I visited my first temple in 2017. Before that, I had never visited a temple or pagoda per se. As an American, I learned quickly there are a lot of foreign habits that are completely off our radar. We can disrespect the culture without even realizing it. Eventually, you will realize. But, this post will equip you with basic etiquette that will at least keep you from getting turned away at the gate. Here are the tips for visiting a temple in Southeast Asia that you can use to abide by the culture’s customs and respect their traditions.
The first thing you should do before visiting is research the specific temple. Learn what kind of temple it is. For example, a Hindu temple may have slightly different customs than a Buddhist temple. Generally, however, you can follow a few rules of thumb to visit a temple without too many critical side eyes.
I cannot tell you how many times I have approached a temple in the wrong clothing. It’s hot in SE Asia. You don’t normally rock long sleeves. If you know you are visiting a temple, this should be one of the top things to consider. It never hurts to pack a couple sarongs in your backpack.
Sometimes the entrance will supply you with an apron or a wrap of some sort, but I’ve found that is only at the more popular locations. If you go off the beaten track at all, you will need to find a way to cover up.
When I visited the Kek Lok Si temple in Penang, Malaysia I was dressed in high waisted shorts and a crop top. After a full day of taking street art photos in the cultural heritage site of Penang, we headed straight to the temple. We needed to get there before sunset so we could watch the lanterns turn on, so there was no time to head back to the AirBnb.
I assessed my situation and pulled the shoulders up on my “off the shoulder top”- Sleeves, check! Now, what to do about the shorts? I had a raincoat in my backpack and I considered wrapping myself in it. However, when the cab let us out at the foothill of the temple, I discovered an alley of shops selling skirts, t-shirts, and other souvenirs. I found one long enough to cover my legs and midriff. After bargaining with the nice lady, I pulled the skirt up over my shorts and walked up the hill to the temple. My problem was solved for less than $12 USD. Keep this in mind next time you show up to a temple unprepared! There are always mindful solutions to consider.
This is a given in SE Asia. If you aren’t removing your shoes before entering a temple, you are doing it wrong. It’s pretty difficult to mess this one up. Everyone around will be taking their shoes off too. Follow the custom and remove your shoes. If you are going in and out of different temple buildings, remove your shoes before entering each building. Shoes are dirty and tracking dirt into a sacred building is super disrespectful. Don’t be that tourist.
The reason the temple exists is to pay respect to the Buddha or other deity. Therefore, don’t turn your back to him for your selfie. Even more importantly, never point your feet toward the Buddha. The bottoms of the feet are considered the dirtiest part of the human body, so keep them pointed away from the culture’s most supreme being. It gets tricky to get the photo you want. If you work within these parameters, you should be able to take a nice photo and still be respectful. Remember to back away from the Buddha before turning around to exit.
In Thailand in particular, you will greet monks with a higher-than-usual Wai. This is the hand gesture that you think of when you hear Namaste. Generally, hands come together at your heart. But, when you are interacting with a monk or paying respect to the Buddha, you raise it to your forehead or above.
At Buddhist temples in Thailand, the appropriate way to bow to the Buddha goes like this:
Once you get to the entryway, step down and put your shoes back on.
In addition to the less obvious cultural customs, it is also important to remain aware of the energy you bring into the temple. It is a sacred space, after all. Keep your voice low. Silence your phone. Never point at anyone or anything. If you must point at something, use your full hand to do so. Go the extra mile and use your right hand since it is considered cleaner than the left in some cultures.
Read the signs and follow the rules. If you can’t read signs, look around to see if other people are taking photos before you start snapping away. It’s better to blend into the crowd in situations like this. Most importantly, remember to use your common sense.
In a country where you are unable to communicate in the native language, your actions speak much louder than words. If you take time to equip yourself with basic manners, you will be pleasing the hearts of locals rather than causing them to shake their heads in dismay. Become educated and try to blend in.
I always noticed the backpackers at the night markets because they would continue to chat and stroll while the National Anthem was playing. Don’t be the traveler that stands out for the wrong reason. Countries should be able to count on tourists to be respectful, aware, and conscious. Respect the local culture and other countries will develop a better perception of your home country. To my fellow Americans, we have a lot of work to overcome our reputations abroad. It is better to err on the side of too respectful.
If you do accidentally show up to a temple dressed inappropriately, try to buy or borrow a sarong to cover up. Research the temple before you arrive. Remember the cultural norms of the country you are visiting. Traveling is really fun and learning the customs of other cultures is part of the journey. Thai culture opened my eyes to the beauty of Buddhist culture. You will not want to miss the elaborate displays and intricate designs that make up so many temples. Just be sure to give them the appreciation they deserve.
Thank you for reading this post! You are all set to start temple hopping.
Blessings and Moon Magic,
Whitney is a certified yoga teacher and world traveler who encourages others to wander with wellness. Learn more about her services on her website MoonWandering and follow her on Instagram @moon.wandering.