Quite simply, Asia is an etiquette minefield! At times the customs can be a little confusing, at others very intriguing. However, for most visitors to Asia the ancient traditions and rituals form some of their most abiding memories of this fascinating region.
Etiquette at any meal table, levels of respect and protocol within families, early morning alms-giving on the city streets - the list is as fascinating as it is endless, and there are numerous volumes written on the subject. Although Asia is modernising at an incredible pace you will be surprised to see how many of the old values still hold strong.
Whilst there may be some disparity in the customs you will witness (and hopefully participate in!) within the regions you will visit, there are some general guidelines that any visitor to Asia will do well to follow. Your Selective Asia guide will also be able to help you unravel the mystique of what you witness going on around you.
This page is intended as a guide to help you through the early days of your holiday when you may be concerned about inadvertently causing offence. In general, you will find most Asian people are very understanding of your lack of knowledge in these matters. If you take care to show respect, you are unlikely to cause any real offence. Your mistakes are far more likely to be responded to with laughter than with anger.
Always be courteous and smile. Thailand is not known as the ‘land of smiles’ for nothing!
Always dress appropriately:
In temples: Always cover your knees (preferably your entire legs), and your arms. Remove your shoes when entering the temple…it won’t take you long to see the benefits of flip-flops!
In cities and towns: Never wear bathing suits outside of a hotel pool area. Men (and women for that matter!) should always wear a top. Shorts are fine for men and women, but it is preferable that women wear a skirt or sarong.
In beach and costal areas: Frankly, in most touristy areas, locals are used to us strange farangs wanting to sunbathe at every possible moment. Whilst an Asian finds white skin very attractive (having brown skin traditionally denotes a lower class member, as it signals you work outside in the hot sun) they are used to the idea that we think differently.
Mix with the locals and show an interest. Asian people are justifiably proud of their country and heritage - they will always be happy to tell you what they can…it is amazing what you can achieve with some basic hand signals!
In many Buddhist countries or regions, people tend not to shake hands; instead, they wai. This involves pressing your hands together, as if praying, then bowing slightly. The lower you bow the more respectful you are being. However there are complicated rules regarding when a wai is appropriate, and it is often better to politely smile and slightly bow your head if unsure how to greet a stranger.
Do not show the soles of your feet in public. Nor should you use a bare foot as a way of pointing at something whilst sitting down or lying about. The foot is the lowest spiritual part of the body and these actions are considered highly offensive.
Do not touch people’s heads (especially in the case of small children). The head is the highest spiritual point of the body.
A Buddhist monk should not touch or be touched by a female at anytime. Woman wishing to hand something to a monk should pass the item through a male friend.
Never start shouting or lose your temper in an argument, especially in public. You will never get anywhere once you have. A local cannot be seen to lose face to someone who is showing anger in such a way. If you are having a disagreement, your best option is to talk it through calmly and try and meet somewhere in the middle (see bartering above).
Photography can be a tricky issue and needs handling sensibly. Never just presume that someone is happy for you to take their photo. Always ask, and if the response is a negative, always respect this wish.
Don’t try and get that sneaky shot from the hip! Try to imagine things the other way round: they are people, not a tourist attraction.Being overtly affectionate in public can be frowned upon, especially by older generations. Best to save it for the hotel room!