"Different countries, different customs," as Sean Connery said to Michael Caine in The Man Who Would Be King. And although each destination covered in this book proves that rule by having its own twists on etiquette, some general pointers will allow you to go though your days of traveling without inadvertently offending your hosts.
Greetings, Gestures & Social Interaction
In these modern times, the common Western handshake has become extremely prevalent throughout Southeast Asia, but it is by no means universal. There are a plethora of traditional greetings, so when greeting someone -- an older man and, especially, a woman of any age -- it's safest to wait for a gesture or observe those around you and then follow suit. In Muslim culture, for instance, it is not acceptable for men and women not related by blood or marriage to touch.
In interpersonal relations in strongly Buddhist areas (Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand), it helps to take a gentle approach to human relationships. A person showing anger or ill temper would be regarded with surprise and disapproval. A gentle approach will take you much further.
In countries with significant Muslim and Hindu cultures (Malaysia, Singapore, and Bali), use only your right hand in social interaction. Traditionally, the left hand is used only for personal hygiene. Not only should you eat with your right hand and give and receive all gifts with your right hand, but you should also make sure that you make all gestures, especially pointing (and, even more especially, pointing in temples and mosques), with your right hand. In all the countries discussed in this book, it's also considered more polite to point with your knuckle (with your hand facing palm down) than with your finger.
In all destinations covered in this guide, women seated on the floor should never sit with their legs crossed in front of them -- instead, tuck your legs to the side. Men may sit with legs crossed. Both men and women should also avoid showing the bottoms of the feet, which are considered the most unclean part of the body. If you cross your legs while on the floor or in a chair, don't point your soles toward other people. Also be careful not to use your foot to point or gesture. Remove your shoes when entering a temple or private home. And don't ever step over someone's body or legs.
On a similar note, in Buddhist and Hindu cultures, the head is considered the most sacred part of the body; therefore, do not casually touch another person's head -- and this includes patting children on the head.
Dressing for Cultural Success
The basic rule is simple: Dress modestly. Except perhaps on the grounds of resorts and in heavily touristed areas such as Bali's Kuta and Thailand's beaches, foreigners displaying navels, chests, or shoulders, or wearing short shorts or short skirts, will attract stares. Although shorts and bathing suits are accepted on the beach, avoid parading around in them elsewhere, no matter how hot it is.
In Singapore, wear your smartest clothes (looking poor does not make a good impression).
Temple & Mosque Etiquette
When visiting the mosques, be sure to dress appropriately. Neither men nor women will be admitted wearing shorts. Women should not wear short skirts or sleeveless, backless, or low-cut tops. Both men and women are required to leave their shoes outside. Also, never enter the mosque's main prayer hall; this area is reserved for Muslims only. No cameras or video cameras are allowed, and remember to turn off cellphones. You should not plan to go to the mosques between 11am and 2pm on Friday, the Sabbath day.
Visitors are welcome to walk around and explore most temples and wats. As in the mosques, remember to dress appropriately -- some temples might refuse to admit you if you're showing too much skin -- and to leave your shoes outside. Photography is permitted in most temples, although some, such as Wat Phra Kaeo in Thailand, prohibit it. Never climb on a Buddha image, and if you sit down, never point your feet in the direction of the Buddha. Do not cross in front of a person who is in prayer. Also, women should never touch a monk, try to shake his hand, or even give something to one directly (the monk will provide a cloth for you to lay the item upon, and then he will collect it). Monks are not permitted to touch women or to speak directly to them anywhere but inside a temple or a wat.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.