Travel Etiquette 101: Asia Edition

Published on September 27, 2017
Last updated on October 13, 2017

A Wanderast guide on cultural and travel etiquette around Asia


Part of the experience of travel is immersing yourself in another culture. That being said, in countries known for their diverse mix of culture and heritage, it can be a little intimidating learning how to interact with different groups of people. Here, we try to make it easier by providing a brief guide on what to do (and what NOT to do) when you visit these Asian countries. This list is by no means exhaustive but we will try to cover as many locations as possible so stay tuned for more updates!

Southeast Asia

In general, Southeast Asians are a collectivist people who place a lot of importance on family and community. The concept of "Saving Face" which is really about preserving one's dignity and avoiding public disgrace is something they do their best to uphold and expect others to do the same. As such, anything that causes a scene is best avoided. This includes public displays of affection (PDA) and doing your best not to lose your temper in front of people as these will cause you to "lose face". Discretion here is key, so whatever grievances you might have with others are best dealt with calmly in private. Below are some common practices that Southeast Asians exercise:

  • Pay special heed to your elders. Always greet them at the first opportunity. A simple nod or a small bow are good places to start. Mind your titles and honorifics. Wait for them to offer their hand first when shaking hands and for them to be seated and served at the table before starting your meal.
  • Similarly, wait for women to initiate a handshake although in most cases, a simple nod will do.
  • The head of a person is considered one of the most sacred body parts. Often the privilege of touching the head is only granted to parents and grandparents. Avoid touching anyone else's head as much as possible.
  • Do not use your left hand when eating with your fingers, gesturing, or interacting with others as this is the hand associated with conducting business in the restroom. Most Southeast Asians will frown on you if you present them something with your left hand.
  • Do your best to keep your feet flat on the floor as showing the soles of your feet, or worse, pointing them at someone, is considered very rude.
  • Gifts are commonly presented to the host/hostess when invited to dine at someone's house. These need not be expensive. However, there are several things to consider depending on the ethnicity and/or religion of your host/hostess:
    • For the ethnic Chinese:
      • When receiving a gift, it is considered polite to refuse the gift twice before accepting to show that you are not greedy.
      • Gifts wrapped in red and/or gold paper are considered auspicious.
      • Avoid giving sharp objects and cutting tools (ex. knives) as these symbolize the severing of a relationship.
    • For the Muslims:
      • Alcohol is often not allowed.
      • Food items, especially those with meat, must be halal.
    • For the ethnic Indians:
      • Red, yellow, and green gift-wrapping bring good fortune.
      • No leather products
      • Avoid giving alcohol unless the recipient drinks.
  • Similarly, dining etiquette may vary for these three groups.
    • For the ethnic Chinese:
      • Do not drink alcohol until after the host/hostess drinks.
      • Learn how to use chopsticks properly. Never leave them sticking into your food facing upwards as this symbolizes the incense for the dead. This rule applies to any place that uses chopsticks.
    • For the Muslims:
      • Alcohol and pork are traditionally not served.
      • Meat must be halal
      • Food is eaten with the utensils or the right hand
    • For the ethnic Indians:
      • Hindus and Sikhs traditionally do not serve any beef. Most partake of a vegetarian diet.
      • When eating with fingers, use the right hand only.

That settled, here are some tips specific to certain Southeast Asian countries:


Singapore

Singapore consists of a mix of Chinese, Indian, and Islamic culture so bear in mind that there might be differences when interacting with different groups.


GREETINGS:

  • Handshakes are the most common form of greeting but these may vary under different situations for ex:
  • For Muslims, the traditional greeting of salam (placing the right hand over the heart), which in Arabic means "peace", is commonly accepted.
  • Ethnic Chinese and Indians will not usually shake hands with members of the opposite sex.
  • Not sure? A simple nod of acknowledgment or bow will do.


