My two trips through Southeast Asia have one very big thing in common: an obsession with visiting Buddhist Temples. However, one thing I’ve noticed is that not everyone knows how to respectfully visit Buddhist temples. I’ve now visited over 100 Buddhist temples and although each temple is unique, the common courtesy for visiting is very much the same. I’ve seen varying degrees of disrespect, and I’m sure that much of it isn’t intentional. So, I thought I would put together a little guide on how to respectfully visit Buddhist temples.
TO START, HERE’S A LITTLE REMINDER ABOUT THE BUDDHA
Buddhism is one of the major world religions. While the Buddha has become a lifestyle icon or piece of pop culture in much of the Western World, that is not the case in Southeast Asia. The Buddha extremely respected and revered in these countries and should be treated as such. Making small faux pas, like not knowing you shouldn’t stand taller than, or point your foot at a figure of the Buddha is one thing. But people climbing on figures or putting their arm around figures or even exposing their bare bums in temples are not acceptable.
QUICK TIPS TO RESPECTFULLY VISIT BUDDHIST TEMPLES
✈︎ Take off your shoes + hats before entering any temple. It’s disrespectful to wear these into temples.
✈︎ Dress modestly. Shoulders and knees are to be covered – this is for both men and women. Also, women, don’t wear anything too low-cut (I’ve seen people asked to leave or not enter for this). I started to travel with elephant pants and a scarf or kimono in my backpack just in case I saw a temple I wanted to visit.
✈︎ As I mentioned before respect the Buddha. There are a few crucial things – don’t touch the Buddha, don’t point your feet toward the Buddha and don’t stand taller than figures of the Buddha.
✈︎ Show respect for monks as well. Monks are also very revered and you shouldn’t touch them (especially females) and always try to stand lower than them. If you’re planning to talk to or interact with them, dress conservatively. Ask permission before getting in their face and photographing. No need to learn in a local language, simply point at the camera and you’ll be able to tell if they’re okay with it.
✈︎ Don’t point. This may seem strange, but it’s considered rude to point at anything with your index finger. If you wish to point something out, do so with an open, right hand – palm up.
✈︎ Make sure photos are allowed. Before you start snapping pics, make sure that it’s allowed. Also, even if they are allowed, be respectful. Remember people are there practicing their beliefs. Ask permission before taking photos of a devotee. Also don’t put your selfie or perfect IG pic over someone’s personal experiences.
✈︎ Be generally respectful. Have your phone on silent, don’t eat in a temple, don’t have your headphones on, don’t smoke, etc.
✈︎ Greet monks with a bow. It’s very customary that when a monk or nun passes or enters, you put your hands in front of you, palms together and bow your head slightly. It’s a sign of respect. I actually found myself doing this to most people.
✈︎ Don’t point your feet at anyone. The Buddha and monks are the big no-no, but it’s also seen as rude to Buddhists in general. As it’s the lowest part of your body.
✈︎ Women, in addition to not touching a monk, don’t hand them anything directly. I learned this in Bangkok during a festival. I tried to give a monk money for a blessing (see photo above), and he tapped the table for me to set my money on. It would also require a cleansing ritual.
✈︎ No PDA. It’s very disrespectful to show affection in a temple or its grounds. Don’t hold hands, kiss, etc.
Respectfully visiting Buddhist temples is a huge part of traveling through Southeast Asia. It’s a great experience to give an in-depth look into the culture. When you do it with respect, you open doors to an opportunity to have positive interactions with locals and learn something new.
DID I MISS ANYTHING?
This is knowledge I’ve acquired from Buddhism class in college, cultural anthropology classes and lots of experience visiting temples. However, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t missed anything.
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