Asian travel etiquette is not so complicated to understand, nor is it mysterious. Almost every Asian guidebook, travel website and those free little tourist magazines seem to have a section on etiquette – how you should greet people, how to conduct yourself, what’s considered good manners and what’s not, and what you should wear.
Yet we’re increasingly seeing travellers in Siem Reap’s streets who seem to have lost their luggage or in a moment of generosity have given all their clothes away – girls in bikini tops and skimpy shorts that look like undies, guys wearing singlets with armholes opened to their waist and shorts that look like pyjamas. Not a good look. In fact, it’s pretty offensive – not just to us but, more importantly, to the locals.
For some reason, travellers in South East Asia seem to think it’s perfectly okay to wear singlets and shorts in the streets. Well, it’s hot, right, so it should be okay? Wrong. Save it for the beach and hotel swimming pool. What most travellers don’t realize is their lack of clothes is highly offensive to all but the most open-minded of young locals.
While Asian countries have been quick to develop and modernize, it is still a region steeped in ancient traditions and customs, many still practiced today. Sure, young Asians might be increasingly dressing in similar styles, and going through the same struggles we all do with our families when we’re young and rebelling and developing our sense of identity. The difference is that they live here. You – and we – are guests, and who really wants to offend their hosts.
We all like to get friendly greetings when we travel to new places, to experience warm welcomes from people other than hotel staff, and to be on the receiving end of smiles rather than frowns. And Asia has a reputation as ‘the land of smiles’, with friendly locals to be found wherever you go, from Thailand to Indonesia, Myanmar to Borneo.
Yet sometimes travellers to Asian destinations find that they aren’t as enthusiastically welcomed as they’d like to be. Sometimes it’s a puckered brow or cold shoulder. Sometimes it might be a torrent of abuse. Nearly always the cause is a cultural faux pas that’s been made, a simple mistake, misunderstanding or manner of conduct that has caused offense that could have easily been avoided – by putting on a shirt, skirt or trousers, for instance.
For a story I wrote for a magazine last year, I consulted a long list of travel experts from across the region – from hotel concierges to tour guides, people who deal with foreign guests every single day – and I got their advice on how they thought travellers should behave when visiting their destination.
We covered everything from greetings and gestures and body language to general conduct. The aim was to try to ensure that the next time travellers visit an Asian country the only coldness they’ll experience is from that icy scented towel they hand out at reception. I thought it was timely to share some of that advice here.
It starts with a smile
I asked my local experts to tell me what they thought local expectations of foreign travellers visiting Asia are when it comes to greetings? In France, for example, the French always say “bonjour” when entering shops and they think tourists are rude when they don’t do the same. Are visitors to Asia expected to learn to say “good morning” in a dozen different languages? You know what we think, but let’s see what my experts thought…
“It’s always greatly appreciated when a foreign visitor uses local greetings and says ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’ in the local language, even if it is read off a piece of paper,” said Choden Dorjee, an executive at Amankora resort in Bhutan.
Tran Hoang Viet, a guest relations manager at Six Senses Ninh Van Bay in Vietnam agreed. “Vietnamese people are friendly and always smile at foreign visitors: ‘xin chao’ is our traditional greeting and it is a very polite way of greeting that means: “Can I beg to say hello to you?” When a Vietnamese person says ‘xin chao’ and smiles at you, you should always smile back at them and nod your head or shake their hand, otherwise they’ll think that you are not very friendly.”
“In Thailand we use the ‘wai’, a gesture of respect when greeting one another,” explained Naphat Nusati, general manager of Tamarind Village in Chiang Mai. “As the guest of a hotel or as a customer in a shop, allow the staff to ‘wai’ you first, then return the gesture. But don’t ‘wai’ young children. A smile and friendly greeting ‘Sawasdee kha/khrap’ will do.”
Pitak Srisawat, chief concierge of the Four Seasons hotel in Bangkok, elaborated: “To ‘wai’, the hands should be raised as if in prayer and the head is bowed. There are strict rules concerning who and how to ‘wai’. Generally, the younger or junior person initiates the ‘wai’. It is considered unlucky by some Thais for an older or senior person to ‘wai’ a younger or junior person first. The lower the head is bowed, the more respect is shown,” he explained.
“As foreigners are usually not expected to know ‘wai’ etiquette, they will be excused mistakes,” he said. “However, to avoid possible embarrassment to the Thai person, it is generally safer not to initiate a ‘wai’ if you are at all unsure, but always return a ‘wai’.”
The customs concerning greetings are very similar here in Cambodia. “Greetings are an important aspect of Cambodian etiquette,” Sambo Pat, chief concierge at the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor here in Siem Reap, and a member of the elite concierge club, Le Clef d’or, said. “Here, locals also place their palms together as if in prayer. It’s known as ‘som pas’ in Cambodia and we say ‘sompeak’ in Khmer, and bow slightly.”
“We also say ‘choum reap sur’ which means ‘hello’ and ‘choum reap lir’ for ‘goodbye’, and we address a man as ‘Lok’ (Mr/Sir) and a woman as ‘Lok Srey’ (Mrs/Madam) along with the person’s name. It’s a sign of respect and honour.” In Thailand, Pitak Srisawat pointed out that the honorific title ‘Khun’, used before a person’s first name (and used for both men and women) is used for the same reasons.
It’s very important to know where the ‘wai’ is used, as Nicolas Peth, general manager at Evason Ana Mandara Nha Trang in Vietnam warned. “One of the most common mistakes by Westerners touring Asia and visiting Vietnam is to assume that the Vietnamese also use the ‘wai’, placing their hands together close to their chest and face like they do in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia,” he said. “The Vietnamese simply acknowledge each other with a verbal ‘xin chao’. Handshakes are also common, but mostly between men.”
