Do’s and Don’ts When Visiting A Buddhist Temple Anywhere In The World


It’s no secret that I am a Buddhist.  Not a super devout one (I’m sure my mother is cringing as she reads this), but I grew up as a Buddhist and my parents taught me the basics. One of my goals as a mother is to pass on the Buddhist basics to M.

Yes, we realize it is hot in South East Asia.  However, you are on holy grounds when visiting a Buddhist temple and you really ought to pay attention to the Do’s and Don’ts. If not, don’t be surprised when a Buddhist like me comes up to you to tell you how inappropriate you are dressed and/or behaving.

I’ll admit the heat thing is a killer, but there are rules and I abide by them whether I am in a Mosque, a Church or a Buddhist temple.  I would expect this very same thing from M  as well during our travels.

  • Bow your head and pay respect to the temple and the Buddha statues.
  • Take off your shoes in or around the temple grounds.  Make this an easier process for yourself by wearing slip-on shoes.   If you are wearing tennis shoes and complaining about having to take off your shoes often- well whose fault is that really, eh?
  • Do not point at Buddha statues, Monks, Nuns and/or elders with your feet (well anything for that matter).  You will go to hell.  Okay, maybe not right away, but you get my point.
  • Cover yourself ladies.  We don’t need to see your boobs and your legs hanging out all over on the temple grounds where there are honorable Monks, Nuns and elders.  A t-shirt with sleeves could easily fix this problem.  Stop whining and do it.  It is the right thing to do or don’t go to a temple.
  • Always bring a wrap or a large scarf to cover yourself.  But, please, do use it and COVER yourself.
  • Do not wear shorts. You should be covered down at least below your knees.
  • Keep your head below Buddha statues, images, honorable Monks and Nuns.
  • Do not touch  (especially on the head) Buddha statues, images, Monks, Nuns and elders.
  • Please refrain from public displays of affection.  You may be on your honeymoon and cannot keep your hands off of one another, but not all of us need to see your hands all over each other.  You are not at the park, you are at a temple so pull your selves together and show some respect.
  • Keep Quiet. There are those meditating or praying somewhere even though you may not see them.
  • It may be very  fascinating to foreigners to see a reclining Buddha.  However, do not get too close to a Buddha statue when taking a picture.  When possible kneel on the ground so that you head is below the statue.
  • Parents:  It is your responsibility as a parent to talk to your child (ren) about the rules before arriving to any temple, not at the time of arrival when it is too late and they are already 3/4 way up the Buddha statue.  Consider this a teaching moment about the culture of the country you are visiting.
This couple could not keep their hands off of each other on the temple grounds.  She grabbed his butt on the way down the stairs while a local Monk was coming up the stairs. And of course, I was hoping M would not ask me “Mommy, why is she touching his butt like that?” And she obviously thought her outfit was appropriate for a temple visit.  Ugggh! 
This is an Asian couple. Shame on you!
this picture speaks for itself

My faith in humanity, restored, when I saw this couple.  Way to go!

NOTE:  I wrote this post because I’m tired of witnessing tourists (mostly Westerners and sometimes even Asians themselves) showing up to a Buddhist temple with a beach attire all over Thailand and Cambodia. I can’t speak for India and Nepal because I was there in February during my pilgrimage trip and it was very cold. Truth is, they are not going to the beach, they are going to a Temple. It is a place of worship for the locals, for Buddhists. I find this behavior very disturbing and offensive. There are tourist books and websites with tips on how to dress and behave when visiting Buddhist temples and yet, many show up dressed very inappropriately. When I do have the opportunity I have spoken to tourists individually, and remind them gently. And I guess you could say I have different expectations for Asians. After all they are in another Asian country or in their own country being poor role models. In Rangoon, Burma (where I was born) the famous Shwedagon Pagoda would not allow tourists dressed like the pictures in this post.  That’s the way it should be.  I doubt the Vatican would allow tourists with that attire in the summer time. In fact, it does not.

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67 thoughts on “Do’s and Don’ts When Visiting A Buddhist Temple Anywhere In The World

  1. p.s. I meant to say “undeserved”, not “underserved” – that is, although I understand that many cultures venerate age, it doesn’t seem that just having lived longer than most of the other people makes me deserving of things like going in front of them in the line for lunch after the service. Is there a graceful way to decline, or should I just nod and do what they indicate I should do?

