What’s wrong with this picture? At first glance, it seems as if very little is wrong with it. Just two women, enjoying a walk around a cultural site. However, the larger picture tells a very different story. The cultural site these women are visiting is Wat Phra Kaew, one of the holiest Buddhist sites in Thailand, and the woman on the right is quite disrespectfully under-dressed. What makes this photo even more damning is that she would have been issued a shawl upon arrival, and had she refused it at that time, she would have been denied entry into the temple complex. I can only surmise that she removed the shawl as soon as she felt the coast was clear, effectively telling the Thai people that she has no respect for their religious culture. None. And if that isn’t a hearty “fuck you”, I don’t know what is.
Some of the most visited sites in the world pertaining to ancient history and culture are religious ones. Mosques, churches, synagogues and temples all over the globe have endured wars, the elements, and much more to become popular with tourists, but to the people whose faith these structures represent, they are much more than a place to take photos and check off of the bucket lists.
All too often I see tourist deliberately flaunting the rules of various religious sites. When I was in Istanbul last year I was so very excited to see the Blue Mosque. As we left our hotel for the day, I made sure that I had a long-sleeved sweater and a scarf in my bag, so I could cover up appropriately for my visit to the mosque. We neared the front of the line to enter the mosque, and I noticed female volunteers distributing scarves to the women so they could cover their hair. I donned my own scarf and we were granted entry. The crowds were thick, but not so much that I didn’t notice Western women removing the scarves as soon as they were inside. I overheard one woman say, in a distinctly American voice, “I’m not Muslim. I’m not wearing that shit.”
I don’t care if you’re not Muslim. I don’t care if you’re not Buddhist, or Christian, or Jewish. I don’t care what you are, or aren’t. When you enter a place that people use to pray, or worship, or meditate, or whatever is significant to them, show some respect. If they ask you to cover your hair, do it. If they ask you to kneel, do it. If you don’t want to do any of those things, don’t go in. It’s very simple.
I’m not a religious person. I don’t subscribe to any faith, and, to be frank, most modern religions trouble me and leave me confused. However, just as I appreciate my ability to to be free in my lack of faith, I appreciate the ability of others to be immersed in theirs. I respect their devotion, and consequently, I respect the places they go to show that devotion. I have no agenda other than a desire for cultural awareness, and a few minutes spent observing the rules so I can visit these amazing places is time well spent.
And to those ladies at Wat Phra Kaew and the Blue Mosque and all the others who ignore the rules, if you don’t have time for respect, then perhaps you shouldn’t be traveling.
Amen. I’m an atheist. I still follow the dress codes, be that sarongs, shawls, or veils, for all the reasons that you outline above.
Jim O'Donnell says
Oh man. Excellent post. I could not agree more. Why bother going if you cant show the BASIC amount of respect!?! I’ve seen far too much of that. Well done Cate.
Jeannine Thigpen says
As someone who is yet to be a world traveler, thank you for the eye opener. I would have hated to be offensive just because I was ignorant to the customs of international holy sites. Obviously if they are taking the time to hand out scarves then it’s clearly an important part if their custom. And why wouldn’t you wear them or dress in the customary fashion, isn’t that part of the experience? Isn’t that why you travel in the first place?
I agree totally. In Egypt I was ashamed of and for the most disrespectful people I had ever seen. What does it take to honor another’s beliefs and customs? Just a minute! And while we’re complaining, it would be really respectful if you could at least say ” please and thank you” in their language!
Lisa @chickybus says
Hi, Cate. Just wanted to say that I agree with you. When you’re visiting certain sacred/religious sites, you should follow the rules re: modest dress, etc. regardless of your own personal beliefs. When I see people doing what you described and with that sort of attitude, it upsets me, too.
Glad you wrote this.
Cate I love this post. I live in Chiang Mai which is heaven for temple goers and I see what you’ve described happening all the time. It’s nice to hear my internal grumblings put so eloquently by you! 🙂
Mary Mathis says
Wonderful article Cate. Thank you for calling people out on their disrespectful behavior. I think your point is spot on
Here here!! Great post. Thank you!
i did a google search of the site and every picture that has a women has no hair covered- i been there twice and even their web site states:
The sacred temples in Thailand follow a dress code, which is strictly followed. Men must wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts and shoes; women must wear long skirts. Visitors who arrive dressed otherwise may rent appropriate clothing items at the entry area of the temple. It is compulsory to remove the shoes before entering the temple, as a sign of respect of the Buddha, as is the practice in all other temples in Thailand. While offering prayers before the Buddha image, the sitting posture should avoid any offensive stretching of feet towards the deity; the feet should be tucked in towards the back.
your picture is confusing as this could be on the outside wall or another area-
Cate Brubaker says
Your comment is confusing. Hair covering is not required for women at Buddhist temples, but it is required at Muslim mosques, hence the portion of the article describing my experience at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. The photo was indeed taken inside the temple complex, and I know this because I was the one who took it.
Tom @ Waegook Tom says
Amen to all of this. If people can’t even observe basic respect for the country they’re travelling in, then they should just stay home. If you’re not going to open your mind, then why bother travelling? Sigh.