traditionally fine.
If you ask a passer-by to take a picture of you and two companions while in South-East Asia, don’t be surprised if they give the person in the middle a bit of a funny look. The rule of three turns up in many cultures around the world in relation to luck, and in Asia it appears as the morbid belief that the middle person of three will die first. To avoid any awkwardness, either take pictures in pairs or hail yourself another random passer-by to make up four. As mentioned above though, four is an unlucky number too! Maybe just stick to solo selfies.
Sometimes, two superstitions overlap and cause counter-intuitive results. Are you puzzled as to why you have only been allocated one pillow? Your host isn’t being stingy but rather honouring the folklore belief that unused pillows might tempt evil spirits to lie down beside you. On the other hand, the somewhat alarming tradition of keeping a knife under your bed or mattress near your head is also very common, as this is thought to ward off nightmares. So, just to be clear: knives are fine, but extra pillows are a no-no. Fair enough.
Though it’s always good etiquette to bring a gift when invited to someone’s home, certain gifts are best avoided in Asia due to their unlucky symbolic meanings. Giving a clock, an object associated with funerals and the inevitable ‘end of days’, is representative of wishing an early death upon the recipient, and sharp objects such as knives or scissors (even very decorative ones) are metaphors for cutting the ties of a relationship. The symbolism of cut flowers makes them problematic too so, if in doubt, opt for a nice box of special tea which will always be welcome.
Getting to grips with a pair of chopsticks can be a steep learning curve for anyone who usually uses a knife and fork but, however frustrated you get, always be sure to lay your chopsticks flat when not using them. Although a bowl of rice might seem like a convenient place to stick your eating implements, this is not only bad manners but very bad luck. When oriented vertically, a pair of chopsticks resembles imagery from a traditional funeral rite where food is offered to the dead. For similar reasons, you shouldn’t lay them crossed over either.
New Year is an auspicious time in many cultures, with events around this date seen to indicate what sort of year is on the way. In the Philippines, this centres strongly around food. The New Year feast is often more important than the Christmas meal in Filipino culture, and there are distinct mealtime do’s and don’ts to ensure good luck for the year ahead. Eating chicken (a relatively cheap meat) is believed to usher in a year of hardship and therefore avoided, whereas sticky rice will ‘stick’ good luck to you, and full cupboards now will ensure they stay full all year.
Wherever you travel, prior knowledge of the traditions and superstitions surrounding significant dates and festivals can help avoid any faux pas. One tradition that’s well-known worldwide is the exchanging of bright red money envelopes during Lunar New Year. These are given to family and friends, but also colleagues and even sometimes (in digital form) to favourite celebrities. The envelope’s red colour signifies prosperity and the money inside is always in crisp, new notes. The amount given should never be a value containing a 4, and values containing an 8 are extra lucky.
Some superstitions, such as not walking under ladders, seem to have extremely practical roots (no-one wants to be knocked off a ladder, or have something dropped on their head.) The Thai belief that whistling or singing at night is bad luck may have a practical origin, as making noise at night could attract nearby troublemakers. Though this is perhaps less likely in noisy modern cities, it is worth knowing why a spontaneous burst of song on a beautiful evening might not be greeted with enthusiasm, and it might not just be your singing voice.
Hoping to get a trim while you’re visiting Thailand? No problem – just don’t go on a Wednesday. Several possible explanations are offered as to why many Thai hairdressers and barbers are closed on Wednesdays. Some think it stems from an old farming tradition which marks Wednesdays as a ‘day for growing’, hence cutting on this day is bad luck. Other explanations include the fact that the Thai Royal family used to get their hair cut on this day, so it was forbidden for everyone else. The more mundane suggestion is that hairdressers need a day off, and Wednesdays are simply the quietest.
Though it might seem like the most natural thing in the world to tell someone how adorable their baby is, in some parts of Vietnam and Thailand you might find the parents less than grateful for any praise heaped upon their offspring. This is due to the superstition that if a baby is said to be cute, evil spirits will be tempted to come and whisk them away. Sometimes a kohl smudge is applied to the faces of newborns in order to make them seem less lovely, and there is an expression which roughly translates as ‘your baby is ugly-cute’ which it is perfectly polite to utter.
Though smiling is usually well-received the world over, there are some gestures, especially those involving the hands, which could land you in hot water. Crossing your fingers to wish someone good luck is a common Western tradition, but in Vietnam it is an obscene gesture and extremely offensive. Similarly, the ‘thumbs-up’ in Thailand is a childish way of being rude, not a universal symbol of agreement, and gifts offered with just one hand in Japan to show that you are not giving the recipient your full attention.
Pointing is a rude gesture in many cultures, but in parts of Asia it is what is pointed at you that can have the worst ramifications. You should be especially careful to avoid pointing with cutlery or coffee pot spouts, and should never let the soles of your feet point at anyone, especially in Thailand. If you find yourself sitting on the ground barefoot, it is best to sit on your haunches or with your feet firmly on the ground to avoid causing offense. On a similar note, try not to point at the moon in Taiwan as the superstition goes that a vengeful spirit will cut off your ears if you do – crumbs!
Manners and superstition often overlap, so have a look at our etiquette guides for more information, or have a chat with our Destination Specialists for their tips. And the next time you tie your shoelaces, will you look through your legs to check for ghosts? Happy Halloween!