  2. Thank you for this. Can you suggest other places where a westerner might learn more about the unspoken rules of attending a Buddhist temple? I have begun to attend the services at a temple near me in the United States. The people there are all very gracious, even though I am the only one who does not speak Vietnamese. Perhaps I should have done this homework before starting to attend, but I am not sure where to look for the information. From your post, for instance, I learned about bowing my head to the Buddha statues, and keeping my head lower than them. Since there are multiple statues in the temple, should I bow to each one in turn, or one time to all of them? Also I am a white-haired old gentleman and am made uncomfortable by what seems to be their underserved respect for my age – they smile and point and indicate that I should move to the front row while I would rather remain inconspicuously in back. Would it be disrespectful to try to refuse moving? I have far too many questions to ask in this forum – can you suggest other places I might learn?

  3. The vatican would not kick anyone out of a church. …..the bible teaches us that the Lord says come as u are……

    Im Catholic and my husband is Buddhist. When we attend temple I follow the rules of the temple… And I do agree modesty is important when visiting any religious home.

    1. Thanks for you comment Irene. The “kick-out” comment was referring to the point about the Vatican NOT allowing visitors who are not within the dress-code. Though we were there in March of 2007, it was quite cold while we were there, it was clear to us from the dress code that visitors were not allowed to enter the Vatican if they were NOT within the guidelines as indicated. They are much more strict than some of the temples in Asia with the ques and security cameras before getting into the Vatican.

  4. being half naked in a public place,
    other than pool or beach, is not
    a western culture-it is a lack of
    any culture

  5. Thank you very much i am doing an interview tomorrow for a project in my world religion class and was un sure on what would seem disrespectful. Thank yall very much

  6. Interesting you say that in a new country one should respect the “dress culture” of that country. I am Australian, and countless times I have been passed by covered up Muslims in the streets in WA, whilst wearing shorts and a tshirt and have been glared at like an outsider in my own country. Once when I was walking with a plate of food with meat on it, at my workplace, I was actually approached by an Indian man and told I should be ashamed of myself for eating that as he pointed at my plate. So yes, I understand the need to respect others cultures in their country, but there are times when I think the same respect is not returned.

  7. Hi, though not a Buddhist, I have many Buddha statues in my house. I love them and find them very calming to look at. We are going to Thailand in a few weeks, and I have a small purse I use for travel. It has a Buddha image on it. Would this be considered inappropriate in Thailand and especially in the Temples?

  8. fascinating article and most informative, can you please answer a couple questions, my husband [a viet vet] and I have been invited to our local vietnamese temple in a couple of weeks and I would like to know if it is acceptable for me to take a gift of food and if so what
    karen

  9. Good reminder to all. I’m from Malaysia. I’m a Buddhist. I go to a Buddhist temple to chant almost every Sunday. There are many people who come to this temple bcos there is a really good master. What disturbs me is that most of the men and women are dressed in shorts and they talk and laugh out loud which to me is really disrespectful to such sacred place. To me this place should be quiet and not noisy with gossipings. There are many young girls in their 20-30s wear short shorts and spaghetti strap /low cuts. I wonder why they do so and why noone in the temple that tell them about this in appropriateness.

  10. Thank you. Very good information to have. The rules are very much the same as for those a visit to the Vatican. No one (men included) is permitted to wear shorts or even knee-length pants of any kind, and must wear appropriate tops which keep the shoulders covered. You will be turned away if you can’t follow simple expectations. It is often easy to tell who forgot to check up on their cultural norms because they are wearing cheap and tacky pants from the vendors outside St. Peter’s Square.

  11. Remember, “how one treats you is their karma, how you react is your own.” This whole post is painfully judgmental. You literally have photographs of human beings with the words “shame on you!” written underneath. Don’t you think the Buddha would meet these people with compassion and empathy rather than posting images to publicly “shame” them? Were those photos even taken consensually?

