On Cultural and Religious Sensitivity

After reading this article, I was reminded of proper behavior when traveling abroad. These French tourists were found guilty of offending a religious group in Sri Lanka. It seems they took pictures that appeared to show them kissing Buddhist statues, which would be offensive. (Note: the Sri Lankan law does not only apply to Buddhism; it applies to all religious groups in the country.)  The French tourists are fortunate that their sentences were suspended.

Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, Bangkok
Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, Bangkok

I’m not one that gets offended easily, and I’m not religious. I’m not really a fan of organized religion. However, I find religions interesting and would never intentionally offend observers at a place of worship.

When I traveled to Thailand I had to follow all the rules of visiting temples. I was told to dress appropriately and take off my shoes before entering. Fortunately for me, Thailand is lenient when it comes to tourists wearing shorts–it’s rather difficult to wear long pants in that oppressive heat. Of course, most temples that are major tourist attractions have clothing to cover up tourists who aren’t appropriately dressed.

In Ayutthaya, there were signs advising tourists not to take photos that showed a person above a Buddhist statue–your head is always supposed to be lower. I was confused at first, but it was explained to me. Of course, I rarely take photos of myself or others, so it wasn’t much of a problem.

Batu caves
Lord Murugan at the entrance to Batu Caves, Malaysia

It was similar in Bali. Foreign tourists were given sarongs to cover their legs (even if their legs were already covered). For the most part, the sarongs were an entrance fee to the temples. I certainly didn’t mind–I would have paid a fee even if I didn’t need a sarong. There are no photos of me wearing a sarong in Bali because I really don’t look good wearing it, and I wouldn’t want to inflict such horror on my readers.

Even in China, I was careful. I often saw signs that restricted photography. Out of respect for the religion, I avoided taking photos. However, I witnessed plenty of Chinese tourists ignoring such signs. I got in the habit of asking before taking photos–sometimes I was told it was alright even though there were signs stating otherwise.

xi'an great mosque
The Great Mosque in Xi’an

I learned rather early on in my time in China to ask questions when dealing with religious and cultural sites. That lesson extended into my travels elsewhere in Southeast Asia, and will certainly continue with future travels.

Most surprisingly for some people to hear, I found China to be rather sensitive to religion on a personal level (not quite as much when visiting religious sites). I’ve had very pleasant conversations with Chinese Christians and Muslims about religion and culture. Of course, when food was involved, the conversation was always pleasant. After I had already visited, I was a little disappointed to discover that the Imam at the Great Mosque in Xi’an speaks English–I missed an opportunity to learn more.

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