Tourists behaving badly: how to avoid being a travel jerk

A trio of saffron-robed monks and three young Australian women pose smilingly outside a Bangkok temple as a photo is taken by one of their travelling companions. The women have just left the temple where they persuaded the monks to be part of a photographic souvenir.

The six stand close together. Just before the photo is taken, the women suddenly drape their arms across the monks' shoulders.

The monks, formerly grinning, are visibly irritated both by this unexpected intimacy and the giggles of passers-by. They retreat silently into their temple.

A few days later, aboard Bangkok's Skytrain, I sit opposite a tourist in thongs. His legs are crossed and, several times, the underside of a thong brushes the leg of an elderly Thai man.

The victim mutters, shaking his head each time it happens. Finally, he can take no more. Fluent in English, he complains: "Please stop touching me with your foot." The tourist looks puzzled but complies.

A basic rule in Thailand (as well as in Burma and Sri Lanka): women don't touch monks.

And, for either sex, sitting with undersides of feet (or footwear soles) pointed at others is offensive in Thailand. So is touching someone with a foot or shoe since the foot is regarded as a particularly unworthy body part.

The top of the body is as much of a problem as lowly feet. Thais (whose Buddhism is mixed with animist beliefs) commonly regard the head as the spirit's residence.

Patting a kid's head is frowned upon - even though you may see modern-day Thais doing exactly that.


Pointing with hands or feet upsets many Burmese. British colonial officials thought they'd found a workaround by pointing with umbrellas (commonly carried because of frequent tropical deluges). But, in a Rangoon market recently, I see a handwritten sign warning: "No umbrella-ing."

Ignoring local etiquette is usually an innocent oversight - but it ensures you're labelled a travel jerk.

As Leeanne Levett, managing director of Hobart's The Travel Studio, advises: "Be respectful of local cultures." The savvy travel agent adds that using feet to point is also a no-no in Thailand. "It's very rude."

A woman seated alongside me on a recent flight is enthusiastic about exploring Indian temples and insists she'll dress skimpily in Mumbai as she does at home in Brisbane. "They should be happy I'm spending my money in their country," she argues.

This attitude is wrong, maintains road warrior Melanie Wynne, senior adviser at Adelaide's Phil Hoffmann Travel. "We have a propensity for continuing to act exactly as we would at home," she says. "Miniskirts, shorts and boob-tubes are for beach-and-blanket holidays - not for churches and other places of worship."

Foreigners aren't deaf, she sighs, suggesting it's pointless speaking louder and louder to someone who doesn't understand English. "We should remember that much of the world doesn't speak English," she says.

Most etiquette breaches occur in Asia where custom and tradition remain strong. In Europe and North America people make allowances - as we do in Australia - realising strangers are probably not aware of local practices.

The same holds true in South America and most of Africa.

In a country-and-western bar in rural Alabama I unthinkingly play a soul tune on the jukebox.

The bar freezes. All eyes turn to me. An emissary is dispatched to check out the stranger. "Where you from, boy?" I tell him Australia and he asks: "Is that near Boston?" He buys me a beer. I'm excused because I clearly know no better.

Some travel agents blame Bali for Australians' cultural gaffes. They suggest tourism-dependent Bali's residents successfully conceal annoyance at visitors' excesses. Young foreigners, believing anything goes, then carry their attitudes further afield.

Aside from Asia, the Middle East is the scene of many misunderstandings - sometimes with sad consequences. Foreigners have ended up behind bars - even in the United Arab Emirates' Dubai which promotes a free-and-easy image - for public handholding, kissing or cuddling. The most publicised case involved a British couple imprisoned for having sex on a beach after a champagne-fuelled lunch.

Often a gesture, intended as friendly, is misinterpreted. Flowers are a minefield best avoided away from home. For instance, if you're visiting friends or family members in Asia don't give white flowers which are widely associated with funerals. The same is true in several Central and South American countries. But in Portuguese-speaking Brazil purple blooms are unwelcome for the same reason.

While white flowers are shunned in much of Asia, red flowers are mostly regarded as lucky. But, in Mexico, red flowers are associated with evil spells with white flowers prized for lifting spells.

Such beliefs aren't only a feature of small towns. Sophisticated urbanites often adhere to them, too.

No, a flower-related error won't land you in jail - but it'll ensure you won't be invited back. Play it safe: when you pass a florist's shop, keep walking.

The number "3" is regarded as unlucky in many Asian countries. "Third time lucky" is very much a western concept. Three in a photo is taboo in much of Vietnam as well as in neighbouring Cambodia and Laos. It's believed the person in the centre will soon die.

This risk is eliminated if the picture is edited to remove one person - or, if it's a print, it's destroyed.

Food is a joy of travelling in Asia. But westerners unfamiliar with chopstick-using cuisines often place chopsticks upright in rice bowls. This reminds some people of incense sticks burning at funerals - so it's best not done. Also frowned upon: pretending chopsticks are drumsticks.

Don't think you're being polite by refusing hospitality, says Phil Hoffman Travel's Wynne. "If offered a refreshment, graciously accept," she says, pointing out that refusal is often considered "poor form". Bestowing hospitality is important in many countries, she explains.

Most travellers are wisely wary of taking pictures of military camps - but bans sometimes extend to bridges, airports, seaports and key buildings. Soldiers aren't to be photographed either in some African, Middle Eastern and South American countries.

Natives may be colourful in African tribal gear. But it's polite to ask whether they mind being photographed. They'll generally smile and agree. Women in Middle Eastern countries usually refuse to be photographed by men but object less often if asked by women.

No Asian country is more observant of etiquette than Japan. Visitors are assumed to be aware of customs, enforced by peer pressure. Among these: leave shoes outside private dwellings (as in many countries), don't blow your nose at a restaurant table (though, contrary to popular belief this isn't an easy way to empty a crowded eatery) and don't use onsen (communal bathhouses) if you have tattoos (associated with mafia-like yakuza gangsters).

Well-travelled Anne Willacy, owner of Travel Success in Perth, strongly recommends reading about a destination before visiting. "It's a great way to gain awareness of local customs, dress standards and other information," she advises. "Try to absorb as much as you can prior to travel."

Further, she suggests learning "a few basic words, even if just 'thank you', 'please' or 'good morning'".

Mind you, I recall watching an Australian tourist try this technique at an alfresco cafe in Noumea, New Caledonia. A harried waitress listened to him struggling in French before saying: "Why don't we speak English? My bad English is better than your bad French."

Sometimes you just can't win.


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