  12. Hey, nice of you for posting this.
    Normal etiquette would work fine. Of course, one could pay more respect to the surrounding monks and nuns in terms of clothing, but both displays of affection and “lighter” clothing is proper. Come as you are. But as said, just remember that the monks and nuns are under strict vows of celebacy.
    Also, showing the respect to the buddha statues, and the culture, it is not needed, unless a genuine feeling of respect is actually felt. And remember, buddhism is about an inner practice- so anything on the outer is just stuff to practice with. No one will go to “hell” for pointing their feet at a monk or a statue.

  13. thanks for the great tips on the dos and donts because me and my sister has been talking about visiting a temple and so i thought i should look up the dos and dont for a temple and found this site very helpful

  14. Wow! Thanks so much for posting this, I had an assignment for school and I got some really good points from here, this is so informative! I will have to admit that I visited some Buddhist temples and probably wasn’t appropriately dressed, but I will definitely make sure to let others know what is appropriate and what isn’t so they don’t make the same mistake! Thanks!

  15. Curious, why is the human body (esp. female) seen as so offensive & disrespectful? Perhaps the issues lie within, not out.

    1. I’m curious why you would assume that proper attire in a religious institution is related to the notion that people are offended by the human body? I would suggest that you engage that discussion with any religious leader of any religion, and perhaps they can explain why a dress code is present in every one of them.
      Regardless if the local social norms are ‘logical’ by your own worldview, perhaps instead of assuming ‘they’ have the problem that needs correcting, that you could do more work on learning about those norms and respecting our hosts, since we are visitors after all.
      Of course, not all social norms are healthy, nor should we agree with them, such as the whitening chemicals used in Thailand and other parts of Asia. But in terms of dress, it’s fairly universal to dress ‘appropriately’ in a place of worship.

    2. While I am not Buddhist, I felt compelled to answer your question.
      It is not that the body is “offensive & disrespectful”. It is that the body is earthly, and should be covered in the presence of the holy. Also, various parts of the body are distractions to the mind and eye and should be covered during worship and prayer. This may be the head, upper chest, legs, ankles, or feet.
      It is therefore respectful to cover one’s body and refrain from patting these distracting parts of another’s body during worship and prayer.

      LavaidaVandelia

  16. All societies have their own so-called cultural “norms” and obviously some of these may seem just plain silly even ludicrous. Even though some may actually be silly and some may even be oppressive, what is called for is a little forbearance and if the customs are too unbearable then the simple answer is: Remember ! You are not “at home”, so like it or lump it. Or leave. It’s your choice, you don’t have to go there. In fact in the west there is the growth of a form of so-called “liberal attitude” that has become the absolute opposite of what it originated from. Being liberal-minded used to mean you were accepting and tolerant of the beliefs and customs of others, whereas now those silly or ludicrous customs are to the out-and-out ‘left-wing fascist atheists’ with the attitude “NO ONE TELLS ME WHAT TO DO ! I’LL DO, SAY, BEHAVE AND WEAR WHAT THE HELL I LIKE, WHERE AND WHEN I LIKE !”, and basically such a level of “intolerance” for other people’s cultures in the name of atheism (or rather a hatred of any and all faiths or spirituality) deserves to be treated for what it is: the most extreme form of intolerance in the guise of protection of personal liberty, truly a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It seems in the west many have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. However the attitude towards the swastika is a prime example of the typical xenophobic ignorance we westerners (yes I’m a “westerner” myself) have, it doesn’t occur to us that the symbol has other meanings elsewhere in the world (there are 7billion people on this planet and ONLY about 2billion of them are westerners, the other 5 BILLION are NOT westerners). I’ve been interested in eastern philosophies for quite some time and I thought I was reasonably well-read. I was aware that the swastika had an ancient history (on visiting Paignton, near Torquay on the South West Coast of England, I visited a Medieval village and in the blacksmiths workshop was at least a dozen recovered artifacts adorned with some kind of swastika), but I was still surprised when I visited a Jain temple and saw a 10-foot swastika on the wall. I wouldn’t be surprised if I was attacked for my “insensitivity” to even mention the swastika with anything but revulsion and be accused of neo-nazism, yet what about the 100’s of millions of Indians, Tibetans, Nepalese, Chinese, etc, etc, who still culturally revere the symbol and yet wouldn’t dream of associating themselves with nazism.
    The bottom line is, if you visit another country you should respect their customs no matter where you are from, and this includes those who “move” to other countries. If you are willing to take advantage of the hospitality of another country by making it your home, the least you can do is respect the laws and customs and people (especially indigenous) of that country and if you cannot do that, don’t live there. Likewise, if peoples of other cultures live in your land and they show the relevant respect to your culture, customs, laws and the indigenous population and make positive contributions to the host country then those people should be treated with the respect they have shown for the host country and if someone visits their place of worship, then the same sort of respect and reverence should be attended to, as if it were in the land from whence it came, or an indigenous place of worship.