BODY LANGUAGE:

  • Be careful with aggressive body language such as placing your hands on your hips or crossing your arms over your chest as they may come off the wrong way.
  • Maintaining direct eye contact for a long period of time may be considered rude


PUBLIC BEHAVIOR:

  • CHEWING GUM IS ILLEGAL. Do not try to bring or sell gum in the country. Gum is available in drugstores however and can only be bought with a prescription.
  • Smoking is prohibited in most public areas, even the enclosed public spaces.
  • Singapore is a very fine city. Littering, jaywalking, and spitting will incur fines. Similarly, not flushing the toilet will get you the same result during random checkups. Be a courteous and conscientious citizen as even tourists are not exempt from Singaporean laws.
  • Hanging flags, sticking pamphlets, stickers, and the like on public property are considered vandalism and may merit a punishment of caning. Yes, even visitors.
  • Absolutely NO eating and drinking while on public transport. Not even a sip of water.
  • Avoid discussing politics/religion openly as Singapore does not take kindly to criticism of its government.


DINING ETIQUETTE:

  • No tipping.


Malaysia

Keep in mind that Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country. Call of prayer (which happens five times a day) is very important. Do not be surprised if the person you are talking to suddenly lowers their voice or stops talking during this time.


GREETINGS:

  • Salam (placing the right hand over the heart) is the more commonly accepted greeting 


BODY LANGUAGE:

  • Avoid pointing with your right forefinger. Instead, use the right thumb with four fingers folded when referring to things.


PUBLIC BEHAVIOR:

  • It is best to cover up, especially when entering places of worship


DINING ETIQUETTE:

  • Usually you are expected to remove your shoes when entering a Malaysian home, it won't hurt to check just in case. In mosques and places of worship, it is compulsory to remove your shoes.
  • Drinks are commonly offered and it is considered polite to accept them.
  • Toasting is uncommon.


Cambodia


GREETINGS:

  • Some Cambodians may offer you a handshake which you can return. Usually, the traditional greeting would be the sampeah: putting your hands together at chest height (as if praying) while bowing. A lower bow and higher hands means more respect.
  • Honorifics are used. For men it is “Lok” before the first name and for women “Lok Srey”. Cambodian names are written surname first.


BODY LANGUAGE:

  • When calling someone over: do not wave with palms up and fingers raised. This is considered offensive. Instead, wave toward yourself with palms facing down.
  • Women are not supposed to touch or be touched by monks. When presenting them with a gift, the object should be placed on the monk’s “receiving cloth” or within reach.
  • Avoid pointing. Instead, use your right palm to indicate something.


PUBLIC BEHAVIOR:

  • Covering up the upper arms and upper legs is advised.
  • Always remove your footwear and any head covering before entering a place of worship or a home.
  • When bargaining, it is best to give a little on the final price to allow the other person to “save face”.


DINING ETIQUETTE:

  • Avoid the color white when gift-giving as it symbolizes death and mourning.
  • Cover your mouth with the other hand when picking your teeth.
  • Avoid talking about business or war at the table.


Vietnam


GREETINGS:

  • Handshakes are usually between the same sex and are used for greeting/departing.
  • Some Vietnamese will use a two handed-shake with the left hand on top of the right wrist.


BODY LANGUAGE:

  • Pass things with both hands.
  • Avoid pointing. Use your right hand to gesture at something instead.
  • Do not pass anything over someone’s head.
  • Avoid touching members of the opposite sex. Members of the same sex may hold hands while walking.


PUBLIC BEHAVIOR:

  • Only wear shorts at the beach. It is advised to dress conservatively.
  • Silence is preferred when disagreeing with someone’s point.
  • The Vietnamese are generally on-time and expect the same of visitors.
  • Once a price is agreed upon while bargaining, the person must buy.


DINING ETIQUETTE:

  • Bring gifts for your host/hostess, wrapped in colorful paper.
  • Do not give handkerchiefs, anything black, yellow flowers or chrysanthemums.
  • Hold the bowl close to your face while eating.
  • Chopsticks must be placed on the table or on a rest when drinking or speaking.
  • Try to finish your food but if you do not like something, best leave it untouched.
  • Rest your chopsticks on top of your rice bowl after eating.
  • Tipping is appreciated.


