Southeast Asia's Buddhist temples live in two worlds: many of them are simultaneously sacred places of worship and major tourist attractions. Most travelers to the region will visit at least one—if not several—during their travels.
Full of history, intrigue, impressive architecture and carved reliefs, many temples are wonders to explore. Usually peaceful and quiet, wandering the grounds of a temple while lost in your own thoughts can be a meditative experience, no matter what your religious beliefs are.
However, governments often find themselves in a bind when balancing locals' sensitivities and tourist revenue. And there's plenty of opportunity for offense: worshipers often get up in arms about travelers wearing too little clothing, not taking off their shoes, and sometimes for having a tattoo of the Buddha, which can be seen as disrespectful.
However, as long as you follow the rules, there's no need for you to feel intimidated. Visitors who are respectful and aware of the rules will always be welcome. You might also find it helpful to learn about the specific dos and don'ts that apply to one of Southeast Asia's Buddhist-majority countries and read up on etiquette for visitors to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Myanmar.
Turn off mobile phones, remove headphones, lower your voice, avoid inappropriate conversation, remove hats, and no smoking or chewing gum. You are likely entering an actual consecrated area, where locals go to commune with the sacred, so any hint of irreverence might cause deep offense.
Remove Your Hat and Shoes
Hats and shoes should always be removed before entering a temple. You can leave your shoes outside the temple in the designated area and hold your hat in your hands or put it away during your visit. In some countries, this isn't just a rule of the temple—it's the law. For example, in Myanmar tourists can be fined or even arrested in Bagan for climbing pagodas with their shoes on, with their tour guides liable to prosecution under the Myanmar Penal Code (specifically Section 295, “injuring or defiling place of worship, with intent to insult the religion of any class”).
“You have to follow the rules and traditions of another country,” explained Aung Aung Kyaw, Director of the Bagan Department of Archaeology, National Museum and Library. “If you climb a pagoda with your shoes on, then we have to take legal action.”
This is the rule most ignored by tourists who dress for the heat in countries around Southeast Asia. Shoulders should be covered and long pants should be worn rather than shorts. Some temples in tourist places may be more lenient, but your modesty will be appreciated.
Some, but not all temples, may provide a sarong or other cover-up for a small fee if the gatekeeper thinks you're not covered up enough.
Respect the Buddha Statues
Never touch, sit near, or climb on a Buddha statue or the raised platform the statue sits on. Get permission before taking photographs and never do so during worship. When exiting, you should walk backwards and get some distance between you and the Buddha before turning your back.
Pointing at things or people around the temple is considered extremely rude. To indicate something, use your right hand with the palm facing upwards. When sitting, never point your feet at a person or image of Buddha.
If you happen to be sitting in the worship area when monks or nuns enter, stand to show respect; wait until they have finished their prostrations before sitting again.
Interacting With Buddhist Monks
Monks are some of the friendliest people you will meet during your travels. The monks that you see sweeping the temple stairs may be less concerned about dirt and more interested in removing the insects so that no one accidentally steps on one!
While interacting with monks, there are a few things to be aware of. First of all, keep in mind that monks don't eat in the afternoon, so be mindful about eating or snacking around them. Secondly, if a monk is sitting, show respect by sitting before starting a conversation and avoid sitting higher than a monk if you can help it. Never point your feet at any Buddhist while sitting. Thirdly, you should only use your right hand when giving or receiving something from a monk.
Women should also be aware of the few extra rules that apply to their interactions with monks. For example, women should never touch or a hand a monk something and even brushing against a monk by accident might make them uncomfortable.
For women participating in the tak bat ceremony in Luang Prabang, they must not make actual contact with the monk when handing over the food or donation. In other contexts, women generally pass on their donations to a man, who then hands it over to the monk.
Showing Extra Respect
While certainly not expected, these gestures will show that you took the time to research Buddhist customs before your visit. When entering a shrine, step in with your left foot first and exit with your right foot. This gesture symbolically represents a whole.
You can also practice the traditional greeting of wai, as it's known in Thailand, or som pas, as it's known in Cambodia. To do this, place your hands together in a prayer-like gesture and give a slight bow when greeting a monk. To show more respect, you can hold your hands higher than usual, like near your forehead.
Nearly every temple has a small metal box for receiving donations from the public. These donations keep the temple running, usually on a very thin budget. If you enjoyed your visit, giving a small amount would mean a lot. A typical donation is $1 USD or less.
Edited by Mike Aquino