  17. Good day, I am to head to a Thai friend’s wedding for my first trip to Thailand in a month. I was wondering if capri pants (fall high on my calves but below the knees) would be ok or if full length pants are more de rigeur? Also I have read don’ts for pictures include not taking them of monks, not taking them with or of Buddhas. Are there more picture taking don’ts? Thank you for having taken the time to write this post, information like this is great to have.

  18. I couldn’t agree more with this article. It drives me mad to see women dressed skimpy clothing when going to a holy place. Thank you for the article!

  19. Thank you so much for this post!
    This year I´m gonna live in a buddhist temple for a high school exchange.
    When I reacived the family information I was so happy because it would be souch a good experience.
    I will do my best ^^

  20. While i agree with you on the clothing stuff, I think you should also be grateful for tourists, because thanks to them you raise some money. If you dont what people talking and disrespecting your temples, dont make them a tourist atraction, and if you do, dont complain about it.

    1. Hi Diego,
      That’s an interesting perspective, but I disagree. What is wrong about educating tourists about the cultural norms of a given religion or culture? We don’t expect everyone who visits a Buddhist temple to have majored in religious studies, but our post is to try to provide basic information to those who may not know, in order for people to gain an understanding and to better enjoy their visit as well. It’s no different than most major religious sites that have rules for dress and conduct. Are you saying once the doors open for ‘business,’ then just those institutions should just put up with anyone, regardless of dress or behavior? So, just walk right into a temple with your shoes on, is that what you mean?

      As a guest in a new country, I’d think we would want to be as respectful as possible and to open our minds to learning new perspectives. Temples are not open to tourists to earn more money. It’s not the tourists who donate the bulk of money to the temples, or cook to provide food for the monks. It’s the local citizens who do so, regardless of the tourists. Temples by their definition are open, for anyone who wants to learn about Buddhism (check monk chats), or for casual tourists who are just sight seeing. No synagogue, church, or temple should relinquish their rules and standards because they are allowing tourists to visit. That’s what I interpreted from your comment.

      Cheers,
      J.

  21. Thanks for the advice. My partner and I are visiting many of the temples in Bangkok tomorrow and were unsure of what may be deemed disrespectful. Very useful information.

  22. While it may be easy for us “Buddhists” to get caught up in “respect, rules and etiquette” because we want to feel as if we are following something sacred or are part of something sacred, I’ve found to be on the other end of this pool of pointing and scrutinizing:

    From personal experience, I have never intended to disrespect these wonderful people and places. I do agree on the point gathered by Ignorance perhaps.

    But isn’t it better to share the blessing of Buddha than to scrutinize HOW people view his gifts?

    Once, a wonderful monk invited us for a water blessing and was so warm to have us visit him. After some while (where i had postrated then sad cross-legged on the floor) a Thai woman had done JUST as you all have said OUGHT to be done. She stated something that I could not quite understand but from what I gathered. She had made it quite clear that she had noticed and had been glaring at UP MY SKIRT!

    Not only did I feel initially violated for being looked upon such way. I soon broke through that through some emotional release and then accepted it telling myself to do better.

    But what I noticed more importantly was that I was really distracting all these sangha members from Buddha’s actual teachings.

    The world will always be filled with people we see not doing what WE think is right. Can we accept them wholeheartedly with love, compassion and joy? Can we analyze these people and not forget the truth of the triple gem?