Indonesia


GREETINGS:

  • Greet Indonesians with “Selamat” (peace), with sincerity. This is often accompanied by a slow handshake (right hand always) and a slight nod or bow.
  • Bend slightly when greeting elders


BODY LANGUAGE:

  • Avoid pointing. Instead, use your right thumb.
  • Avoid extended eye contact as this is considered rude.
  • Do not back slap other Indonesians although an Indonesian may show approval by patting your shoulder.


PUBLIC BEHAVIOR:

  • Before doing anything in the presence of locals, such as taking their picture, it is polite to say “Boleh?” (May I?)
  • It is advised to cover up in terms of dress, especially when entering places of worship.
  • Do not yawn or chew gum in public.
  • It is common for Indonesians to arrive late to meetings although guests are expected to be on time.


DINING ETIQUETTE:

  • Do your best to accept everything the host/hostess offers.
  • Men are usually served first while the host/hostess is often the last to be seated.
  • The elderly/guest of honor is usually asked to start the meal. If you are called, refuse twice then start.
  • The one who sends the invitation is expected to pay the bill.


East Asia


Japan


GREETING

  • Bowing in Japan is a sign of respect and it's their way of greeting depending on the type of bow a person does.


BODY LANGUAGE

  • There is a formal way of sitting in Japan. They call it seiza. This way of sitting is actually in a kneeling position. In a casual situation, MEN can sit in a cross-legged way while WOMEN can sit with their legs on one side.
  • Using fingers to point at someone or something is OFFENSIVE.


DINING ETIQUETTE

  • The louder you slurp the soup, the more it shows that you're enjoying the food.
  • Using chopsticks in pointing someone or something is rude.
  • Clean towels are used to clean your hands, and not your mouth or your face.
  • Japanese DO NOT actually accept tips. They do their best to perform well in whatever they do and they believe that they do not need incentives to keep doing so.


PUBLIC BEHAVIOR

  • Always be mindful of your voice. Talking in public is not a crime but make sure to keep it down.
  • Using fingers to point someone/something is OFFENSIVE.
  • Locals are very reserved and it is unusual for them to talk with strangers.
  • Snapping photos of people without their permission is prohibited.
  • Japanese are a little sensitive about tattoos. They tend to associate it with the Yakuza gang (the Japanese version of the mafia).
  • Bathing in public hot spring baths (onsen) requires you to go naked.


Korea


GREETING

  • A casual way of meeting new people or greeting them for the first time would be a bow and smile.


BODY LANGUAGE

  • Tapping or touching someone is okay if a person is related to you or a close friend. This may be offensive otherwise.
  • When taking or passing something, use your right hand. In some instances, if you need to use two (2) hands, just use your left hand to support your right hand.


DINING ETIQUETTE

  • Kimchi is a huge part of Korean culture and Koreans like to treat this with pride.
  • Koreans use a SPOON instead of chopsticks for their rice. They DO NOT lift the rice bowl from the table.
  • Soju is part of Korea's drinking culture. Offering of shots of Soju is a ritual of respect and friendship. Refusing it can come off as rude.
  • Sharing of food and "double dipping" in Korea is usual. They usually serve foods by putting it in the center of the table.


PUBLIC BEHAVIOR

  • Servers will not interrupt you while eating until you call them. They will not be offended when you call their attention by shouting. But some restaurants have devices attached to the dining tables so customers could get the server's attention by the push of a button.
  • It is normal for Koreans to push someone out of their way in a crowded place using their elbows instead of hearing them say "excuse me". 


China


GREETING

  • Shaking hands is a common way of greeting someone. On the other hand, nodding or bowing instead of handshakes is also acceptable.


BODY LANGUAGE

  • DO NOT bite your nails or put your hands in your mouth because they see this as impolite.
  • Pointing something or someone using an open hand instead of using an index finger.


DINING ETIQUETTE

  • It is barbaric to eat rare beef in China.
  • Burping does not offend the Chinese. In fact, it shows that the food is good and is a sign of satisfaction after eating.
  • DO NOT TIP. Chinese do not observe tipping.

