Cultural Taboos in South East Asia

photo by Dan4th Nicholas on Flickr


Don’t Bare Skin, Even When Swimming 
I first learned the importance of modest dress in South East Asia, covering the shoulders and knees, during my volunteer placement in Thailand. However, it was ingrained into my brain when traveling through Cat Ba Island in Vietnam and, after swimming in clothing instead of a bathing suit for the prior few weeks, decided I was going to forgo local customs and wear a bright yellow bikini instead. Not only did I receive a lot of unwanted attention and stares, but the locals began snapping photos of me and coming over to my towel to try to talk to me. I actually felt like a celebrity, but more of the “Oh my Goodness! Britney Spears flashed the paparazzi” kind then the more classy variety of “Wow, Beyonce looks stunning in that designer gown”. 

Don’t Dress Inappropriately When Visiting a Temple
When visiting a temple in South East Asia, it is very important to dress and act appropriately, meaning that shoulders and knees should be covered. Even if you are not a Buddhist, it is still always a good idea to show respect to the culture you are visiting. Moreover, you will most likely not be allowed to even enter these places of worship unless you are in modest dress. A friend of mine tried to enter a temple in Thailand wearing a thick-strap tank top and was made to wear sheets of paper around her upper body to cover-up. Needless to say, she would have saved herself a lot of discomfort and embarrassment if she would have just worn a t-shirt. 

Don’t Touch Someone’s Head or Point Your Feet Towards Anything, Especially a Buddha Statue

The head is considered the highest part of a person’s body as well as the most spiritual, and the feet are considered the lowest and least sacred. Never touch another person’s head, and when sitting it is generally a good idea to tuck your legs under you.

Don’t Enter a Home/Building/Temple With Your Shoes On

This is considered disrespectful. While this may not seem like a big deal to many people, I actually saw a girl get verbally reprimanded and scolded for forgetting to take her sandals off when entering a building used for meetings in Thailand. It is also important not to step on the actual frame of the door, as many locals believe that there is a spirit guarding the home. 

Don’t Gesture With Your Chop Sticks or Leave Them Standing Straight Up in a Rice Bowl

In Asian countries there are many different rules that go along with using chop sticks. And while they differ from region to region a bit, there are some generalizations. Don’t use them to point at things or skewer your food as this is disrespectful. Moreover, certain arrangements made with the chop sticks, such as leaving them sticking straight out of a bowl of rice, can resemble funeral practices and should not be done while eating. 

3 Comments

  1. We are a bunch of volunteers and starting a new scheme in our community. Your site offered us with helpful info to paintings on. You have performed an impressive task and our entire group will probably be grateful to you.

  2. About swimwear… well, I’ve never been to Vietnam but I’ve been to Thailand several times and I never got the impression I was committing a cultural faux-pas by swimming while wearing only swimming trunks. Then again, it might be different being a guy. Also, I was swimming in rather touristy areas.

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