Handshakes are typically used in Malaysia too. “The traditional Malay handshake, known as ‘salam’, involves both parties extending their arms and clasping each other’s hand in a brief but firm grip,” advised Lew Wai Gin, the guest liaison manager at Tanjong Jara Resort. “The man can then offer either one or both hands, grasp his friend’s hands, and then bring a hand back to his chest, which means: ‘I greet you from my heart’.”
Too close for comfort
Handshakes aren’t appropriate everywhere, however, sometimes due to religion reasons – in countries with Muslim populations, for instance, it’s not appropriate for men and women who aren’t related or married to physically touch. Sometimes it’s due to religion and at other times cultural reasons, even superstitions.
Handshakes or any kind of touching is not always acceptable between strangers in Thailand, where Pitak Srisawat cautioned that some Thai people are very conservative regarding members of the opposite sex. “To avoid possible embarrassment,” he suggested, “It is better to avoid physical contact – even shaking hands – with someone of the opposite sex until a close relationship has been established.”
Ho Thi Hong Van, a manager at the Evason Ana Mandara Nha Trang advises visitors to Vietnam to completely avoid displays of affection with a member of the opposite sex in public, especially at a pagoda or church. “Do not touch someone’s head, especially that of a woman,” she suggested, “And do not pass anything over someone’s head, as it’s seen as being rude.”
Sambo Pat agreed. “In Cambodia, the head is sacred, as it is where intelligence and spiritual substance reside. It is considered disrespectful to touch or pat a person’s head,” he said. “Feet, on the contrary, are considered the lowest part of the body and unclean. Pointing at someone or something with your feet can be considered an insult.”
The foot has significance in Bhutan also, where Choden Dorjee, warns visitors never to point their foot at anything. “Try to show respect by not sitting in a way that your feet are directly or overtly pointing at an elderly person you might be meeting or visiting,” she says.
These rules are especially important when visiting a temple or ‘wat’ or meeting a monk. Sambo Pat explained: “When entering a wat, shoes or sandals must be removed before entering and visitors should always sit with their legs bent and feet tucked backward, especially when monks are seated.”
“Women cannot touch monks,” he said. “So if a woman wants to hand something to a monk, the object should be placed within reach of the monk, not handed directly. This restriction even applies to a monk’s mother!”
How close people get to monks is an ongoing concern in Laos, where the early morning alms-giving processions of saffron-robed Buddhist monks through the pretty streets of Luang Prabang attracts hundreds of tourists each day – many getting too close for comfort with their cameras. See this post from our archives for more on that subject.
Sibounma Khampadith, a former novice monk and front office manager at Luang Prabang’s Amantaka resort provides some excellent advice to their guests. “Observe the ritual in silence and contribute an offering only if it is meaningful,” he suggested. “If you don’t wish to make an offering, please be respectful to others. If you want to take photographs, don’t take them too close and try not to use flashes, as they are very disturbing.”
He also recommends guests dress appropriately: “Shoulders, chest and legs should be covered,” he cautioned.
Gary Tyson, general manager at Amantaka, said he believed it was important to explain to guests the background of the alms offering and how to be respectful. In a measure to reduce the number of crowds in the main part of town, he invites guests to the street in front of the hotel to participate in the hotel staff’s daily alms offering to monks from a nearby temple. We did this when we stayed at the hotel and highly recommend it.
There are also customs as far as offerings are concerned. In Bali, where visitors will see small offerings of flowers, fruit and incense in bamboo baskets everywhere they look, Wayan Sucitra offered a few good tips. “Try not to step on offerings in the street,” he warned. “Take care to walk around them. Also, respect the slow pace of Buddhist processions. If you are stuck behind one, please be patient and if you are in a car, please do not honk your horn.”
Patience is a virtue
What next, I asked the experts, how can travellers move beyond greetings, gestures and body language? How should tourists conduct themselves more generally? Is there an appropriate way to behave? For instance, how should travellers deal with problems?
Wayan Sucitra stressed the need for visitors to show tolerance whatever the situation. “Try to be patient with people’s many personal questions, for instance,” he recommended. “Balinese are naturally curious about people from different cultural backgrounds so their questions should not be considered offensive.”
Pitak Srisawat explained that it is the same in Thailand. “When Thais meet someone for the first time, it is not unusual for them to ask questions,” he says. “They may seem very personal to some foreigners but it is best to accept them in good nature and without affront.”
“Always keep calm, smile and remain polite when interacting with Thais, even if you feel frustrated,” Chumpol Chantaloon, the guest services manager at Rayavadee resort, Krabi, advised. “Thai people value restraint and cool manners above almost everything else. Expressing anger and raising your voice is frowned upon and seen as a sign of weak character.”
The situation is no different in Malaysia, where the concierge of the Four Seasons Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Bhaskaran Kessavan explained that “the Malaysian people are calm and humble, and ‘saving face’ is an important part of the culture. Relax and explain your grievances clearly in a polite manner to ensure you don’t make them ‘lose face’. The best way to handle a complaint is to stay composed.”
“Always avoid public displays of emotion,” Pitak Srisawat elaborated. “In no situation is it considered appropriate to show anger or a negative emotion. Doing so causes the other person to lose face and will not encourage sympathy or help from others. Instead, speak softly and smile warmly.”
As always, a smile goes a long way in Asia. As does wearing some clothes.