I visited a sacred Hindu area when in Nepal a few years ago. I suppose the location is best described as the Hindu equivalent of a funeral home. The site itself has been used as a place of worship for hundreds of years and the river flowing through it considered more sacred than the Ganges. Tourists get taken here to show them the importance that religion has in Nepalese society and how sacred sites are used and maintained. As we looked across the river, a traditional ceremony was taking place- family members were washing the body of a dead relative in the holy waters of the river. I had my camera with me but I put it away. However, all along our side of the river were western tourists taking photos. This, to me, was the equivalent of someone walking into a church during a funeral service, opening the coffin and taking a picture of the body.
This is the very definition of cultural disrespect and insensitivity.
Before I go anywhere I try to have an understanding of what is and isn’t acceptable for me to do at a location. I become very conscious of the way I behave and have no qualms altering my actions accordingly; after all I am just a visitor and need to adjust my behaviour, not the other way around. I do this in my own country as well, not just for overseas travel.
With this in mind, I became bemused reading about the nine Australians in Malaysia who got into a little bit of trouble for striping down to nothing more than a pair of Malaysian themed swim trunks. On a personal note, wearing a pair of ‘dick-daks’ (Australian slang. See also ‘Budgie smugglers’) is a bold choice no matter the location. It leaves little to the imagination parading around, with nothing more than a pair of glorified underwear protecting your manhood.
Jokes aside, cultural insensitivity is something that slips through the cracks at times. The nine in question were stupid, I’m not sure other words exist to describe the decision. In visiting a country where modesty is severely important, they assumed that striping down, as if walking to the beach back home in Australia, was going to be fine. Four days in prison later they learned a scary lesson; one that could have been avoided if they had only researched more than the price of matching sets of bathers. Considering only one year before, ten foreign tourists were locked up and fined for posing nude on Mount Kinabalu, also in Malaysia, which was worldwide news, they should have known better.
Over the journey, I have witnessed several examples of cultural insensitivity that won’t ever make it to the front page of any newspaper. It happens daily and is not just limited to Australians in Southeast Asia on a trip with the lads. Not all cases will result in prison time or monetary fines but let me be clear- this doesn’t make it OK.
As an example, throughout Southeast Asia you’re expected to dress conservatively, particularly when visiting temples and pagodas. That might seem like a straight forward request, but what you think is conservative and what is deemed acceptable can be quite different. Short shorts are out of the question, in fact a lot of the time shorts in general are frowned upon, as are singlet tops. Yes, even your Bintang singlet that your uncle bought you. I have visited places where people have had to wear clothes provided to look more respectful just to enter the attraction.
There are a lot of different subtle cultural no no’s that can be missed as well. Touching a person on the head in Asia is considered offensive, as is showing the soles of your feet. While it might seem strange to you, remember that it is not your culture and as such, you shouldn’t question it. Taking shoes off when going inside a person’s house or a temple and not walking around the streets shirtless, no matter the heat, are some other good examples. Even public displays of affection are considered disrespectful but to be honest, I don’t like seeing that at home, let alone overseas. I still can’t figure out when I would go around touching strangers on the head and thrusting my feet at them anyway, but it’s little things like this that people tend to overlook.
Taking photos can also get a person into trouble. Wanting to capture memories is an admirable thing. Social media accounts need to be maintained, after all. But sometimes discretion should be taken. When a sign says “No Photos”, funnily enough, it’s there for a reason. That reason usually relates to religion or culture, not because the curators dislike flash photography. Indigenous Australians throughout Australia, for example, have sacred sites that are forbidden to be photographed. Take Uluru; many sections are sacred, but that doesn’t stop hordes of visitors taking happy snaps. What’s worse is that people generally know when they are in the wrong. When they show people they start with the statement, “I shouldn’t have taken this but…” as a way to justify.
My point is that if you practice a little bit of cultural awareness, it won’t get to a point where you think its ok to strip naked on a sacred mountain or wear your bathers on a foreign street. In hindsight, I’m sure the nine blokes in question might make a different decision if they could have their time over. No one wants to spend time in an Asian jail regardless of the offence, let alone for the sake of being funny.
Just remember that you’re in someone else’s country so you have to live by their rules. It seems simple but somehow people are still getting it wrong. I’m not saying don’t have fun, I’m saying think first.
Wayward Tip: Every guide book has a section on etiquette. Don’t skip this page. It’s there for a reason.