You don't have to let culture shock get in your way of a great trip in Southeast Asia if you are mindful of these social customs from the region:
At all religious institutions in South-east Asia, dress modestly. That means no low-cut or backless tops, miniskirts and shorts; the shoulders and knees should be covered. If you are visiting Hindu temples, do not wear or carry anything made of leather.
For mosques, do check for signs at the entrances – some, but not all, will have separate designated entrances for men and women. If you are a non-Muslim, avoid visiting during prayer times. When entering temples, you’ll notice that most have raised thresholds; always step over them, never on them. Both Hindus and Buddhists believe that the thresholds act as barriers to keep out evil spirits.
There is also a standard of behaviour in the temples. In adherence to the Buddhist and Hindu devotional practice of circumambulation, you should walk in a clockwise direction around sacred idols. If you sit on the floor, make sure that your feet are not pointed at the religious statues or their images; this is considered extremely disrespectful.
Bear in mind, too, that women should be careful to avoid touching a Buddhist or Hindu monk, as he will be required to go through cleansing rituals as a consequence. When offering alms to Buddhist monks, for instance, women should avoid passing them directly to the monks; instead they should put their offerings into the alms bowl or cloth provided.
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According to Buddhist culture, the head is the most sacred part of the body, so avoid touching it – this includes patting a child on the head – in predominantly Buddhist countries such as Thailand and Cambodia. Conversely, the feet are thought to be unclean, so avoid exposing your bare soles to others. This means that when seated on the ground, you should sit cross-legged, or with your feet tucked under you or legs by your side, soles pointing backward.
In traditionally conservative Muslim societies, avoid excessive public displays of affection. Although handshakes are a fairly common form of greeting, some Muslim women in Malaysia may avoid handshakes with men. Allow them to initiate the greeting, and if they simply nod and smile, reciprocate in kind.
In countries with significant Hindu or Muslim populations, such as Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, remember to use your right hand for all manner of activities, including paying, pointing and eating. The left hand is typically used in the lavatory and considered unclean.
Home visits: dos and don’ts
For reasons of hygiene, it is customary to remove one’s shoes when visiting a local’s home in South-east Asia. If house slippers are provided, do wear them. In Laotian homes, there is even a specific cloth to wipe your feet on before you step in.
ASEAN countries are known for their hospitality, and most locals will offer you drinks and snacks when you visit their homes. It is impolite to decline, so have a nibble and take at least a few sips. If you receive an invitation to a festival or special event in the Philippines though, it would be a faux pas not to accept.
If your hosts are sitting on the floor, do join them there, as positioning yourself at a spot that’s higher than theirs may be deemed disrespectful. Also, never step over someone who is sitting in your path; instead, walk around them.
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In parts of ASEAN countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, people still eat with their hands. If you want to go down that road, spoon the food into your mouth using your fingers to avoid making a mess; never use your palm.
When dining with elders in South-east Asia, it is customary to wait for them to start eating first before you tuck into your meal; this is a sign of respect. You can also politely ask them to begin eating.
Keep an eye out for these country-specific social customs and quirks to mingle effortlessly with locals.
If a table at a hawker centre has a packet of tissue on it, do not sit there; that is a sign that someone has reserved it. It is, however, acceptable to ask if you can share the table if there’s an empty seat at it.
Avoid discussing the royal family in public, as they are greatly revered in the country. All royalty should only be mentioned with the deepest respect, and insulting them is a crime punishable by law.
Betel-leaf chewing is a common pastime here and unlike many other places, it is not considered rude to spit the chewed-up leaves on the street, so don’t make a fuss if you spot locals doing it.
Locals tend to ask personal questions such as your marital status and salary. This is their way of being friendly and a means to determine how they can introduce you to others. Just smile to deflect questions.
Outside of the major tourism destinations such as Jakarta and Bali, travellers may encounter locals asking to have photographs taken with them. It is considered an act of honouring someone.
ILLUSTRATIONS: Tuan Anh Vu
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Story originally appeared on SilverKris.