Tourists Behaving Badly: What Not to Do in Southeast Asia

Why Drugs, Public Nudity and Politics are No-Go Zones for Tourists

Australian citizens sit on a jail floor in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia.
••• Australian citizens sit on a jail floor in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia.

Dimas Ardian/Getty Images 

When tourists in Southeast Asia forget that they're not home anymore, the results can be catastrophic. We're not just talking about drinking from the tap and getting Bali belly; we're talking about a collision of fundamental beliefs that can result in arrest, deportation or worse.

Mooning a temple, trash-talking the head of state, and joining a political rally may be part of your fundamental rights as a citizen back home... but when you're a tourist, your civil liberties only go as far as the conditions set in your tourist visa. It's a lesson these tourists learned the hard way.

  • 01 of 06

    Don't get naked in a Buddhist temple.

    The Adams sisters on the dock, Cambodia.
    ••• The Adams sisters in Cambodia court.  Image courtesy of the Cambodia government

    Taking bare-naked butt snaps in the Angkor Archaeological Park for giggles may not have been the Adams sisters' best idea. Lindsey Kate Adams and Leslie Jan Adams were convicted in a Siem Reap court of "trafficking pornography and exposing sexual body parts".

    As a consequence, they were slapped with a suspended six-month prison sentence, fined the equivalent of US$250 (1 million Cambodian riel, to be precise; read about money in Cambodia) and deported.

    The altogether-ooky Adams family members were part of a weird temple trend that recurs on a regular basis throughout Southeast Asia. In Thailand, married couple Joseph and Travis daSilva were arrested after their “butt selfies” in Bangkok’s Wat Arun temple went viral.

    The “belfie” trend aside, exposing genitals, buttocks and breasts in Buddhist temples represents a serious breach of etiquette anywhere in Southeast Asia, to say nothing of the legal implications. "It's an offense to the culture of others, regardless of...MORE religion," APSARA spokesperson Kerya Chau Sun told CNN. "As a Cambodian, it's hurtful to my belief.”

    So when visiting visit Siem Reap in Cambodia, Bagan in Myanmar or other historic temple grounds, keep your clothes on, and respect the sensibilities of local Buddhists. They might not see your butt live, but they’ll certainly find out on social media afterward.

    Find out more about the dos and don'ts of visiting Buddhist temples.

  • 02 of 06

    Don't walk around shirtless in public.

    Arrested foreigner in Chiang Mai, Thailand
    ••• Arrested foreigner in Chiang Mai, Thailand.  Image courtesy of the Thailand government

    An unnamed foreigner was arrested in Chiang Mai, Thailand during Songkran for walking around shirtless in public; he learned the hard way that the splashy Thai holiday is an excuse to get wet, not topless!

    The plain truth is, it doesn't matter how hot or humid the weather is, or how clammy your cotton shirt feels like right now. Women and men are expected to keep their nipples concealed on the streets.

    Sure, you won't get much of a reaction to your bare bod in beach town Phuket, particularly if you're around or close to the sea. But in beachless Bangkok and conservative Chiang Mai, you'll attract the wrong kind of attention if you decide to air your abs on the sidewalk.

    “It’s ‘lo-so mak’ (very low-society or uncouth),” explains Roy Cavanagh, expatriate Thai travel writer at Thaizer.com. “You might have the body of Adonis or the abs of Arnie, but that won’t impress the local ladies if they think you’re a khi-nok farang (low class foreigner; khi-nok = “bird shit”) who...MORE doesn’t wear a shirt in town.”

  • 03 of 06

    Don't have sex in a Bali temple.

    The proper way to get wet at a Bali water temple in Indonesia
    ••• The proper way to get wet at a Bali water temple in Indonesia. Stuart Pearce/Getty Images

    In 2012, an Estonian couple - Urmas Silman, 43, and Katrin Silman, 32 - were caught having sex in the Pura Mengening temple in Tampaksiring, Bali. They were arrested and later fined IDR 20 million ($2,060) to pay for the cost of a purification ceremony.