PUBLIC BEHAVIOR

  • It is normal in China to spit anywhere instead of using hankies or tissues to clear their noses.
  • DO NOT use red ink when writing because this symbolizes protest.
  • RELIGION and POLITICS are sensitive topics to talk about
  • China is a crowded place and they are normally used to small spaces. It is normal for them to be pushed while queuing. A "small space/gap" in line is normally filled by someone.


Hong Kong


GREETING

  • Handshakes can be a way of greeting in Hong Kong but their handshakes are not as firm as the Westerners'.
  • Lowering your eyes while greeting shows respect. Take note that prolonged eye contact should be avoided.


BODY LANGUAGE

  • Locals are very reserved and conservative especially when it comes to body contact though they it is normal for them to talk more closely to each other than the usual.
  • Gesture towards someone or something with your palms up.


DINING ETIQUETTE

  • Tea is an important part of all occasions. They keep the cup full by continuous refill.
  • Burping is a sign that the food is good.
  • It is preferable to leave some food behind on your plate after you have finished eating. 


PUBLIC BEHAVIOR

  • Do not litter anywhere. The country imposess a fine (even arrests) regardless of how small your litter is.
  • You can haggle while shopping in the street or meet your seller halfway when it comes to agreeing on a price.
  • TIPPING at cheap restaurants or small businesses is not necessary. In other places, you can tip 5%-10% and it is considered as a generous tip already.
  • Sharing of tables is normal. Empty seats are considered vacant. People share tables with someone they do not know.
  • Locals walk faster than usual. They do not want slowpokes that tend to delay or block their path.


Taiwan


PUBLIC GARBAGE CANS

  • Garbage cans are often available within the premises.


7ELEVEN

  • In Taiwan, aside from the common goods they sell in a usual convenience store, you can also do the following in 7Eleven:
  1. Order Online
  2. Pay your bills
  3. Pay tickets (parking, concert, etc.)
  4. Print documents

     and many more.


TAIPEI METRO (MRT)

  • People in Taipei observe the Metro's rules and regulations. They have designated seats for pregnant women, children, and elderly which are indicated by dark blue seats. They also fall in line before boarding the train and wait for each person to alight. They also obey the rule for escalators: stand on the right, walk on the left. Drinks, food, or gum are not allowed in the train. 

India


Note: Dining etiquette varies primarily on whether you’re in the North or South of India.

GREETINGS

  • For elders in particular, namaste (roughly translated, means “The Divine in me recognizes the Divine in you”) is the preferred form of greeting. This is said with hands in prayer position while bowing slightly with shoulders hunched

BODY LANGUAGE

  • Maintain a calm and positive body language. Smiling often indicates an openness that is welcome in the Indian culture.

PUBLIC BEHAVIOR

  • Women are strongly recommended to cover up their shoulders and wear below-the-knee skirts when dressing up. Head covers when entering temples are also advised. For men: wear long shorts or pants.
  • Sandals are preferred and easier to remove when entering homes and places of worship. 
  • Negotiate prices and bargain reasonably. Making a show of writing prices down when taking public transport helps to show that you have a record of the actual agreed price.
  • Texting is the preferred way of communication over calling.
  • It is common for service workers to ask for tips. The recommended rate is 15% for restaurants, 50 rupees for hotel porters and 250 rupees per night for housekeeping.

DINING ETIQUETTE (NORTHERN INDIA):

  • You may use your right hand, a fork and spoon, or a fork and knife (as is the old British way). Use your left hand only when drinking or passing food. When eating bread or meat, use your right hand only for the former and as few fingers as possible for the latter.

