Southeast Asia is comprised of 11 countries with varying cultures and laws. The following guide(s) highlight some of the more common aspects between most of the countries but follow up for specific country information is highly suggested.
Before you arrive study up on local laws, banned items, and customs for each individual country you are visiting. You probably didn’t know that chewing gum is illegal in in Singapore and can cost you $1,000 USD on your first offense. Some of the common courtesies and behaviors in Southeast Asia are not as obvious to Westerners. Here are some common behaviors you should avoid in Southeast Asia:
Take off your shoes.
If you see a line of shoes outside of a door, remove yours and place them in the row. You should never wear your shoes into someone’s home and many businesses will require you to remove them as well. And while we’re on that…
Move your feet off of that table!
It’s a faux pas to use a table as a foot rest wherever you go. It’s double so in SEA.
Don’t kiss in public.
PDA is not a thing and may be frowned upon. The only public displays of affection you are likely to see is hand holding and/or short hugs. Try to keep your romance out of sight.
“Freedom of Speech” is not a global,
Don’t try to force or bully someone into conversations about their government or monarchs. “In Thailand, lèse majesté is criminalized by Section 112 of the Thai Criminal Code. It is illegal to defame,insult, or threaten the king, queen, heir-apparent, or regent.”(1/4/18, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%C3%A8se_majest%C3%A9_in_Thailand) Also national pride is a thing.
Keep your money neat and folded.
Do not crumple your notes in your pocket or you might find no one willing to accept them. Part of this stems from the deep respect countries have for their leaders (especially in Thailand) but extends to U.S. dollars in Cambodia. Keep your money neat and free of tears.
You do not need to tip.
Tipping is generally not a common custom for good service. If you do decide to tip an employee for good service be aware of average hourly wages and express your thanks with more than your money. You may occasionally see tip jars at hostel bars.
Don’t waive your money around.
While we are on the subject of money. Don’t waive your money around or make comments about how cheap or expensive items and services are. It’s rude in any country and might make you stand out to lurking thieves.
Don’t show anger.
Be humble. Allow others to “save face” when they make a mistake. Never raise your voice and avoid using a negative tone if you are upset.
Know how to greet someone properly.
Never touch someone on the head as it is considered sacred and depending on what country you’re in you should check which side hand to shake with, if shaking hands is a normal gesture at all.
Interacting with Monks
In the Buddhist faith monks consider women distractions from achieving enlightenment. These views may be met with criticism but no matter what your personal opinions are on the matter it is highly disrespectful not to abide by the customs of the country that you are in. Do not walk directly beside or sit down next to a monk. Bumping into, brushing, or otherwise touching a Buddhist monk may mean that he has to return to his Wat (temple) immediately where he will have to perform one or multiple rituals.
Becoming a monk is about more than religion. Many impoverished children make the decision to become take their vows every year in order to learn career skills and it is sometimes the only means they can get an education. In the modern world they are even teaching IT skills. Some monks depend on donations to eat. If you are of a woman and you would like to make a donation you may set it on a receiving cloth or bowl if they have one or hand it to a man to donate on your behalf.
Many travelers visit Thailand each year with the intention of getting a Sak Yant tattoo.
Women who wish to get tattooed by a monk may do so with the use of a dividing cloth at the monk’s discretion. At times this may prove difficult. Receiving a Sak Yant tattoo is quite an honor and it should not be taken lightly. Depending on which Wat you go to you may find different methods of sanitation.
As far as safety is concerned you may find yourself feeling more or less safe than the place you call home. The difference in Southeast Asia is that you are a foreigner. You stick out like a sore thumb. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, it doesn’t matter what color you are, how privileged or not you think you are, or what you do. The best thing you can do is use caution. Crime is not much different in SEA than it is anywhere else. You’re probably just more of a target than you’re used to being.
With that said, the two most common dangers to watch out for are roofies and theft. Health and general hygiene safety will be covered in part four of this series.
Men and women alike are just as vulnerable. When at a bar or restaurant the best thing you can do is to refrain from imbibing any drinks that you cannot open yourself. Do not accept uncovered drinks from anyone and that includes the bartender.
There may be times when you feel so at home that you might leave your purse on the chair while using the toilet or keep your items splayed out on your bed in a dorm room. Do not forget that not all other travelers may have good intentions.
Though there is a lot of material about pickpocketing and specifically about children pickpocketing many experienced travelers will tell you to be more concerned about scooter drivers snatching items. And not just off of your body. Thieves will also drive close to Tuk Tuks and grab backpacks off of the floor or the back of the vehicle. Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a destination that has a high rate of theft by scooter.
Here are some tips to reduce your chance of being the victim of theft.:
- Only keep small change in a purse or bag.
- Always secure any accessories. Example: Do not leave your purse hanging on one shoulder!!
- Try not to let dorm mates see any valuables or electronics such as tablets.
- When possible hold or secure your backpack to your person while inside of a Tuk Tuk.
- Don’t use hostel security equipment. Purchase your own combination lock.
- Avoid overnight transportation such as night busses and trains.
Again, scams are found everywhere in the world. You are now more susceptible to them because you are a foreign tourist.
There are a number of scooter and motorcycle rental scams. Always take pictures or a video of anything you rent so you cannot be charged for damage you did not cause. Avoid giving your passport up as collateral.. That’s not always an indicator of a scam, some shops consider it standard practice to hold on to it while you’re renting. Renting directly from the hostel/hotel you are staying is a great way to avoid these. For an unlucky tourist or two scooter’s have gone entirely “missing”. If you rent from elsewhere or aren’t comfortable don’t park your scooter right in front of where you are residing. Never leave the key in the ignition. Be especially careful of this if you are staying in Koh Tao, Thailand. The island though well worth a visit is infamous for scooter scams.
Do not give anyone on the street money for charities or for orphanages. Many of these orphanages are illegitimate and take possible funding away from recognized organizations.
When it comes to begging there are many scams. One of the most popular ones is the milk scam. The milk scam is a simple one. A woman with a baby approaches you for money to buy milk because her baby is thirsty and starving. She has you purchase the milk for her or buys it in front of you. As soon as you turn the corner she returns the milk to the stand that is co-operating with her. You can witness this on Pub Street in Siem Reap,
Tuk Tuk scams are numerous. The best thing you can do is to arm yourself with information for the general area you are in. If you have a device that’s capable of navigating turn it on so you know your driver is taking you on a direct route. There’s a popular “holiday” or scam where someone may spend time talking to you on the street. They then tell you it’s some obscure holiday for ex: Holiday of the Blue Buddha, which does not exist and then try to get you to take a specific Tuk Tuk to the Temple Festival. Once on there’s a number of things that can happen including being driven around to stores that are paid a commission, a recommendation for a travel agency to book transportation for other parts of your stay ( ex: the Tourism Authority of Thailand which doesn’t exist) or an offer of a great place to buy tailor made clothes (which will result in your money being stolen). Be skeptical of offers, for some locals scamming tourists is their livelihood.
Have something to add? Want to share your opinion? Feel free to leave your feedback in the comments section.
Edit: 1/4/2018 Additional text added to behavioral etiquette .