    The Silmans claimed they were "unaware" that sex was forbidden in the temple. There are all sorts of problems with this excuse - if even the most clueless tourist knows you can't have sex in a church in Tallinn, Estonia, it necessarily follows that you can't have sex in a Balinese temple.

    Not even if it has pretty bathing spaces: the temple where the couple were caught, Pura Mengening in Saraseda village, Tampaksiring, is a picturesque bathing temple in Gianyar.

    To understand why the Balinese take Urmas and Katrin's inappropriate sex act so seriously, read our articles about Balinese culture and etiquette tips for travelers in Bali. (One helpful hint: when you enter a Balinese temple, indecent or overly revealing...MORE clothing is prohibited. Also, sex. Another hint: you shouldn't position your head higher than the priest leading the religious ceremonies. Or have sex.)

    For a list of publicly accessible temples you have to see when in town, read: Top Ten Must-See Temples in Bali. Visit them all, just don't have sex in them, thanks.

  • 04 of 06

    Avoid illegal drugs like the plague.

    bali_nine.jpg
    ••• Myuran Sukumaran, accused ringleader of the "Bali Nine", heading to trial. Image courtesy of Getty Images

    As laid-back as Indonesia can be at its best, both casual drug users and hardcore drug smugglers can quickly discover Indonesia at its worst when they find themselves on the business end of Indonesia's stringent drug laws

    Take Andrew Chan, Myuran Sukumaran, and the seven other tourists arrested for attempting to smuggle 18 pounds of heroin to Australia from Indonesia. Of the "Bali Nine", Chan and Sukumaran got the death penalty.  No surprise there: Indonesian drug laws prescribe the death penalty for narcotics trafficking.

    Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned here about doing drugs in Southeast Asia is - don't. This is not an argument about whether drugs are bad for you or if the drug war is unnecessary. This is an argument for prudent action, when the alternative can mean a lifetime in jail or worse.

    For more information, read our article about drugs in Southeast Asia.

    Continue to 5 of 6 below.
  • 05 of 06

    Don't get mixed up in local politics.

    The average citizen in Southeast Asia does not look kindly upon foreign entanglement in domestic politics; colonization, after all, still remains within living memory for many.

    So when Dutch activist Thomas van Beersum was photographed in a 2013 Manila protest action yelling at a crying policeman, Filipinos reacted with anger and disgust. Beersum, who had secured a 21-day tourist visa on his arrival in the Philippines, had both overstayed his visa and violated its conditions by participating in political activities during his visit. Beersum was arrested, declared an "undesirable alien", and deported back to the Netherlands.

    So be warned: violations of your visa conditions will be severely punished, particularly if it involves politically sensitive subjects. In Indonesia, an Australian journalist was deported for working in the country on a tourist visa (not a journalist visa, as required by Indonesian authorities). And in Malaysia, reporters were arrested for too aggressively...MORE approaching the Malaysian prime minister for an interview. 

  • 06 of 06

    Don't disrespect the local royalty.

    bangkok_prison.jpg
    ••• Exterior shot of a Bangkok prison. Image courtesy of David Hogsholt/Getty Images

    Poor Harry Nicolaides - his novel "Verisimilitude" sold only ten copies in its brief publication history, but a single paragraph in the text was enough to get the former expat teacher six months in a Thai jail. Nobody can say for sure why Nicolaides felt compelled to add an aside denigrating the Thai crown prince in his literary effort - though some can hazard a guess.

    "I believe [...] he left the offending paragraph in his novel only as a means of achieving recognition," opined Heath Dollar, a former colleague of Nicolaides'. "Nicolaides rather cavalierly suggested that going to prison for lese majeste could bring him literary fame."

    Nicolaides was convicted of the crime of lese majeste, or offending the dignity of the sovereign. A Westerner accustomed to possessing extensive civil liberties may find lese majeste absurd, but it is no joke in practice: violating lese majeste laws in Thailand comes with three to fifteen years imprisonment. If your opinions of...MORE royalty in general favor the Roundheads over the Royalists... then please keep your opinions to yourself!