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.