Buddhist temples are found all over Southeast Asia and most visitors find themselves in at least one - if not several - during their travels. In all parts of Asia, life in small villages typically centers around the temple or local shrine.
Full of history, intrigue, impressive architecture and carved reliefs, many temples are wonders to explore. Usually peaceful and hushed, wandering the grounds of a temple while lost in your own thoughts is a memorable experience no matter your religious preference.
Foreigners are always welcome in Buddhist temples, usually with a smile even; there is no reason to be intimidated. Following a few simple rules of etiquette ensures that you don't accidentally offend someone, although you would surely be forgiven anyway!
Buddhist Temple Etiquette
- Remove Your Hat and Shoes: Shoes should always be removed and left outside of the main worship area. The pile of shoes is an obvious indication of where to leave them.
- Show Respect: Turn off mobile phones, remove headphones, lower your voice, avoid inappropriate conversation, remove hats, and no smoking or chewing gum.
- Cover Yourself: This is the rule most ignored by tourists who dress for the heat in countries around Southeast Asia. Shoulders should be covered and long-pants worn rather than shorts. Some temples in tourist places may be more lenient, but your modesty will be appreciated.
- Respect the Buddha Statues: Never touch, sit near, or climb on a Buddha statue or the raised platform. Get permission before taking photographs and never do so during worship. When exiting, back away from the Buddha before turning your back.
- Don't Point: Pointing at things or people around the temple is considered extremely rude. To indicate something, use your right hand with the palm facing upwards. When sitting, never point your feet at a person or image of Buddha.
- Stand Up: If you happen to be sitting in the worship area when monks or nuns enter, stand to show respect; wait until they have finished their prostrations before sitting again.
Interacting With Buddhist Monks
Monks are some of the friendliest people you will meet during your travels. The monks that you see sweeping the temple stairs may be less concerned about dirt and more interested in removing the insects so that no one accidentally steps on one!
- Eating: Monks do not eat after noon; be mindful about eating or snacking around them.
- Body Language: If a monk is sitting, show respect by sitting before starting a conversation. Avoid sitting higher than a monk if you can help it. Never point your feet at any Buddhist while sitting.
- Right Hand Only: Only use your right hand when giving or receiving something from a monk.
Advice for Women
A woman should never touch or hand a monk something. Even accidentally brushing against their robes requires that they fast and perform a cleansing ritual. Food or donations must be passed to a man first and then on to the monk - even the monk's own mother must follow this rule!
Nearly every temple has a small metal box for receiving donations from the public. These donations keep the temple running, usually on a very thin budget. If you enjoyed your visit, giving a small amount would mean a lot.
A typical donation is US $1 or less.
Going a Little Extra
While certainly not expected, these gestures will show that you took the time to research Buddhist customs before your visit.
- Enter the shrine with your left foot first, and exit by leading with your right foot. This gesture symbolically represents a whole.
- The traditional greeting for a monk is to place the hands together in a prayer-like gesture and give a slight bow. Known as the wai in Thailand or the som pas in Cambodia, the hands are held higher than usual (near the forehead) to show more respect to monks.
When to Visit Buddhist Temples
The best time to visit a Buddhist temple is early in the morning (just after sunrise) when the temperature is still cool and the monks are returning from their alms procession.
Many countries in Southeast Asia - particularly Malaysia - have a mix of Buddhist temples and Islamic mosques open to the public.
- Read more about visiting mosques.
Knowing local etiquette is not the only way that you can make a difference. Read more about responsible travel in Southeast Asia.