A Guide to Temple Etiquette

By AMA Staff

A trip to Southeast Asia is not complete without a visit to a Buddhist temple—or five or six. Whether you’re aiming for the big guns with Cambodia’s Angkor Wat—the largest religious monument in the world—or one of the many smaller temples scattered throughout Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, or Laos, you’ll want to keep in mind that temples are not only tourist attractions; they’re functioning places of worship. We’ve compiled a list of dos and don’ts so you won’t be that obnoxious tourist ruining the Zen vibes.

• Dress appropriately. You may have just come from the beach, but be sure to change into clothing that covers your arms and legs, and women shouldn’t wear low-cut tops. If it’s really steamy out, at least wear something that covers your knees and shoulders. These rules apply equally to men: leave the board shorts, tank tops and ball caps in your luggage.

• Keep your voice low. People in the temple may be praying whether you notice it or not. You don’t have to take a vow of silence—just talk quietly.

• Remove your shoes and hat when entering the temple. Removing your shoes is also a common courtesy when entering a person’s home; it’s a good idea to bring a pair of shoes or sandals that are easy to slip off and on.

• If the temple accepts donations, leave a little something. It doesn’t have to be much—a dollar or less is fine.

• When greeting a monk, place your hands together as if in prayer, up high near your forehead, and bow slightly. Under no circumstances should you ever touch a monk.

• If you decide to approach a seated monk, make sure to sit down yourself before speaking. And keep in mind that it’s a sign of disrespect to sit at a higher elevation than a monk.

• Avoid eating in the temple; monks aren’t allowed to eat after noon.

• Resist the urge to touch any Buddha statues you see—and if you’re traveling with kids, take a moment before you go in to remind them not to climb on anything. Touching a Buddha statue on the head is particularly ill mannered. (At some temples, however, you can buy gold leaf to brush on a statue.)

• Ladies, keep your hands off. Monks aren’t supposed to have physical contact with women.

• Ask for permission before you take a photo—and if you do take one, don’t forget to leave a contribution!

• Turn off all electronic devices before you enter a temple.

• Don’t point at things or people; it’s considered rude. When sitting, never point your feet in the direction of an image of Buddha. If possible, tuck them under your legs.