For the uninitiated, a visit to a temple in Southeast and East Asia could be a daunting undertaking. The unfamiliar breeds trepidation and you find yourself unsure of what to do. What are the rules for these mysterious places?
Well, you will find that there are surprisingly few.
Each region has their own set of customs, but they are easy to remember and even easier to adhere to. You should always bear in mind that the temple staff want you to be there. If they can, they will help you in any way, from explaining the etiquette, to assisting you make an offering of your own.
Probably the easiest thing to make a mistake with is your feet. The first thing to think about when entering a temple is your shoes. In Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, you will need to remove your shoes and leave them outside each hall of the temple, reclaiming them when you exit. This is a cultural norm for entering a house as well.
In Myanmar, you often need to take off your shoes before you go into the compound, at the main gate. You normally leave your footwear on a rack, or next to the door, but it is sometimes acceptable to carry them in a plastic bag as you go around. This is a great idea, especially for a big place like the Shwedagon Paya, where you may leave from a different exit.
In Vietnam, Hong Kong and China, you will not need to remove your shoes at any point in either Buddhist or Taoist temples.
The other main point to note is that you should never point at anything with your feet – use your hands. The feet are furthest from your head and touch the ground, so it shows little respect to use them in this manner. Also, if you are in Thailand and you are sitting in a hall, try not to sit with your feet facing the Buddha. This can be quite a mission, but do your best and it will be appreciated.
Hands are quite easy. The main points to note concern gestures. A good rule to follow through pretty much all of Asia, is not to use your finger to point at people or religious imagery. Use an upturned open palm gesture instead.
If you wish to ‘wai’ to the Buddha in Thailand or any of the other Buddhist countries, simply place the palms together on your brow and bow. There is a system for doing this, but as a foreigner, any bowing will be enough. If you don’t want to do it, then don’t! You are not obligated to bow to anything or anyone.
Dress appropriately. In many countries, particularly in Southeast Asia, you should not wear revealing clothes in temples. Ladies in particular need to bear this in mind. You should not wear low cut tops and your shoulders need to be covered. This is also true of knees.
Some temples will have shawls and sarongs for the unprepared, but if you want to guarantee entry, cover your knees and shoulders. Long shorts are fine and t-shirts also. If you are on holiday somewhere hot and you don’t want to wear many clothes, then you may want to bring a light shirt to cover your tank top.
People often feel concerned about talking in temples. This is really not a problem, so long as you don’t shout. Most temples will not have any rules about being silent. If there is a silence policy, then it will be clearly signed. So feel free to talk quietly.
You can also ask questions. If there is a friendly looking monk or temple official, then you can approach them and find out more about the temple. There may be a minor language barrier, but in my experience, they are almost always delighted to try and help you. If you are really lucky, they might even help you light some incense and do a small ritual.
The only caveat is not to disturb them when they are busy; try not to interrupt any ceremonies or temple business.
Eyes, Ears, Nose
As an extension of your senses, a camera can sometimes be the eye that many visitors see temples through. In a quest to get great photos, many miss out on the experience of a temple atmosphere. There are some rules concerning use of cameras that you should be aware of.
In Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar and Taiwan, you can photograph pretty much anything, including the main Buddha image. If there is a sign telling you not to, then respect it. Someone will tell you pretty quickly if you can’t use a camera.
Some images, such as the Phra Buddha Chinnarat in Phitsanulok or the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, are considered too holy to photograph.
In China, you can photograph outside the halls, but not inside. This applies to Buddhist and Taoist temples. In Hong Kong, you can’t photograph inside Buddhist temples, but you can inside the local god temples and shrines, unless told not to.
Really, you should keep your eyes open to the sights around you. You should listen to the sounds of bells, drums and chants. You should take in the powerful smell of joss sticks and incense. These are the life force of the temple. They are more than just beautiful buildings, they are places to experience with all of your senses.
Author Tom Billinge runs The Temple Trail, an ultimate website resource for learning about famous and lesser known temples and religious sites in Southeast Asia and beyond.