Samui Wining & Dining
Be aware of the rules when visiting a Buddhist temple in Thailand.

Be aware of the rules when visiting a Buddhist temple in Thailand.It’s one of the most common things when you go abroad – you sometimes offend people without knowing it. It’s not so bad when you are in a country that’s similar to your own; the chances are that their culture is much the same, too. But when you come to Thailand, many things are not at all as they seem. Yes, it all looks familiar: the shiny new cars and the tower blocks and the smart phones and the trains and boats and planes . . . but don’t let that deceive you.


You’d probably be more cautious if you were out in the wilds of the north or north-east of Thailand: everything there is far more rural and rustic, and your surroundings are unfamiliar. But in Bangkok – or Samui – it’s all very cosmopolitan. And it’s easy to relax and forget where you are. Although, having said that, the very fact that these up-to-date places are used to the awkwardness of visitors and tourists makes them a lot more tolerant of your unwitting mistakes than a temple full of devout farmers up in Udon Thani might be!


Really, when it comes down to it, the whole subject centres around thoughtfulness and a respect for others. And this is something that either concerns you or it doesn’t, no matter what country you come from. In the last couple of years I can recall Thai social media being outraged quite a few times by the careless and disrespectful behaviour of people fooling about and ‘desecrating’ temples or holy images – posing in a bikini while sitting on a statue of the Buddha, for instance. Or a group of people all signing their names on a temple wall. And in each case, the offenders came from a different nation.


Admittedly these examples are both unusual and extreme, and the vast majority of visitors to Thailand would never dream of doing anything like this. But many of them, without realising it, unknowingly break quite a few of the rules of respect that exist not just in temples, but also relate to all holy images and places – in effect these aren’t about what we’d call sacrilege,Be aware of the rules when visiting a Buddhist temple in Thailand. but more to do with politeness or etiquette.


You’d think that everyone visiting a new country would be interested enough to find out about it first. But, even in these days of instant information via the internet, it’s astonishing how many people just don’t bother. Often a foreign tourist, sitting with his feet up on a chair or footstool, just can’t understand why a Thai is showing disapproval. But, again, it’s down to religious convictions; in this case the belief that the head is the most scared part of the body and, conversely, the feet are the most spiritually unclean.


Everyone seems to be aware of the need to dress modestly when visiting a temple. Bare skin is deemed offensive, and long sleeves should be worn for both women and men. The same with shorts; long trousers are desirable, although most temples have a communal set of shirts and sarongs that you can cover-up with. So prepare yourself first: cover-up and take off your hat, sunglasses and shoes before you enter. And avoid treading directly onto the wooden threshold step in the doorway – step carefully over it.


Buddha statues are highly respected images and should therefore be regarded with care. You shouldn’t touch the Buddha, and never point at Him even if you only intend to show your friends some aspect or another. Also, make sure that you don’t raise yourself higher than a statue of Buddha or images of respected monks: kneel down if you want to take a closer look. And, when you are ready to move on, back away respectfully from the statue, rather than turning your back on it.


There are a few other small points, too: Always use your right hand if you want to give or receive something. And if you want to talk to a monk, never put yourself above him; if he’s sitting or kneeling, change your position to match.


And then there are just some common-sense things. It’s a holy place, so turn off your phone before you go inside, and don’t eat or drink or even chew gum. But, if you really want to do the whole thing in style, as well as observing all the things outlined so far, also do this: enter the temple with your left foot first, and exit by leading with your right foot. While this is certainly not expected from tourists, doing so means you did your homework on Buddhist customs, and showed respect. And so, if you happen to catch the eye of a nearby monk and he gives you a gracious nod of acknowledgement, your temple thoughts will have all been worthwhile!


 Rob De Wet


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