Southeast Asia culture and customs are heavily influenced by Buddhism, the most prominent religion, and by the Chinese and Indian heritage. The people are generally fun-loving, laid-back, and light-hearted. Despite being colonized by Western nations, the core of Southeast Asia culture still prevails in the lives of the locals.
Religion and places of worship are given the highest level of respect since most aspects of Southeast Asia culture revolve around religion. When entering temples, churches, and any place that has spiritual significance, wear modest and simple clothes. Avoid wearing flamboyant clothes, too much jewelry, and clothes that expose the shoulders and knees. Keeping a shawl or scarf handy is highly recommended. Generally, hats must be removed before entering a temple or church, and shoes and socks must be left outside the doors. However, there are some temples and churches that do not require visitors to remove their footwear. When in doubt, observe the locals.
Take off your shoes when entering their homes. Since the locals are very hospitable, it’s highly likely that they will invite you for a meal in their homes. Most Southeast Asian households will want you to take off your shoes before stepping into their homes because they usually sit on the floor during meals or leisure, or lie down on the floor to relax. Taking off your footwear before entering has already become a part of Southeast Asia culture because it is considered a sign of respect and courtesy.
Locals are extremely conservative. There are two types of PDA that the Southeast Asia culture is not comfortable with public display of affection and public display of argument. Expressions of affection such as kissing and hugging should not be shown in public places. Arguments and misunderstandings should be discussed in private since the Southeast Asians don’t like seeing people publicly show negative emotions, and hearing people raise their voices over anyone. Fashion is also more modest in Southeast Asia. Although the climate in Southeast Asian countries is generally hot and humid, the people do not encourage wearing revealing clothes that expose the shoulders, the thighs, and the chest.
Elders are given much respect in Southeast Asia culture because they are often deemed as the wiser ones in the society. You are not required to help them in everything they do, but talking to them politely, smiling at them, and greeting them with a simple bow is enough. During meals, it is customary to let them get food first or take the first bite before anyone else on the table.
Southeast Asians are extremely polite and very protective of their ‘face.’ In Southeast Asia culture, ‘face’ means honor and respect. They do not like being embarrassed, criticized, and insulted in public. The behavior of Southeast Asians is ruled by etiquette and the fear of losing ‘face’ or bringing dishonor to themselves and their families. Since the locals put a lot of emphasis on politeness, it’s often difficult for them to directly say “no,” or to decline a favor being asked of them. For the locals, a straightforward “no” is considered rude, so they replace it with other phrases such as “maybe” or “I’m busy,” which Westerners find confusing.
Bowing is a greeting and a sign of respect in Southeast Asia culture. Always remember to bow and smile at the locals when greeting them and when you’re about to part ways. It’s a simple gesture that they highly value.