Traveling with Cultural Awareness
Is cultural awareness something that matters? This should be an easy question to answer. Yes, traveling with cultural awareness is important to consider when visiting other countries.
It seems worth always mentioning because I visited Wat Suan Dok with my mom yesterday. The temple walls shielded the chaotic sceen of the street outside. The sun chased the cool morning air away as a chorus of chirping birds blended their song with the soothing beat of a nearby gong.
All pressing thoughts and worries subsided as I fell into my own calmness…
Until my mom yanked me out of my blissful trance and pulled at my arm. She pointed to a young woman walking ahead of us.
This is a Buddhist temple. Why does she dressed to show everything?
My mom is Thai and a Buddhist. We often visit temples to make offerings and receieve blessings.
This was no exaggeration. This woman was wearing a strappy tank top with shorts that were so tight that her tiny shorts couldn’t hold in her ass cheeks. We walked by another couple. The woman dressed similarly to the one my mom first noticed while the young man wore a loose fitting tank top with his nipples for everyone to see. Normally, I don’t often care much about how people dress. Nor do I take issue with nipples, we all have them. And I get it, it gets hot in Thailand. But the time to let those bad boys free is not at a sacred Buddhist temple.
The tourists displayed a lack of respect that was increasingly bothersome to my mom. The first woman we saw tried to walk into the main temple. She was stopped immediately and was turned around. Walking away annoyed, she mumbled something incoherent.
Is there still an unawareness about what to wear when visiting temples in Thailand? Would the way these people dressed be appropriate if they were visiting a cathedral in a western country?
Since Google has found a way to have direct access to our thoughts, I woke up checking my Facebook to find this interesting story from CBS News of an incident in Cambodia. I recalled a story from last November of two American tourists arrested for taking inappropriate pictures at a temple in Bangkok.
I’m surprised but I guess it’s still common, especially westerners to SE Asian countries to be utterly unknowledgeable of local customs and culture. Or maybe some just don’t care.
Thailand may be known to some for its wild beach towns and full moon parties. But outside of those areas, Thailand is a fairly modest buddhist country.
Cultural awareness considerations
This got me thinking about cultural sensitivity and awareness. After the day with my mom, I felt compelled to share some ideas about being more culturally aware. I invite you to share your ideas and tips in the comments below.
I’d love to hear other traveler’s thoughts on this subject.
So here’s my PSA to help give you a better experience when traveling to a new location.
Learn more about a destination that you’re visiting.
Whether we visit Thailand or anywhere that is not our own home, I think it is important to have some basic understanding of local customs. I promise, the more you know… the richer your experience will be.
Unless you plan to spend all your time on an all-inclusive resort (honestly, if that is the case, this travel blog really isn’t for you), it’s important to learn some of the customs and unwritten social rules of the culture you will be immersed.
Learning about general etiquette will get you far because it shows you have respect for the locals. You’ll probably even make some new local friends which will give you a much deeper experience because they’ll tell you things you can’t find in a guidebook.
Here’s an example – feet are considered dirty and the lowest part of the body in Thailand. So raising your feet to prop them up or exposing the bottom of your feet at someone is considered highly offensive. Another big No-No in Thailand is patting people on the head especially children since the head as the highest point of the body is considered sacred.
Share some general social rules you’ve learned in your travels.
Learn some new terms.
Know some basic greetings like hello and thank you. One of the best ways that I have learned Thai is from ordering food. If you’re like me, trying new foods is a great way to understand a culture. Learning the names of the dishes in the local language will bring a pleasant experience for you. And even if you muck it up, which I often do in Thailand, it’s a good way to share a laugh. Plus the locals will appreciate your efforts.
Gestures can mean something entirely different.
Just as learning some basic language will give you a deeper sense of a culture and create engaging relationships with locals, understanding different gestures can help you stay out of trouble or offend people.
Similar gestures in the U.S. or other western countries can sometimes mean something entirely different in another country. To avoid embarrassment or causing any tense moments, learn what different gestures mean in the country you’re visiting.
There’s a lot of information offering important tips on what to pack and wear and other cultural considerations specific to Thailand. One need only search online for this information specific to the country you’re visiting.
Beyond dressing appropriately as not be offensive to the locals, dressing to fly under the radar helps you become a less of a target. This definitely holds true for solo travelers and when venturing slightly away from some of the heavy tourist spots.
The other day as I was paying my bill at a local restaurant in Thailand, I noticed this guy using a knife to cut his onion ring and scoping it onto his spoon. I found it amusing because I’d just shove the onion ring in my mouth using my hands. Whether that is the wrong way, it leads to my next tip: eating etiquette.
Every culture has its own rules. I think the best way to learn is to just quietly observe what others are doing around you or if you made friends with a local because you took the time to learn some new customs and language, you can ask them. Or check out this extensive list of dining customs from around the world.
Keep an open mind
Just be open-minded to the different ideas and customs that are not like our own at home. Try new things and learn from the new experience of being in a different country.
Just last week, I was out with some Thai friends and I kept refilling my own drink. My friend kept hitting my hand in a jokingly manner telling me he had to refill my glass. I said “mai bpen rai, I got it,” but he insisted because that is how things are done.
And lastly don’t get too stressed over it. If you’re making an attempt to learn more about the people and places you visit, it’ll show that you are thoughtful and respectful. Beging openminded and truly immersiving yourself in a new place is a much more rewarding experience. It’ll be one that you will remember and cherish long after you return home.
Share Your Ideas
Leave a comment on how you immersive yourself in different cultures. What tips can you share about being culturally aware?