    When I visit the tibetan colony in India, my intention is to show that we are all one: I am them, they are me. So, in that respect, I mirror their dress of simplicity and modesty for easier meditation, dharma practice, and yes, out of respect too 🙂

  23. I’ve obviously just read this page. I live in the UK and after seeing the photo’s I feel shocked. Surely there must be signs around the temple and why is it that people are so ignorant as to NOT read up, on the courtesies within the temple grounds, before going to the temple?.
    Maybe it’s because they have no respect for themselves either.

  24. RESPECT is the key for visiting any religious place in the World. Yesterday I met a guest visiting a temple in Thailand and I indicated that they should remove their shoes out of respect – and I was told that the “floor was too hot”.

    Okay some things like bowing your head to be below may be difficult BUT an effort will be recognised.

  25. Loved this post. Thank you. I have a question regarding “keeping your head lower”. And hope it doesnt come off as silly lol. As for bowing to Monks and Nuns, what if they are shorter than you, do you remain in a constant bow so that your head is below theirs? I dont want to cause disrespect to anyone. Thank you 🙂

  26. GREAT post. Some people, though they may know the Do’s and Don’ts, still insist on wearing whatever they feel like. My roommate and I once went to a temple in the Rila Mountains of Bulgaria, and a few visitors were shocked that they weren’t allowed to enter “just” because of their clothing.
    In short, it’s just being respectful. I can’t understand why it’s so difficult for some people.

  27. Right on. I have much to add here about behavior in Laos and elsewhere in SE Asia, in Buddhist temples and at other religious events, and a post (with damning photos) has been percolating for a while. I can’t tell you how many tank-topped, miniskirt and shorts-wearing tourists we saw saunter right past a sign indicating NO TANK TOPS and NO SHORTS ALLOWED at the White Temple last week in Chiang Rai, apparently believing that it didn’t apply to them. So embarrassing to me as a farang.

  28. I just read and enjoyed your blogpost. I’m an Aussie who was thrown into rural North East Asia as a 16 year old (exchange student). I’ve lived in Thailand for three years – back in Oz now. I am hoping you can confirm something for me… Are females allowed to carry Buddhist statues (when moving house, for instance)? It’s preferable for a male to do this, right?
    Enjoy Thailand! Have some sticky rice and mango for me… a favourite of mine!

  29. Thanks for this, A. I’ve come to carry a sarong at all times while traveling in Asia, in case of a random temple spotting. It can be hot at times, and just one more thing to carry, but it’s completely worth it. Just the other day in Chiang Mai, on the way to the post office, I spotted a temple I hadn’t yet visited. I quickly put on my sarong, as tank top and skirt wearing tourists walked straight in, and earned a big smile and “Good” from a nearby tuktuk driver. Success!

    I do want to ask you what you think about taking photos. It feels a bit disrespectful to me to take photos of the Buddha within the temple so I generally don’t. However, am I being overly careful? Is it acceptable so long as there aren’t signs saying otherwise and I kneel if it’s a reclining Buddha? Your thoughts would be much, much appreciated as it’s something I’ve thought about a lot.

  30. Hi A: From one Buddhist to another, I am with you wholeheartedly on this. I’m disgusted when I see foreigners dressed so inappropriately in sacred temples. It might also be worth mentioning that flip flops or sandals without back straps are generally not allowed.

  31. Good post A. I generally dress appropriately when I go to a temple. I now make it a habit to have a sarong in my bag to cover my shoulders if I am wearing short sleeves. I always wear pants below my knees. I was really surprised a couple of years ago when I was at a big temple in Bangkok (sorry, name won’t come at the moment) and they let some young women in with very short shorts and strapless t-shirts. When they got to me I was made to wear a sarong. My pants were well below my knees. Temples should make an effort to enforce the dress code and that code should be for everyone.

  32. I didn’t know you were Buddhist, so nice, very interesting philosophy. True, we need to dress and behave properly in any kind of holy place. I’ve been to the Buddhist temple in the Summer Palace in Beijing, exhausting to get there as it’s on the top of a little hill and there are many stairs to do, but when you eventually make it, the scenery is breathtaking and the temple is very beautiful!

  33. Thanks everyone for your comment. I appreciate you stopping by and giving it your attention. This is obviously a subject I take seriously. It’s been on my mind since the first time I was here in Thailand with my mother.

