How to Visit an Asian Temple

Monks - Chiang Mai.jpg

When exploring a country with a culture different from your own, you want to experience as much as possible. This is easy to navigate when it comes to food, tours and nightlife. Religious places, however, are a huge gray area that can be confusing and nerve racking. Temples are generally homes to some of the best architecture, gardens, and collections of historical and cultural artifacts. They are beautiful, and meant to be visited and enjoyed. 

But, just like participating in historical dress when visiting Asia (see our article on that here), visiting temples and historical sites can be an intimidating prospect for the respectful traveler. How you act, the things you participate in, even how you dress are all things that need to be considered. It’s easy to find something on the app, save it, and just show up when you’re on your trip. However, we need to keep in mind that these are incredibly important to the cultures that built them. These are their religious sites, these are the markers of their history, these are the legacy they have left for the world to understand who they are. Sometimes you can’t just walk in and snap one for the gram. So, that being said, here is what to do and what to avoid to enjoy yourself and be respectful when visiting Asian Temples. 

This one is not the centerpiece of a sanctuary, and had a sign explicitly allowing photographs. You can get your amazing Buddha shot and still be respectful. Shout out to Vietnamese humidity for giving him that “ethereal glow”.

This one is not the centerpiece of a sanctuary, and had a sign explicitly allowing photographs. You can get your amazing Buddha shot and still be respectful. Shout out to Vietnamese humidity for giving him that “ethereal glow”.

No Paparazzi Please

These are some of the most beautiful sites you will ever see, we all want to capture the moment. And that is perfectly fine, take all the photos you want (as long as it’s permitted, this will vary by location) as long as you exclude two important things. 1) Don’t take pictures of the worshipers unless you have their permission. No one’s faith or experience at their holy site should be a spectacle for tourists and their grandmas on facebook. 

2) DON'T TAKE PICTURES OF THE BUDDHA. Look, I get it, they’re huge, gilded and decorated, beautiful centerpieces of every (buddhist) place of worship, but this is like the #1 no no you could make at a buddhist temple. For some it’s the invasion of the worship space, for others it is superstition, but either way this a huge cultural taboo. If you are encouraged to take photos on a tour, from a guide, or are given permission by the monks, then go right ahead, for everyone else just don’t. 

Note that little gate in the door that says DON’T enter.

Note that little gate in the door that says DON’T enter.

Mind Your Step

The biggest faux pas I have seen abroad always have to do with feet. Shoes or no shoes? Can I go in here? Why is the middle of this gate blocked? Knowing where to walk can be the hardest part.

 The middle gate is reserved for the gods, that is why it is blocked. Whether it’s the gates to the temple, or the doors into the main sanctuary, the middle is always reserved for the gods to pass through. Always enter through one of the sides, or the marked doors. Also, don’t step on the threshold. Either on the floor inside, or the ground outside, avoid the strip in between. Why? I don’t know and I haven’t gotten a clear answer, but I’ve been told not to so you shouldn’t either. 

Most temples in Asia do not allow shoes to be worn within the main sanctuary or places of prayer. If you are going to enter a room marked no shoes, don’t fight it, just take off your damn shoes. A lot of asian cultures see shoes (feet in general really) as very dirty. They track in whatever you’ve been stepping in, that’s why they don’t wear shoes in the house, to keep their floors cleaner. So it would follow then that the holiest and purest of sites should be kept that way, hence no shoes in the temple. You will see where to leave your shoes if it’s required, don’t take them off as soon as you hit the courtyard, but if it is required, just do it. 

If you choose to partake in the prayer, or enter the main sanctum to check it out, make sure you sit with your feet pointing AWAY from the monks and the main effigy. Best practice is to sit with your legs folded under you as opposed to crisscrossed. Again, dirty feet are an insult, see the shoe rule above. 

My go-to temple hopping outfit. High-ish cut neckline, hem below the knee, very light sweater for that shoulder coverage. In Japan I wore this dress without the sweater and it raised no eyebrows. It will differ depending on the local culture.

My go-to temple hopping outfit. High-ish cut neckline, hem below the knee, very light sweater for that shoulder coverage. In Japan I wore this dress without the sweater and it raised no eyebrows. It will differ depending on the local culture.

What Not To Wear

I know this seems like a no brainer, but I’ve seen too many tourists arguing with guards over their outfits. One woman in particular who got kicked out of the Grand Palace in Bangkok because “speaking to the manager” didn’t go well for her. We have very different standards of modesty in the west, and those mid thigh shorts that no one would blink an eye at on Venice Beach will get you barred from entering the major historical sites in Thailand. This varies from country to country, in Korea your shorts will be fine, but for the most part when visiting these sites you want to take into account local culture and how you will be impacting the people actually worshiping there.  

For the most part, pretend you are back at school. No visible shoulders or cleavage, hems to or preferably over the knee (some places long pants will be required but most places are not that strict), sheer clothing should be left for another day. If you do not meet these requirements some places will either turn you away, or issue you something acceptable for a small fee. Some places will say no open toed shoes, I’ve never had a problem with my sandals. This is not a rule for other sites in these countries. Go to the markets or the beach in whatever you’d like, but when visiting their religious sites be respectful to the utmost.

Japan-Korea_Edit (79 of 329).jpg

Know the Traditions

I have never been more embarrassed than when I drank straight from a ladle meant to pour water over your hands to cleanse them. Had I known what I was doing when I went (I researched thoroughly before we made our next stop) I could have avoided this whole debacle. Even just a cursory search will tell you what you need to know. Why do they clap at the donation/prayer box in japan? What’s with wafting the incense in Taiwan? Do a quick search on the customs for your destination and save yourself the red cheeks. By knowing the traditions, you will have way more fun too. You can get your blessings and clap to the gods with confidence.

Two things you can know with confidence, don’t point at anything or anyone, pointing is very rude, and when entering a building or faced with an image of Buddha, give a little respectful bow.

The thing you’re probably most worried about, but shouldn't be, is “should I participate if I’m not _____.” You should absolutely participate, but know what you’re getting into. No one would be offended to see someone new or from a different religion respectfully participating in their Sunday service, and it’s the same for religions all over the world. But you can aid yourself in this by, again, doing your research before you go as to what practices to expect and how to get involved. Most major temples will have educational material there, and you can always ask. Just don’t get in anyone’s way. But most importantly, plan on having a good time and relaxing. You might end up making new friends while you are there, or you might just enjoy the atmosphere.

Japan-Korea_Edit (96 of 329).jpg