When traveling outside of the United States, the “must see” sites often include churches, temples, wats, mosques, cemeteries, and other locations of spiritual significance to the local population. When I first started traveling, I was pretty ignorant to dress expectations. I figured that I was dressed pretty modestly by Western standards, so it was OK. Well, a quick Google search revealed otherwise, and ever since I have done my best to try and dress appropriately whenever setting out to explore.
While in Cambodia, it has come to my attention that some tourists are either ignorant to the informational power of Google, or simply don’t care about local customs (and even posted signage) asking for modesty. In fact, while photographing sunrise at Angkor Wat, a girl was wearing shorts that literally appeared to be painted onto her butt. When visiting the Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh, where thousands of Cambodians were murdered in cold blood by the Khmer Rouge, Westerners cruised around in short shorts and string tank tops, despite various signs and a message on the website asking for modest dress. Would they have worn the same clothes to Sunday mass with their family at home? Probably not.
Now, I’m not saying that you have to be fancy, but respectful, yes. “Well, I don’t think that showing my shoulders is disrespectful.” Doesn’t matter—you’re not from here and the least you can do is dress in a way that won’t make the locals stare at you and wonder which brothel you stumbled out of.
So, here are a few keys to dressing appropriately when visiting a religious or spiritual site, in SE Asia or elsewhere:
- Cover your shoulders
- Shorts or skirts should fall to the knee or lower
- Everything in-between should be covered
- Tip: Carry a scarf with you all the time. You can use it to cover your shoulders, make your skirt a bit longer, cover your head at a mosque, etc.
It’s that simple, folks. Now, did I remove my scarf from my shoulders when walking between wats in Siem Reap? Yes, it was 95 degrees out and I was dying. Was my knee-length skirt deemed too short by the gatekeepers at the Shwedagon Pagoda? Yup, so I pulled it down. As tourists, all we can do is try to set ourselves up for success and go with the flow from there. Even the smallest of efforts will be appreciated by the locals who are paying their respects alongside you.