Tips For Visiting Temples

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Visiting ancient temples and beautiful mosques abroad is quite popular and enjoyable.  It surprised me a little bit since I’m not religious at all, but it’s more of a cultural experience than a religious one.  If you’re new to traveling or have never visited a temple abroad there are a few things you should know before you go.  I’ve learned some tips and tricks along the way and thought it could be helpful to share them here.  I feel so lucky to have visited dozens of religious sites in Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Kathmandu, India and beyond.  Read on to discover all the things I’ve learned along the way.

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  • Dress Conservatively – Always cover your shoulders and knees.  If you’re out and about traveling all day, it’s best to wear a long skirt in case you happen upon a temple or a mosque.  It’s not just a suggestion to wear long pants and a shirt that covers your shoulders, it’s required.  Most mosques and temples have plenty of signs outside with dress code restrictions.  If you’re in a tank top or dress though, you may be in luck – most popular temples have options for tourists who are unprepared.
  • Take Off Your Shoes – You’ll probably see a pile of shoes near the entrance and plenty of signs, but there’s a chance you’ll accidentally enter complex the wrong way.  It actually just happened to me in Kathmandu.  I realized I was in the wrong when all the ladies were looking at me with disdain. Whoops! If this happens to you just slip off your shoes and stash them in your bag quickly.
  • Photography Rules Vary – most temples, mosques and churches I’ve visited allow photography, but every once in a while there are restrictions.  Most times there are certain areas you can’t photograph, but the outside is fair game.  Just be sure to look for signs near the entrance or follow others when it comes to taking photographs inside.

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  • Entrance Limitations – sometimes if you’re not of a particular faith, you aren’t allowed into the sacred part of the temple or mosque or you have to use a different door.  Sometimes it’s to protect the temples from religious terrorism, but most times it’s simply a privilege to enter at all and if you’re not practicing that faith you aren’t granted that privilege.  In Malaysia, I was required to wear a robe and hijab.  It was an amazing experience to have half a dozen older muslim ladies dressing me before I entered the mosque through the visitors entrance. 
  • Be Quiet & Follow Social Cues – it’s just a given to be quiet in religious places or sites of historical significance.  Sometimes tourists and travelers are so caught up in having a great day or trying to fit everything in that they can forget to be polite.  Some people have worked really hard to make the pilgrimage to visit a particular religious site and it’s important that you don’t devalue their experience in anyway. Chances are visiting a temple is just another thing on a travelers todo list, but it could be the experience of a lifetime for a devout follower.

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  • Follow Customs – it’s not completely necessary to partake in whatever activities everyone else is doing, but if it’s some type of donation or ceremonial action, it could be fun.  You’ll definitely get a feel for how normal it is for non-religious foreigners to participate. For example, in Thailand I was constantly asked to buy incense to burn in the temples. In Kathmandu it’s common to throw change into the fountain in order to have a long life so of course I happily threw in a handful.  I also fed this enormous flock of pigeons, something I would never do in the states, but it was more meaningful in this particular situation.

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  • Know the History or Hire a Guide – one thing that really enhances any visit to a temple, church or mosque is to know the history.  Instead of just wandering around and looking at the beautiful architecture, it’s nice to know the back story and it makes every structure and intricate detail that more meaningful.  Usually I read up on any particular place the night before or download a digital version of a guidebook to read while I’m wandering around.  However, this past month in Kathmandu, while I was watching corpses burn, a young man started telling me all about the practice and its long history.  While we were chatting, a monkey tried to steal my bag, but the man shielded me and continued to tell me the history of Shree Pashupatinath Temple.  After a few minutes he asked if I would like him to guide me throughout the grounds and while I usually say no to something like this, I had a good feeling about this gentlemen.  This temple was really large too so I knew there was plenty of history to explain.  I ended up spending two amazing hours with him. He protected me from more greedy monkeys, told me the backstory of each part of the temple, the importance of the river, and all about various customs practiced by Hindus.  Of course, because the information was all totally foreign to me, very little of it made it to my long term memory, but it made the visit really enjoyable especially because I was traveling alone.  Before we parted ways, we exchanged facebook information and I paid him double what we agreed upon (only $5!) and that’s when he said, “let me show you one more thing.”  We wandered through a tiny stone archway into the only elderly home run by Nepal’s government.  That twenty minutes alone was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had abroad and it never would have happened if I hadn’t broken one of my traditional rules and hired a guide.  That being said, not all guides are created equal so trust your gut and agree to the price and expected experience right off the bat!

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I hope you learned a few things for your next temple visit.  Another tip? Go early in the morning or late in the evening to avoid crowds and the blazing sun.  I usually don’t follow this rule (I love sleeping in), but I wish I did!  Have you visited any amazing spiritual sites that I should know about? I’m always adding to my traveling todo list 🙂

The first and fifth photo were taken by the best photographer + best friend – Saleem Ahmed.
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