DINING ETIQUETTE (SOUTHERN INDIA):

  • It is common to sit on the floor and eat while bent over as this is thought to aid digestion.
  • Meat won’t always be served as around 30% of Southern India consists of vegetarians. Do not ask for beef (Hindus do not eat beef) or pork (Muslims do not eat pork) if it is not on the menu.
  • Use your fingers when eating. Note that the general order for meals in the South starts with sweeter foods moving on to the more savory ones.
  • When you have finished eating, fold the banana leaf towards you to indicate that you are satisfied with the meal. Folding the leaf away from you indicates the opposite.
  • Accepting offers of drinks and snacks is considered polite. You need not necessarily finish them, a small bite or conducting a “sipping motion” would do.

Laos


GREETINGS

  • The traditional formal greeting is the nop. This is done only to equals and social superiors. To do this, you must put your hands together at chest-level as if in prayer and bow your head to your hands with your upper body bowing slightly. The hands should never be above the level of the nose.
  • The traditional standard greeting is sabai dee, meaning “it goes well” and is usually hollered at other people in markets.

BODY LANGUAGE

  • Never step over food or people. The traditional dining customs of Laos have families seated on the floor. You may find that stepping over food as you make your way about would cause them to refuse to eat it.
  • When waving at someone to call them over, make sure your palms face downward. Waving at someone with palms facing upward carries a sexual connotation. 

PUBLIC BEHAVIOR

  • Dress conservatively and remember to cover up well after swimming. Locals find it vulgar when tourists walk around in skimpy cover ups.
  • Remove your shoes when entering a temple or someone’s home
  • Avoid PDA. Even hugging the opposite sex is frowned upon.
  • Time is usually a flexible concept for people in Laos. Do not take offence if plans do not always start on the dot.
  • Avoid pointing.

DINING ETIQUETTE

  • Eating on the floor as a family is a common social practice.
  • Use only your right hand when eating sticky rice (this makes it easier too!).
  • As a sign of respect, hosts will usually not raise their heads above the level of their guests when eating on the floor.
  • Chopsticks are reserved for noodles. Use of spoon and fork is more common.
  • It is preferable to leave some food on your plate to indicate that enough food has been served.
  • It is polite to accept food and drinks commonly offered.

Myanmar


GREETINGS

  • “Hello” in Myanmar is Mengalaba (pronounced as Meng- Gah- Lah- Bar)
  • Meanwhile, “thank you” is Chesube (pronounced as Tseh-Soo- Beh)

BODY LANGUAGE

  • There is an important distinction for the Burmese between the upper and lower parts of the body. The upper part is considered superior to the lower. As such, things used for the upper part (i.e. towels, pillows, wash basins etc.) must not be used for the lower part.
  • Handshakes are uncommon.
  • The common form of greeting is just a slight bow of the head and a smile.

PUBLIC BEHAVIOR

  • Always ask permission when taking someone’s photo. Taking photos of pregnant women or meditating monks is considered disrespectful.
  • Be careful when purchasing antiques. Religious antiques cannot be taken outside of Myanmar.
  • Dress conservatively.
  • Always have your money changed with authorized dealers beforehand. Be wary of black market money changers which are prevalent in public markets.
  • Some areas of Myanmar are restricted from tourists. Check the map here to be sure that you do not accidentally cross into a territory you should not enter.

DINING ETIQUETTE

  • Coughing, sneezing, and blowing of the nose while on the dining table is considered rude.

BRUNEI


GREETINGS

  • In general, handshakes are commonly accepted though for older citizens this may not be the size. Handshakes however do not take place between members of the opposite sex.

BODY LANGUAGE

  • Pointing is done with the thumb.
  • Light touching between members of the same sex is common.
  • Avoid staring.

PUBLIC BEHAVIOR 

  • Avoid giving gifts of pigskin or toy dogs (for children).
  • Do not use white wrapping paper as it symbolizes death and mourning
  • No clapping during religious functions.
  • The color yellow is usually only reserved for royalty.

DINING ETIQUETTE

  • The sale of alcohol and smoking indoors and outdoors is prohibited.
  • Bruneians normally do not invite foreigners into their home so being invited is a great honor. Turning down hospitality is the equivalent of a personal rejection.
  • Time is flexible so it is acceptable to arrive a little late.
  • You may use your left hand to support your right wrist when passing a heavy plate.


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