Travel Advice for Asia – Culture Etiquette
Every country has its own culture and customs, you’ll appreciate some, you’ll hate others – but it’s smart to get some background.
Travel guides can be useful. Lonely Planet and Rough Guides always comes up with some sensible Asia travel advice. Some people steer away from any online or hard copy guides to a country and just go there – but usually they’ve had some particular advice and conversations from people who’ve been.
I have travelled to countries that I had no information about simply, because there wasn’t much available. The only way to cope in that scenario is to stay open and look closely at everything. Paying real attention can save your life or someone else’s. And be careful of assumptions. Assumptions can be problematic when you’re travelling. Assuming a country’s laws and lifestyle are going to be some particular way is risky, your assumptions will all be right – until suddenly they’re all very wrong.
So let’s talk about customs and manners and etiquette in that massive region called Asia. I am not going to go through each country one by one, but let’s work through some sub-headings for etiquette advice for travel in Asia.
Churches, Mosques, Temples
It’s a funny thing. I am not sure if worshipers are more or less forgiving of foreigners committing a faux pas in their house of worship. Sometimes it can be a place of greater forgiveness but it can also be a place of greater wrath. It’s always best to follow instructions from the locals.
Generally, its women who have to alter their dress to enter most houses of worship in Asia, and there are even some temples that won’t admit either sex at certain times or never. The Lord Kartikeye temple in the Brahmin town of Pushcart in India is like that. Women are not permitted.
I remember I couldn’t even pick up a piece of fruit from a trestle in the main square of Pushkar because to the Brahmins who ruled the scene, I was unclean. The fruit seller had to pick up the mango itself and place it in my hand and then it was ok. But let’s get back to the narrative!
Before you go to visit a house of worship always try and check about the do’s and don’ts before you visit. The key point is don’t show bare skin. For non-Muslim men visiting a mosque the main thing is wear long pants. For women it’s long sleeved dress down to the ankle and head covering – sometimes it’s easier just to put on whatever the administration staff at the mosque have ready, but keep in mind they might not have anything on hand – in which case you wouldn’t be admitted. The same applies albeit to a lesser extent in most other places of worship – dress conservatively.
Your Feet are another consideration. Take off those shoes. Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Taoist, Sikh, Jain, it’s much the same policy. Take off your shoes before you enter the place of worship. There will usually be someone watching over the shoes, but its wise not to wear your best fancy shoes. Walking around in socks is fine, and sometimes there are special slippers provided.
Just pay attention, be respectful as a guest and follow instructions and it will be all good.
Food & Drink & Dining
This could go on for a long time, but I will make it relatively short with a few big key points.
- The left hand is seen as unclean in many Asian countries. Never shake hands with your left hand. Never pick up food or offer food with your left hand or eat your food with your left hand. If you’re left handed its fine to use cutlery or chopsticks but don’t eat food with a bare left hand- it’s not a good look, this is the hand for your ablutions.
- In some parts of Asian countries eating with your hands is the norm, especially in South India. Restaurants and eating houses will have a washing basin, use it and wash your hands well. This is basic stuff. If you’re going to eat with your right hand regularly, make sure your nails are well clipped. There is an art to eating a rice meal with your hands. Don’t worry, you’ll master it. Just watch everyone else.
- When you are eating a communal meal with lots of dishes take care, keep yourself safe and other people by never using your own utensils to serve yourself from a communal dish. Usually they’ll be a bigger spoon or some such. If there isn’t, ask for one.
- Watch those assumptions. Thai people mainly use a fork and spoon when they eat. It suits the food. They may use chopsticks for a dish of noodles – but generally, no. This is a glaring faux pas when you see foreigners at a Thai restaurant using chopsticks. Once again, have a look how the other diners are eating their meal and learn from the locals.
- Don’t also be too surprised if the cultural sensitivity you credit yourself with isn’t returned. Dog meat is not in my dining DNA, it’s a taboo in my culture, indeed it repulses me as much as a vegetarian from Rameswaram would be repulsed by offal eaters. But I have sat at lunch in a Beijing restaurant and been passed a plate of dog by a local dining colleague, and he didn’t have one second’s thought about my cultural taboos. “You must try some Wayne, it’s really very good!”.
Clothing, Head wear and Footwear
A couple of important points about clothing. As humans we may all have the same needs for our survival but how we go about it can be very different. Let’s start with:
- Footwear – Most, if not all people in Asia ,take their shoes off at the front door of their home. People don’t wear shoes in the house. They wear house slippers or go barefoot. Bringing the grime of the street inside by wearing shoes is a big no. If you are visiting someone’s house, take your shoes off before you enter or ask what is the custom?
- Head wear – It’s sensible to wear a hat or cap when the weather is very sunny. Aside from sunstroke, it protects your skin. Always have one in your day pack. A piece of cloth is also a useful thing to have, you can always drape it over your head or wet it and place it around your neck to cool off on scorching hot days. Some places of worship have a mandatory rule that heads must be covered, so that piece of cloth can come in handy.
- Clothing – The best rule is to play it a bit conservative. No shorts unless lots of men are also wearing shorts. If all the men in town are wearing long pants and you are wearing shorts, somethings wrong. As a traveller your preferred option is not to “stand out”. Forget political slogans on a t shirt, even if you think it matches the local viewpoint, don’t push your luck. Try to blend in a bit – don’t dress all fancy, that can just be a beacon for thieves and don’t dress shabby – that won’t impress anyone.
Greetings & Courtesies
Being polite doesn’t cost anything but it really matters. Make it your default. Learn some language and understand the nuances. Good manners and a show of respect are invaluable tools for a traveller.
- Always use the right hand for shaking hands. Never the left hand.
- Don’t expect everyone will want to shake your hand. Many Muslim woman won’t shake hands with a foreign man – they may touch their heart with their hand as a sign pf greeting or just nod and smile. Don’t push the physical if it is not being reciprocated.
- In India and Thailand and Bali, learn to put your hands together in a Namaskar or the Wei or the Sembah. It’s a graceful movement, a refined greeting. Make the effort and you will be rewarded.
- Bowing is a tricky act and it’s best just to smile and lightly bow and nod your head. There is no need to try to navigate centuries of customs in a moment. Just do the basics and smile. Smiles are valuable.
So that’s a few bits of advice I have learnt from travel. Main thing is respect yourself and offer respect to others, be polite, and smile when the opportunity arises. And learn all the time.