    Kyle and Bessie: I agree. I’ve often wondered why this is not the case already in Thailand. It’s disappointing. My mom and I’ve actually had discussions about this. So on my next pilgrimage to India and Nepal, and yes I do plan on having another one, it’s my goal to have a serious discussion about this very topic with the Burmese Buddhist Monks (usually are the guides) in the Holy land. I’d like to hear what they think about all this.

    The one place that I’ve seen enforced very strictly was in BKK at Wat Phra Kaew, Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Some temples have visible signs, but no one really enforcing the rules. Since there are so many temples around, I wondered if this is just a matter of budget, staffing and/or low on the priority list?? I’ve seen the Thais themselves dressed inappropriately also being poor role models for tourists. It’s really disheartening to witness. So, I agree! I’d also like to see more proactive messages and reactions from the “officials.”

    The dress code is just part of the post though, a big part no less. I’ve seen signs (in pictures) indicating dress code, no shoes, no photos, keep head lower, no climbing, etc. yet, I’ve seen tourists not abide by them anyway.

    I am quite relaxed on a daily basis w my attire here in Thailand, though appropriate when I visit a temple. However, when I return to Burma, it’s a whole different story. Frankly, I feel as though I am being disrespectful and inappropriate if I am not dressed in a proper Burmese attire. In fact, I’ve had outfits made there so I can have them ready to wear on a daily basis during my visits.

    I also agree with what Tracy said, “if I’d be ashamed to wear it in front of my nana I’d probably shouldn’t be wearing it to a temple!”

  34. To be honest, I think Thai Buddhists could be a little more strict about things. They should make a bunch of signs and tell people they can’t enter if they’re not dressed appropriately. They do it all over Bali, and guess what? I went out and bought the proper dress, came back and visited the Hindu temples in serenity, while a lot of other people stood outside in their bathing suits complaining. In addition to getting props from the locals on learning how to wear a sarong the Balinese way, I came out with a lot more respect for the religion and culture than when I went in.

  35. Great list of tips. I wonder the same must apply for ruins, right – I mean they’re still temples even if they are 100s of years old, right? Yesterday at Sukhothai I saw a probably Thai, Buddhist woman, in spaghetti straps and a shorter skirt, and she was paying respect to Buddha, and I was in disbelief. She’s Buddhist & not dressed appropriately – bizarre! I mean, I’m walking around in pants and a top, pretty covered, but then wondering, well, if she’s showing all that skin, couldn’t I wear a tanktop too? Is there a caveat that if monks aren’t present, Buddhists are more lax?

    But I believe you that it’s better to be covered up, than not. I wouldn’t want to offend! Oh & the PDAs you mention are atrocious!

  36. Hey A, thanks for the tips. I have been to several temples in Thailand and I sometimes come unprepared when going to temples. I know, shame on me. The last time, we went to Ayutthaya and were just wearing spaghetti strap dresses because of the heat. We did put on some shirts that they rented out to show respect. I do agree that a lot of tourists who visit do not realize that this not a just a tourist destination but a place of worship. Thanks for the reminder!

  37. Great article and really… its not hard to follow those things is it! Well at least it shouldn’t be. The other one that baffled us while travelling through Cambodia was the girls in tiny shorts and boob tubes visiting the Killing Fields. Hardly respectful. I figure if I’d be ashamed to wear it in front of my nanna I probably shouldn’t be wearing it in a temple!

  38. Thanks for this helpful and informative post. Respect for the holy places of each other’s faith is something I hope my children learn and practice.

  39. A, Great article. I get so irritated when people don’t respect the local culture. And when I hear people complain, I say the same thing “Don’t go!” Although I did do enough research to know to wear modest clothing to Buddhist temples and not point my feet, I have appreciated the signs I’ve seen at many temples as well. I wasn’t planning on taking any photos inside the halls, but I saw signs like the one pictured above that let me know it was okay, given that I was sitting. My friend was on a tour with a guy at the Vatican who flat our refused to put a shirt on and was rude to employees there. I just don’t get it. I’ve seen people in cut-off shorts and skimpy tank tops in the Middle East and wonder whether they read anything at all before going on vacation…

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