Social Etiquette in Southeast Asia: Do's and Don'ts on the Banana Pancake Trail
Photos by Will Hatton
If you’re following the immensely popular and highly fun banana pancake trail of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, it is often difficult to remember that you are so far away from home — there are other backpackers everywhere and a lot of the most popular places, such as Bangkok, cater to tourists and travelers.
In terms of everyday culture and habits though, Asia is a world away.
You will make many cultural faux pas, and chances are people won’t tell you about it, because they understand Western culture and hate confrontation. Sometimes, however, especially if you go to a remote area, which has been left untouched by the banana crepe, people will not understand.
So, as it’s always better not to offend anyone, accidentally or otherwise, I’ve put together this list of small things you can do to keep yourself in the South East Asian good books:
1. Avoid using your left hand (outside of the bathroom)
Traditional Asian squat toilets don’t feature toilet paper and often don’t feature a bum gun. So how are you supposed to wipe, I hear you ask? That’s what the left hand is for and this is why people wave, shake hands, eat their banana crepes etc. with the right hand.
2. Foot for thought
The soles of the feet are seen as the dirtiest part of the body, worse than that left hand! If you think about it, your feet have to climb on to the toilet then spend the rest of the day scuffing around in dust and or mud, so they probably aren’t far off. So take your shoes off before entering someone’s home, temples, guesthouses and even some shops, unless you’re told otherwise. It’s also a particular offense to point the soles of your feet at others or at Buddha (he doesn’t want to see that).
3. Hide your modesty
That is your knees and shoulders. This only really applies in temples, but you won’t see masses of locals wandering about in singlets and spaghetti tops either.
4. Don’t touch the monks
Especially if you’re a woman, you should avoid brushing against them in passing, striking up a chat (wait for them to do it) and sitting unnecessarily close to them on public transport. Young student monks will happily chat to you, but senior monks especially have to abide by certain rules, which being harangued by buxom young girls in spaghetti tops and hotpants won’t make any easier…
5. Be happy
Becoming visibly angry will get you nothing except a surprised, embarrassed and defensive local. So don’t do it; even when you’re haggling and someone tries to rip you off, a smile, a joke and firm assertion is more likely to make anything go your way than a raised voice and a frown. Smiling and saying “hello” in the local language will instantly endear you to the people.
6. Watch your mouth
Politics and religion can often be touchy subjects. In Cambodia, with the advent of free elections, people are beginning to speak frankly about the system and that of days gone by, but avoid being the one to bring it up.
In Thailand, as well as being rude, it is a crime to say anything even remotely against the king. It would be a shame to get arrested at the start of your trip by taking it upon yourself to be a crusader for free speech, so better just to keep quiet when in doubt.
7. Try everything
If you deviate slightly from the beaten track and are open to a chat, people will often wonder what the hell you’re doing in their country and welcome you by inviting you to share a meal or a special local event with them.
Obviously use common sense as to when it’s okay to run about with a stranger, but if you trust them make sure you accept and really go for it — they will appreciate someone who sits down and shares their feast of barbeque frogs, snakes and fried bugs a lot more than someone who turns their nose up at the culture. Likewise, if you make plans to go to the local karaoke bar and cancel, they might well take it personally and be sad.
So what are you waiting for? Now that you know how to wow the locals with your crazy cultural awareness, you have no excuse not to ditch your desk and book that ticket to the land of smiles, temples, jungles and amazing new experiences.
More by Will Hatton
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