Southeast Asia: How to Travel with Regional Customs in Mind

Welcome to your Southeast Asia Travel Guide. This diverse and rich region consists of eleven different countries: Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, Timor-Leste, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Book your next excursion now.

As travelers, it is important to remember we are always in someone else’s home, and how important is is to keep this in mind while enjoying what a new place has to offer. Each country has its own customs and traditions that all travelers are expected to respect. Here is a helpful guide on how to remain respectful while enjoying the unique travel experiences that Southeast Asia has to offer!

A buddhist statue in Southeast Asia

Start with these seven ways to stay mindful of the local’s norms and etiquette when abroad:

Southeast Asia Dress Customs

Be cognizant of local customs, as well as religious beliefs, when choosing how to dress and style yourself in Southeast Asian countries. As it consists of large populations of Muslim and Hindu practicing people, dressing modestly and covering up is encouraged. It is best to avoid shorts, short skirts, or any revealing clothing, especially when visiting religious sites. Another tip is to avoid showing the bottoms of your feet, as they are seen as the most unclean. However, if you’re staying at a resort or exploring the beaches of Southeast Asia, it may be more acceptable to wear bathing suits or less conservative clothing, but in most cases, it’s best to stick to more coverage. When in doubt, cover up.

Traveling now? Here’s 5 items you need for safety. 

Temples of Southeast Asia

Respecting Places of Prayer

The mosques and temples of the area, magnificent and brimming with history are a must-see, are some of the most strict when it comes to dress and customs. When entering religious sites, shoes are taken off and left outside, as shoes are seen as unsanitary (this is true entering most Asian homes as well). Keep in mind that this is someone’s spiritual experience, not just a tourist attraction, so refrain from entering the mosque or temple’s main prayer hall unless you practice that religion. While inside the place of worship, do not walk in front of someone while they’re in prayer and never take photos or videos, unless otherwise specified. Keep quiet, and communicate with your group in small whispers and limited gesturing. Respect here is far more important than your Instagram feed.

Do Not Touch the Monks

This one is pretty self explanatory, but think of it as the “Do not speak unless spoken to” rule. Do your research before visiting a temple or mosque to see if they have any weekly religious services that they may be closed for. For example, mosques may be closed from 11am-2pm on Fridays for Sabbath.

Avoid Pointing

When asking for directions, most of us westerners will point with our index finger. Be aware that this is considered to be disrespectful in Asia. Instead try pointing with an open hand or with your knuckle. It might feel strange but it will make a huge difference in your interactions with locals.

Temples of Thailand

Shoes Off in Temples

It is expected to remove your shoes before entering homes or places of worship. If this is expected, you’ll know – there will be a rack for shoes to be stored as you walk in. In many Southeast Asian cultures, the foot is thought to be unclean and the bottoms of your feet are never to be shown. Sitting cross-legged is discouraged and instead, one should sit with their legs together and to the side.

Tipping Etiquette

Unlike in the United States, tipping is not always customary in Southeast Asia. It may depend on the specific country you visit, but typically a service charge is included on the bill if tipping is acceptable. At local bars and restaurants, tips are rarely expected, but at luxury hotels, tips may be customary. If you plan to tip, make sure you have local currency for most countries.

  • Cambodia

You can tip in US dollars. It’s usually recommended that you tip $1-2 for waiters or drivers and $10-20 for all-day tours.

  • Indonesia

Tip at luxury establishments with any loose change and 5-10% on top of the bill.

  • Malaysia

Only tip in western restaurants in tourist hubs in the local currency.

  • Singapore

Tipping is not customary and is often frowned upon.

  • Thailand

A service charge is typically included on most bills, but you can tip up to 10% extra.

  • Vietnam

10% tip is typical at high-end restaurants and US dollars are accepted. $2 US bills are particularly popular.

Be Respectful of Sleeping Hours

We know you’re going to Southeast Asia to have a good time, but avoid getting rowdy. It’s considered rude to be loud or aggressive in public. There are late night bars and areas that are clearly for partying and late nights, if this is part of your travel goals, stick to these spots for getting wild.

Ultimately, remember that you are a tourist and are traveling to someone’s home. Treat others, especially the locals, as you would want to be treated, leave no trace, only lasting memories.