Cultural Mistakes You Should Avoid in Southeast Asia

person_outline Tommy Walker
Jul 3, 2018

folder_open Travel Advice

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In recent years it’s no secret that Southeast Asia has become one of the world’s major tourist destinations. With rich cultural identities, lush verdant jungles, out-of-this-world cuisine, paradisiac beaches and exotic wildlife, Southeast Asian region never needs a hard sell... Yet in Southeast Asia, made up of 11 countries, there are many laws and customs you should be very aware of. It’s all good going on holiday and being completely carefree, but in this part of the world, the nations that make up the region have strong cultural and religious identities that you should respect.

Without sounding too daunting, especially if you’re a first time traveller across the SEA region, these cultural beliefs are incredibly interesting, so knowing about cultural mistakes to avoid will make you a more knowledgeable, seasoned traveller.

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Shoes Off

This is Asia rule 101 – and even relates to Northeast Asia too. When entering a house, take off your shoes. This is a mark of respect to the hosts and is a big no-no if you don’t. Plus, it keeps the place cleaner! Keep your well-trodden footwear outside the front door.

Unethical Wildlife Attractions

You may have read this before, but I can unequivocally say, do not go elephant riding or visiting tiger temples. Period. In recent years it has become apparent that these practices are essentially animal cruelty – elephants are abused and worn out whilst tigers are drugged to the point of being barely conscious. There is a lot of education needed still for this and you will see the less educated or immorally inclined tourists still take part in these attractions. But please, do your research and don’t visit this sort of thing – the selfie isn’t as important as an animal’s wellbeing.

Related: The Ultimate Ethical Tourism Guide for Animal Lovers

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Nudity In Public

It doesn’t matter how hot or humid you are do not take your clothes off in Asia, and that includes guys walking around cities. First of all, it looks incredibly distasteful and two, it’s very disrespectful to the locals. If you need to wear long pants, wear them. Even if it’s too hot, this is their custom and you need to respect that you’re in another country.

Tapping People’s Heads

Unique to Southeast Asian customs in places like Cambodia and Thailand for example, tapping people on the head is seen as an offence. It sounds strange but it can be common in some western countries. Many years before informative articles like this were available, I actually made this mistake first hand once, and it wasn’t until someone told me how it is seen as incredibly disrespectful and sometimes as an aggressive gesture!

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Thumbs Up

In Thailand, sticking your thumb up – which is seen as a positive friendly gesture in many other countries – is perceived as taunting and can be seen as the equivalent of sticking your tongue out at someone.

Temple Taunting

Religious temples and monuments in Asia are seen as very sacred and are an integral part of local life. These are to be admired not taunted – so if you’re taking a selfie or getting a photo next to something that has a religious or cultural significance, make sure you don’t make obscene gestures. Trust me, some travellers do this! Please don’t be one of them.

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Haggle, But Not For Everything

When it comes to shopping markets, Southeast Asia isn’t shy of haggling practices. Many items from food to clothing to souvenirs will be classed as cheap compared to western prices. Haggle to get the price down if you want, we all do it. But don’t be the cheap-ass guy who’s proud of haggling down so much the market trader makes no money. This is their livelihood; you’re on a trip of a lifetime. It means far more to them than it does to you. Pay and be fair and get on with your trip.

Just Being A Jerk

Unfortunately, because the majority of countries in Southeast Asia are developing ones, some visitors from more privileged developed countries will take this for granted. Some travellers tend to feel the need of entitlement and direct this towards locals. Whether it’s raising your voice unnecessarily, treating people like you own them and generally obnoxious behaviour we often see with tourists abroad, it’s best to stay home if you think you’re going to be like this. Don’t be a jerk, you’re a guest exploring their country, and you’ll receive much better service and have an overall great time when you treat people with respect.

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Tommy Walker

Tommy Walker

Tommy Walker is a British freelance travel writer and social media micro-influencer. Since 2011 he's been on the road through Europe, SE Asia, South America, Africa and Oceania. This includes two Working Holiday Visas in Australia and New Zealand. Tommy's favourite destinations are Melbourne in Australia, Lisbon in Portugal, Thailand and Ecuador.