Cultural Appropriateness when Travelling

shwedagon pagodaSouth East Asia is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world with so many amazing things on offer.  There are temples, beaches and islands, mountainous regions, incredibly diverse food and people, strong Buddhist culture and countries that are screaming towards modern development. People come here to be surprised, excited and touched by these differences to western cultures. The difference is appealing, the experiences are unique.

What surprises me the most about the majority of tourists to this area is that very few of them take time to consider culturally appropriate behaviour or clothing. Some may argue that this is a stupid thing for a backpacker or someone staying in a resort to think about – we live in a modern world and these countries need to come to the party, or that its irrelevant to a traveller.

I would argue that this is very important for travellers – as important as working out a budget or trip plan. Knowing what is culturally sensitive or appropriate will make a huge difference when travelling to an unknown place. In all SE Asian countries, clothing and behaviour are paramount to respect. They are actually quite conservative countries when you look around.

Women especially need to be respectful of clothing appropriateness – revealing clothing (especially in the chest area) is frowned upon. Singlet tops, boob tubes, midriff- revealing shirts, or no shirt at all may be comfortable in hot weather, but will only get you attention for the wrong reasons. See those men and women staring at you? They aren’t looking at you because they think you look awesome, they are staring because they think you look cheap. Sounds harsh, but sit down with some locals and you will soon hear what they really think. Also, keep your shoes on. I have seen so many backpackers wandering the streets with no shoes on and a few anklets with bells on. Its not cool and you can get diseases from stepping in filth. Oh and you are probably being laughed at by the locals. A pair of thongs/flip-flops are really not that difficult to keep on your feet.

samoeng friends

When visiting any religious site, women should wear clothing that covers the shoulders and goes to the knee. This should be the case for any country around the world that you are visiting. Look around at what the local people are wearing inside the temple and copy them. Most women will wear pants or a long skirt, blouse or at least a t-shirt that isn’t showing cleavage. Guys, the same goes for you. Make sure you wear a shirt at the very least – I’ve seen guys rock up with only a pair of shorts on at a temple, and all I could do was cringe (and make comments to Mick no doubt!) Wear a t-shirt that covers your shoulders and wear shorts that are to the knee or even wear a pair of pants. Look around at the men there – t-shirt or button up shirt and long pants are typically worn. Follow suit and you will be doing your bit to make tourists not so naff.

Temples are holy places, places that deserve respect much like a church in the west. Even if it is an old relic site, a dilapidated temple with trees growing through the stones or you think its abandoned, its still a holy place. Think about the clothing you would wear that or the way you behave and copy that. Leaning on a statue of Jesus with a cigarette in your mouth would be incredibly disrespectful in the west, so don’t do it in a temple where the statue is Buddha.

Another thing to keep in mind  is when dealing with officials of any kind, say police, immigration, customs etc, keep the clothing professional. You will get a much better response if you have nice, neat clothing on.

As I mentioned earlier, SE Asia is a pretty conservative place. Public displays of affection are generally frowned upon and if you decide to pash another backpacker on the street or in a bar, you may find yourself and the end of some nasty comments or even have water thrown on you (yep, we have had Thai friends who have done this to people!).

You may think that in countries like Thailand where sex tourism is commonplace that affection between people is the norm, but look around, its not.  You don’t see local people of the opposite sex touching, they don’t even hold hands. You will pretty much never see them kissing either. So keep it in your pants and reserve that kind of thing to when you have the privacy of your room.

Excessive drunkenness (and associated loudness) is also something that isn’t appreciated in the west or in Asia. Most local people are relatively quiet and when they get on the booze, raise their voice a little, then proceed to fall asleep (yes, this is a massive stereotype, but its true!) So when you are chugging down on your buckets and having shots of local whiskey, be mindful that drunken yelling, vomiting, PDA’s and other drunken buffoonery really makes you stand out and people don’t appreciate it.


Aggression is a tricky one and it is something that a lot of people don’t realise is such a central part to western society. Having lived in Thailand for a while, I saw first hand how aggressive people can sound without realising. It is a good idea to just take note of body language and tone when you are overseas – is standing there with your hands on your hips yelling for a friend down the road really necessary? Must you argue with every tuk tuk driver for a discount of $0.20 because you think you are being ripped off? Should you keep “tutting” and checking your watch when your coffee shake takes longer than expected? Probably not. Just take a breath, think for a minute and consider how what you are doing may be interpreted.

When Mick and I returned to Sydney, we were both walking around in shock for a month or more, gobsmacked at the aggressive way that Australian’s speak to each other…and its not that they are actually being negative. We exclaim loudly about the food, we ask very direct questions and demand answers, we mock-argue with one another in the name of fun. People are loud, brash and opinionated here which comes across as angry and aggressive in SE Asia. Our Thai friends would often misinterpret what was going on when we had friends visit because they interpreted the joking around as nastiness and would get quite protective of us.

All this stuff is just food for thought, but tasty nutritious food. Its worth sitting back and thinking about where you are travelling to and what the local customs are. You would hate to get to the airport and get turned away for having an offensive tattoo or something like that. A little research will go a long way.

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