How should I behave when I’m at a temple?
The quick answer: be as respectful as you can! Samui’s such a relaxed place that it can come as a surprise that there really are places where you need to be a little bit more formal. Not much, really. But if you don’t follow the rules, then people might get riled – even if they don’t show it.
Live on Samui for any length of time and you’ll visit quite a few temples. Observe how the Thais behave and you’ll have a good idea of what is good to do in a temple and what might cause offence.
You’ll also see quite a few people, visitors mostly, who unwittingly cause offence. What’s ok on the beach – for example shorts and a casual top; loud voices; holiday backslaps and so on – will cause templegoers to feel aggrieved.
Here then are some basic rules to follow when visiting a temple. Most won’t come as a surprise.
What should I wear? Follow the dress code. If you’re at a temple frequented by holidaymakers, you’ll probably see it posted rather prominently at the temple entrance – pictures of clothes crossed out. Don’t wear anything that leaves your torso and shoulders uncovered. And those short shorts, hmm, definitely not.
You can always bring clothing with you and in some temples you may find, free of charge, shawls and long-sleeved coverings. Aim to wear pants or skirts that cover the knees, if not more. Fall foul of the dress code and you may find yourself actually stopped from going into a temple.
What about flip-flops? – You can walk round a temple in whatever footwear you like – apart maybe from high heels – but you must always, always leave your shoes outside any temple building before going in. Lace up shoes are going to be really awkward, so wear something easy to take off, like flip-flops.
Do I have to show respect to Buddha Images? You do. Statues and images must be shown the greatest of respect. Always bow before approaching a statue and try to keep your head below the top of the statue. Do not touch any statues or images. And do not touch any monks. It is strictly forbidden for monks to touch women – and that is why if they want to offer a woman something, such as a woven bracelet, they will not place it in their hands.
Is it OK if my mobile keeps ringing? Even if some people have a love affair with their phones, they will turn them off before going into a temple. You should too. And take out those earbuds. Similarly don’t chew anything while at a temple and certainly don’t light up.
Can I point at anything in a temple? No. Just don’t point at anything at all in a temple, be it person, statue, or artefact. If you’re sitting down, don’t point your feet at anyone or at any Buddha statue. If you really need to point at something, you can extend your hand, palm up and indicate the person or statue.
Can I talk inside a temple building? You can, but please keep your voice down. As in right down. Some people will be meditating or praying; don’t disturb them with your voice or your behavior. Don’t have conversations that are inappropriate You can talk a bit more loudly when you’re outside again, but basically the same rule applies – don’t disturb others.
Can I take photos? Yes. As long as you’re not disturbing others, you are welcome to take photos. Perhaps avoid having flashlights going off every few seconds but photography is not a problem. However, don’t take things to extremes. It’s not OK to go right up to a Buddha statue and block everyone’s line of view. If you can, try to take pictures of the statues by kneeling down.
Is it ok to hold hands with my partner? No, this isn’t acceptable, neither is touching someone as a display of public affection.
Are there any rules to observe when entering and exiting a hall or building? Never step on a raised threshold; always step over it. And when leaving, don’t turn your back on a Buddha image; simply back away.
Is it OK for my children to run around and let off steam? No, definitely not – talk to your children before you get to the temple and explain the rules. There should be no running around or loud voices and clambering up onto buildings or statues.
As you can see, going to a temple doesn’t require much good behavior – just show some reverence and follow the basics as above and you won’t offend anyone.
Perhaps one surprise is how Buddha images and statues are held in such deep respect. This is certainly the case inside any and all temples, but once outside, there are some grave lapses. If you are thinking of buying a house in Thailand and decorating it, then you should be aware of showing unintentional disrespect – perhaps even when you are intending the very opposite.
Buddhists will automatically see it as disrespectful if you use the head of a Buddha as an ornament in your house. The same goes for pictures. Statues, pictures and so on should only be seen in a shrine, never in a house as purely decorative items. The head of a Buddha doesn’t belong on a coffee table, for example, nor in a restaurant. Similarly, it’s offensive to wear t-shirts that show a portrait of the Buddha or have a tattoo showing the Buddha. Buddhists may feel offended too if they see a Buddha representation used as a logo, as a form of advertising or as a desire to be seen as trendy. Buddhism is a religion not a fashion statement or marketing ploy.