When in Laos… A post about being a respectful tourist.

Bad Tourists
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So far on this journey, and especially through Southeast Asia we have had lessons in culture. In being aware of it, mindful of it, conscience of it. Some of the time we have been lucky enough to have a diligent tour guide from the local community to fill us in on how to dress, and what kind of actions can be considered disrespectful by locals.

Being a respectful tourist is something that we care about. One reason for this is that back home in Australia we hear so many people talking about the tourists or the foreigners, and how they don’t respect our culture or our customs. Sometimes tourists may act in ways that are acceptable in their culture which may not seem as respectable to us.

THEN we arrived in Asia to see masses of tourists – of many backgrounds (not limited to Australians or UK/European, although Aussie’s have horrendous reputations in some areas) – doing the exact same thing. People strolling up to temples in short shorts and singlets and wondering why they aren’t allowed in, people wearing bikini’s through villages showing off their body and tan. Taking alcohol to the temples, not taking shoes off before stepping onto sacred ground. Taking photos of monks at 6am with the flash on standing about a metre away from them…

Tourists can be ignorant. We don’t want to be one of them, and if you’re reading this chances are you don’t either. Here are a few tips on being a respectful tourist through South-East Asia – specifically Laos – although some tips can probably be applied to other places.

Laos was an amazingly beautiful place with so much to see and do. It was a shame to see tourists blurring the lines, so we thought that Laos would be a great example.


One of the many bars that cater to tubing tourists. Image courtesy of Flickr


Vang Vieng is nestled at the base of beautiful mountain ranges. Tourists can engage in kayaking, rock-climbing, caving, and most well-known: tubing. Tubing is where a person hires a large inner tube and floats down the river stopping off at the many bars and restaurants along the way.

This activity brings in an income for many local families, and to the community, however many tourists accidentally disrespect the local culture without realising. Out in your tube along the river, you can do whatever you like. But when you are walking around town, remember to cover up your swimming clothes, don’t walk around without a shirt on, wash off your body paint and the paint from the inner tubes (which distinguish who owns the tube).

Vang Vieng is a beautiful place, with lovely people. The locals want to ensure their children are brought up respecting their bodies and their culture – help them to do that. There are signs that tell tourists when to stop tubing. From this point on remember the local culture. They have provided a fun, group activity, now we can thank them for it.

EatSeekTravel activity note: Tubing can be dangerous at times due to the fast current of the river and the rapids. When tourists stop at the watering holes along the way they can be allured by the atmosphere, loud music and advertising for free drinks or free shots. People have become gravely injured and some have died from the combination of not understanding the strength of the river and from being too intoxicated to react like they would if they were sober.

Visiting Temples:

In many of the asian countries, seeing the temples is a very popular tourist attraction. Before you go, understand what culture you are walking behind the scenes of. It is respectful to wear shorts or skirts that cover the knees, or long pants. There are long cotton pants (you know the ones – the hippy-looking traveler pants) that are everywhere in the markets and are extremely light and comfortable, as well as being very affordable – about $5 USD on average. There is no excuse for wearing shorts or skirts that are mid-thigh. Shoulders should also be covered – wear a T-shirt (also sold everywhere), ensure your top is not low-cut, no matter how big or small your endowment. Many temples will refuse entry if you are not dressed properly.

Some will not allow you to just wrap a scarf around you to cover up, while others will provide wraps for those with short skirts or revealing tops. These must be put on before you can enter. However, sometimes it’s easier just to dress appropriately.

This is a custom for the majority of temples all over Asia. From the Big Buddha in Phuket, through to Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia, through Vietnam and Laos, to the Reclining Buddha (Wat Pho) in Bangkok. Be mindful.

Also remember that alcohol is not something often permitted at temples or sacred ground. Be cautious of your language, not smoking, whether or not you can take photos inside and taking off your hat inside also.


Many temples and religious sites encourage tourists to make a small donation and then light a candle or incense stick and pray. It is a nice thing to be able to do. Look out for the signs asking you to remove your shoes first, and check whether or not you can take photos. Many altars and offerings have a large carpet where people pray – you may need to remove your shoes and kneel (no standing on the carpet). It can be quite humbling to kneel and stare up at something of magnificence, it’s even better when you know you are being as genuine as you can.

Walking around Villages:

The above description of wearing proper dress to temples applies to a lesser extent in a lot of asia. Especially areas of Cambodia and Laos where the culture is to keep shoulders covered. Slightly longer denim shorts and capped sleeves for example are respectable. Even if other tourists are dressed in skimpy singlets and shorts, the safest bet is to follow the locals lead.

Respect the Alms Ceremony

Morning Alms Giving – Buddhist tradition every morning at sunrise:

Luang Prabang is known for excellent night markets, amazing sunsets along the Mekong River, and first-class street food. It is also known for the Morning Alms Giving where locals of Buddhist faith line the main streets to donate food to Monks from the temple and monastery nearby. It is beautiful to watch, and has therefore become very popular with tourists.

There are locals (pictured) who walk up to tourists and hand out pamphlets about respecting the tradition. Our local guide, from Intrepid, was also very good in letting us know what was acceptable. The pamphlet is written in numerous languages and outlines the following:

  • Please observe silence during the procession.
  • What to purchase if you would like to partake in giving to the monks. This should be done from a special place in your heart, not simple for a picture perfect moment- make it genuine.
  • If you don’t make an offering they ask you to stand a respectable distance from the monks: ie, don’t stand in the path they are walking, don’t touch them, don’t stand too close nor use flash on your camera.
  • Dress appropriately – legs, shoulders and chest covered.

Some of you may be thinking “People actually have to be TOLD this stuff?” Yes. Yes they do.

Our favourite request from the pamphlet is this:

“Do not follow the procession on a large bus.”

The reasoning for this may seem to be one of simple common decency – these are people in their daily life, are not a museum or show put on for entertainment. But the local reason for requesting this is because it is disrespectful to stand above a monk. The locals will all be sitting and kneeling below the monks as they walk past and receive their offerings.

The main thing that runs through my mind when I think of this is how would I feel if tourists came to my religious service and giggled? Or talked through the minute of silence on Remembrance Day? Protect the dignity of the services you attend.

Children selling things in the streets

This one is coming from an ethical standpoint rather than a view from the locals. This problem is rife in Cambodia, but exists in areas of Laos and other Southeast Asian countries as well. Our Cambodian tour guide advised us that we should never purchase from the children as their parents are forcing them to do it. You may look into their cute, round, dirt-smeared faces, and hear their little voices begging you to buy one… “one dollar…” and think “Oh the poor little darling, I’ll just get one.”

Firstly, you may then find yourself surrounded by kids all thinking you will buy from them, you may get pickpocketed while you’re buying, you may get tricked into buying more than you want or paying more than you should. A lot of the kids actually have very good English, and they are little tricksters!

Secondly, the only way parents will stop sending their kids out to make an income instead of doing it themselves, and get their kids educated is if WE stop buying from them. In Cambodia our guide was very firm, and although sometimes it is hard, and they can be very persistent and cute, it is not advised.

We hope you have enjoyed this post and feel more informed about local customs and ways to travel through these lands respecting the local people and their culture. Preserving the beauty you observe.

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