Social etiquette in South East Asia

Kid on a boat in Asia

When it comes to travelling in different cultures, you can sometimes accidently offend the locals with (what you see as) very off hand gestures, that would normally be wholly accepted back home in western society.

However you must keep in mind when backpacking through such places as South East Asia for example that a lot of the local people (especially the older generations) are very traditional and religious. Although a lot of places cater for westerners and speak English, it is still good to respect the native’s culture and to try and abide by their way of life as much as possible – after all you are one’s that are the tourists in their country!

Below we have just highlighted a few of the main mishaps many westerners forget whilst in South East Asia, as to make your time there  run a lot more smooth and happier in every way possible.

Bare feet

Showing the soles of your feet!

This is a great insult to anyone in South East Asia if you were to place the soles of your feet upon a table or a chair. Even worse is showing the soles of your feet in a temple or to any religious statues such as Buddha.

If you want to pay your respects at temples etc, always make sure you have your feet safely tucked behind your bum to avoid any unnecessary embarrassment or upset!

Monks in Thailand

Ladies – stay away from the monks!



It is a sin for a monk to be touched or to touch a woman whilst he is in his religious servitude. You also cannot walk in the path a monk is taking or present any monk with any gift offering.

The only way you can give something to a monk is to first give it to a man to give to them, or you can kneel with your head down and wait to see if the monk will accept the gift from you. This usually only works with native women though.

Avoid eye contact if possible too!

Wearing bikini in the street

Bikinis in public

Ok ladies, you’re in a hot country and it’s all too easy to want to strip off everywhere – but native women are very modest in their fashions and choose to cover up. Of course, if you are in a western-run place or are at the beach/swimming pool, wear whatever you want!

But if you are in a local village or a locally run guesthouse or bar, you should take into account the local dress code and cover up when you are in such places out of respect.

Public display of affection

Public shows of affection

This is for all the love birds out there. Any smooching you have to do, may have to be left until you are alone – as public displays of affection are usually frowned upon in more traditional parts of South East Asia. So when in these places always keep in mind to keep the passions at bay until you get home as not to offend or embarrass anyone!

The people of South East Asia are some of the most wonderful and loving you will ever come across, just try when in more rural areas to respect the culture and religion by following suit from the locals instead of other westerners!

Photos by Mike Stenhouse (1), dannebrog (2), Taro Taylor (3), Gordon Haire (4), and Jon Rawlinson (5) on flickr

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