Often the most iconic and beautiful buildings in a city, mosques are a constant sight throughout one’s travels in Southeast Asia.
Skylines throughout Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei are punctuated with the tall minarets and curving domes of mosques; the mesmerizing wail of the call to prayer resounds throughout cities five times a day.
Don't be intimidated by Southeast Asia’s mosques – visiting them is a learning experience and may become a highlight of your trip. (Mosques like Jakarta, Indonesia's Masjid Istiqlal and Malacca, Malaysia's Kampung Kling Mosque are accustomed to foreign visitors, and will offer the most enlightening experience.)
Followers of Islam welcome tourists and the general public inside and will gladly answer your questions.
Visiting a Mosque
Similar to visiting Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia, mosque etiquette is mostly just common sense. Follow these simple rules of etiquette when visiting mosques to ensure that you do not cause offense.
Remove your hat and shoes: Hats and sunglasses should always be removed before you actually enter a mosque. Leave your shoes on the rack at the entrance. Some mosques will provide plastic covers for your feet.
Be respectful: Avoid making loud noises or engaging in unnecessary conversation inside of mosques. Turn off mobile phones, don't chew gum, and do not bring food or drinks inside of a mosque.
Do not point feet: While sitting, avoid pointing your feet in the direction of the Qibla - the primary wall inside the mosque indicating the direction of Mecca.
Dress appropriately: Modest dress is required. Men and women should both cover as much skin as possible; women are required to cover their heads.
Clothing for Visiting a Mosque
Perhaps the most important rule of etiquette often ignored by tourists, both men and women are expected to be dressed appropriately before visiting a mosque. Modest dress is the rule of thumb; shirts advertising rock bands, messages, or bright colors should be avoided. Larger mosques in tourist areas will loan proper attire for covering up during your visit.
Women: Women should have all skin covered; ankle-length skirts or pants are required. Sleeves should reach to each wrist and the hair should be covered by a headscarf. Pants or skirts that are too revealing, clingy, or tight should not be worn.
Some mosques will provide clothing for the underdressed, but don’t expect them to be flattering – the Kapitan Keling Mosque in Penang, for instance, will give female tourists raincoats to wear throughout the visit!
Men: Men should wear long pants and plain shirts without messages or slogans when visiting mosques. Short-sleeved shirts are acceptable as long as the sleeves are not shorter than average. If in doubt, wear long sleeves.
Entering a Mosque
Sometimes men and women use separate entrances to enter a mosque - look for signs. The typical greeting in Arabic for those entering mosques is "Assalam Allaikum" which means "peace be upon you". The correct return is "Wa alaikum-as-salam" which means "peace be upon you too". Tourists are obviously not expected to return the greeting, but doing so shows great respect.
It is a Muslim custom to enter a mosque with the right foot first and then exit with the left foot first. Members of the opposite sex should never offer to shake hands upon greeting.
Visiting a mosque is free, however, donations are accepted.
Followers of Islam are expected to pray five times each day, the position of the sun determines the times; prayer times differ between regions and seasons.
In general, tourists should avoid visiting a mosque during prayer times. If present during the prayers, visitors should sit quietly at the back wall without taking photos.
Photography Inside of Mosques
Photography is permitted inside of mosques, however, you should never take pictures during prayer times or of worshipers performing ablutions before the prayer.
Visiting a Mosque During Ramadan
Mosques - known to followers of Islam as masjid - are generally still open to the public during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Visitors should be particularly sensitive about smoking, eating, or drinking in the proximity of mosques during the fasting month.
It is best to visit mosques before sundown during Ramadan to prevent disturbing locals enjoying their potluck-style iftar dinner sometimes hosted inside the mosque.