a guide to temple etiquette

Nothing made {makes} me cringe harder than tourists who would enter temple grounds without being properly dressed or without care for temple ceremony. I remember going to Thailand and figuring out it all out with the help of a local guide. That's when I realized, everyone has to learn somehow, right? I've also had the added bonus of working in a role that allowed me to interact appropriately with Buddhist Novice Monks, something everyday tourists don't have the luxury of doing. 

So, I made this guide compiling all my knowledge hoping it might be helpful for those making their way around Thailand, Laos, and the like. You can also read my guide about giving alms here. 

This guide is based on my experiences with Theravada Buddhism. Like other spiritual practices, there are a number of sects. You can read more specifically about Theravada Buddhism on Luke's blog here.  

Cover up your body... //

You shouldn't go into a temple or walk around temple grounds without your knees, shoulders, and chest covered. I know that the climates of these countries can be extremely hot, even during the rainy season, but it boils down to this: your comfort matters a lot less than their culture. Many temples will refuse you entry if you are not dressed conservatively {like the Grand Palace and Emerald Buddha in Bangkok}, so keep that in mind. Luckily, if you haven't packed accordingly, most temples supply long skirts and shawls for rent. My advice, however, is to not bank on every temple offering this as a solution. Plan ahead and pack lightweight layers to cover yourself!

 ...but let your feet + head be bare //

Before entering a temple, you must remove your shoes. After being in Laos a combined total of 7 months plus time spent in Thailand, I was so used to being barefoot wearing shoes took a while to get used to. I've had a lot of people have different reactions to this. Most are primarily concerned about shoe theft. I'll tell you it basically doesn't exist. I've left my shoes outside of a building for an entire weekend by mistake and they were still there when I returned on Monday morning. Your shoes will be fine, I promise. Also, take any baseball caps or head-coverings off! 

me wearing those nasty elephant pants before I knew they were probably made in a factory in China by children. don't buy them, k? shaking my head at myself.  Thailand, 2013

me wearing those nasty elephant pants before I knew they were probably made in a factory in China by children. don't buy them, k? shaking my head at myself.  Thailand, 2013

Watch your body language //

I know you think that sounds silly, but it's important. Your head should never be higher than a Monk or Novice and especially not higher than any Buddha statue. It's considered very offensive to touch people on the top of their head. Your feet are considered the most dirty part of the body, so it's incredibly offensive to point the soles of your feet {covered or not} at people. 

 No PDA // 

Public displays of affection {or PDA as the kids call it} is uncommon in most conservative countries, Buddhist or otherwise. Even in more Westernized Southeast Asian countries, like Thailand, PDA can be shocking to the locals. Remember that if you are visiting a temple with a significant other even holding hands seems quite inappropriate. If you can't keep your hands off your each other while you are visiting a temple, you need to Google 'co-dependence.' Jokes aside, it's just a few hours {if that} of your life. Save the sexy time for the privacy of your hotel room and keep it G-rated, especially while on sacred grounds.

at the Golden Palace in Bangkok, Thailand in 2013

at the Golden Palace in Bangkok, Thailand in 2013

Hands to heart = 'Hello' //

Monks and Novices don't wave. Note of interest: they also can't clap, sing, play games, or gamble...but I digress. If a Novice acknowledges you on temple grounds, it is a sign of respect {not to mention culturally appropriate} for you to bow your head and bring your hands {palms together} up to your heart. The same goes for a Monk, though your hands should be higher near your forehead. 

temple in Thailand, 2013

temple in Thailand, 2013

Know how to exit //

Finally, when leaving a temple, you should bend down a bit and back away from the front of the temple. It might feel foreign at first, but being outside of your comfort zone is a large part of what it means to travel. 

Hopefully, this will prevent many future travelers visiting the gorgeous temples around Southeast Asia from committing cultural no-nos. Any other questions? Just ask in the comments below!