Etiquette For Visiting Buddhist Temples In South East Asia.

Sri Lanka Colombo Buddhism

With more and more high profile stories of travellers behaving inappropriately and causing offence in temples and religious sites throughout south east Asia, knowing the rules and etiquette of visiting Buddhist temples is increasingly important. Here are just a few simple tips to ensure you can enjoy visiting these majestic temples without inadvertently causing offence.

Many backpackers and travellers heading to south east Asia will at some point find themselves visiting a Buddhist temple, many of which can be a highlight of their trip, but travellers also need to remember that these are not just tourist attractions but are often active places of worship too and should be treated as such.

South East Asia is a world filled with modern wonder and ancient mysticism that travellers and tourists alike are drawn to in their millions every year, and a large part of that attraction are the myriad of ancient and modern Buddhist temples that are spread throughout the region. There are so many that temple fatigue is an actual thing!

Borobudur Temple in Yogyakarta. Indonesia

The big problem is that whilst travellers are generally always welcome, tourism does often clash with the local need for worship and simply going about their daily lives.

Whilst most travellers may make the occassional innocent and acceptable mistake with no offence meant or taken, there has been a growth in recent years of moronic travellers seemingly go out of their way to shock and cause offence, siting their ‘right’ to do as they choose regardless of whoever or whatever they disrespect in the process. A recent trend for stripping off at high profile sites has caused mass offence across the region and has forced some places such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia to enact and enforce laws against such behaviour.

They really should not have to do that.

So just follow these simple tips and you will have a much better, more reflective and more informative time in the Buddhist temples of south east Asia without causing anyone any offence.

Michael Huxley Sri Lanka Buddhist Statue

Show Some Respect.

This is just basic common sense really. Just remember that whilst it may be an awesome tourist attraction to you, the temples that you visit are actually working religious sites and consecrated grounds for others, so be considerate of that fact. Don’t interrupt monks in prayer or meditation, don’t get in their way, don’t clamber over sacred monuments just to get that perfect selfie, don’t smoke or act like a typical tourist, lower your voice when speaking and be polite! This really is just basic civil behaviour in polite society people, c’mon.

Remember that you are a guest, and do not have an automatic right to be there just because you are a tourist.

Be Careful With Your Clothing.

Again this is just a bit of common courtesy. Most travellers and tourists in south east Asia dress for the heat and wear clothing that isn’t exactly appropriate for a holy place. Man Buddhist temples are very lenient with this and pass out sarongs for tourists to cover their shoulders or knees where necessary, but not all do. Just be a little bit considerate if you know you will be visiting temples and wear clothing that is still cool and comfortable but covers you up to a respectable degree too. And yes that goes for guys just as much as it does for ladies. Shorts and the Singha Beer vest are just as inappropriate as short shorts and a bikini top.

Take Off Your Shoes.

This is a pretty obvious one when you see the massive pile of sandals outside the main area of worship, but still some tourists do think that it can’t possibly apply to them. It does.

Obviously walking around the grounds is absolutely fine, but if you want to go inside just leave your shoes in the allocated spot and go barefoot.

A small piece of advice though, if you know you will be visiting a temple then don’t wear your most expensive fancy trainers from home, just get a cheap pair of slip on sandals. It was hilarious watching a woman in Sri Lanka accuse a really old local of stealing her brand new neon pink trainers (which she obviously did), but you wouldn’t want to be in that position yourself!

Don’t Disrespect Buddha.

Borobudur Temple in Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Buddha statues are sacred objects, they are not photo props for you to clamber on for a selfie, so don’t touch them, sit on them, climb on them (especially with your shoes on). In some countries such as Myanmar this is against the law and you can really get into some serious trouble because of it. So be careful.

The rules around what you can and can’t do go much deeper than that though, you have to be really careful about your body language and how you stand. It is considered extremely rude to point a finger or point your feet toward a Buddha statue (or a monk) if you are sitting down. Some temples and monasteries are more lenient than others on this but you should also never turn your back to a Buddha statue to take a photo. I’ve fallen foul of this one myself by complete mistake, but some places have guards who will enforce the rule. And if you have a tattoo of Buddha on you anywhere, then make sure it is covered up and won’t accidentally be seen, you can get in serious trouble for this in some countries.

Respect The Monks.

Himalaya Road Trip Buddhists in Monastery

As much as you should respect the temples, monasteries and statues, you should respect those that worship in them too. Again, a lot of this is just common sense, be courteous, be kind, be respectful. Ask before taking photos, follow their lead in sitting or standing before talking to them, don’t point your feet at them.

Women should also be more careful than men when interacting with Buddhist monks as touching a monk can force them to perform a cleansing ritual. This doesn’t mean they consider you dirty, far from it, it just means that they have to purify themselves of any distraction to the body.

Michael Huxley at Borubudur Yogyakarta Indonesia

A lot of these tips basically boil down to common courtesy and basic manners, and that is all a lot of it is. In other words respect the places you visit and don’t be a dick!  This isn’t about scaring you away, travellers are generally always welcome in Buddhist temples and monks are often friendly in the extreme, all they ask for is a little respect.

Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.

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Michael Huxley is a published author, professional adventurer and founder of the travel website, Bemused Backpacker. He has spent the last twenty years travelling to over 100 countries on almost every continent, slowly building Bemused Backpacker into a successful business after leaving a former career in emergency nursing and travel medicine, and continues to travel the world on numerous adventures every year.

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26 comments on “Etiquette For Visiting Buddhist Temples In South East Asia.
  1. Some fab advice. I’ve actually just purchased my own sarong to take with me for this very reason 🙂

  2. kksharma47 says:

    Great article as usual. Loved it.

  3. Michelle says:

    Love this! I know there are a lot of backpackers who will unintentionally cause offence out of ignorance and for the most part these tiny infractions are forgivable, but some travellers and tourists especially have attitudes that are shocking! Just look at how many countries have had to issue specific rules to tourists to stop them getting naked or climbing on sacred temples. There’s just no excuse for that level of stupidity.

  4. Hsui Mei says:

    It is important to understand culture and abide by their rules wherever you go.

  5. Grace says:

    It is not hard, just show basic courtesy and respect? Why can not all tourists understand?

  6. ntxhaisva says:

    I went here for a study abroad trip a while ago. It is beautiful and we even stopped by to see the location where Tomb Raider was shot. I think we spent too long of a day there haha (10am – 4pm). Our professor was really digging it.

  7. Matt says:

    Don’t be a dick! Haha! I think that should be a rule for every aspect of life!

  8. CrashOveride says:

    Yes! I have seen so many idiot tourists being so disrespectful over the years. It really winds me up.

  9. Brilliant article, I wish more travellers would read it, it’s a bad state of affairs when so many countrys are starting to issue ‘how to behave’ rules to tourists.

  10. maninahuff says:

    I read some of those stories about people stripping of and stuff, some people should just not be allowed to travel!

  11. Dawn says:

    Yes manners are important but there has to be some room for making mistakes surely? Especially if you don’t know the culture?

    • Absolutely Dawn, and there is. In my experience people all over the world are very forgiving of little faux pas and more than willing to point people in the right direction as long as the mistake – and the traveller – is genuine about it. It is the other end of the scale I am talking about. Those that are just completely ignorant and insulting through choice.

  12. buddhistronin says:

    Very good advice! Thanks for posting,

  13. Louisa says:

    I don’t know how people can be so ignorant sometimes!

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Hi, I'm Michael! I'm a former nurse turned published author and world travelling professional adventurer! I have spent over twenty years travelling over 100 countries and I want to inspire you to do the same! Want to know more about me? Just click here!

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