From bare shoulders to uncovered knees, the realm of temple exploration is one fraught with strife, frustration and disparity for the obedient traveller.
What to wear at religious sites is something of an incendiary issue amongst travellers in Southeast Asia: some defy dress codes in favour of cool comfort, whilst others wrap well up, sweltering in the name of cultural sensitivity.
For the latter, seeing the former can be a source of great angst. As their cardigans and floor-length skirts grow soggy with perspiration, fellow visitors in strappy tops and thigh-high shorts suffer no such fate.
But how does this disparity come about, and why is the issue up for debate? Both are very valid questions. From Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon to Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace, most places of religious or political importance in the region have clear regulations as to what is deemed appropriate clothing.
Buying an entrance ticket usually means passing a parade of signs and instructions designating which body parts must be covered, and the appropriate amount of skin to be displayed.
The problems arise, though, when it comes to enforcement. Certain locations – such as the wats of Vientiane – will deny wanderers entry unless they rent a shawl or similar such wrap with which to cover the offending articles.
Others, though, seem wont to apply their own regulations with anything close to consistency, if at all. Whilst the cathedrals of Florence will turn away travellers – even after 90 minutes of queuing – whose lower-halves are too exposed, there’s no such guarantee in Asia’s Southeastern states.
Here, then, the question arises: just because a rule is not enforced, does it mean it should not be observed?
Just a single morning spent exploring the stunning jungle ruins at Angkor, Cambodia, will reveal an array of outfits, many of which flout advice to dress respectfully.
It’s a fair argument, of course, that, with so many already doing it, what’s one more traveller in a tank top and swimming shorts? Especially when the mercury has risen to 40°C.
The correlative problem, though, is not just one of cultural insensitivity: it’s that travellers are taught they are superior.
Whilst most locals move quietly through the grounds and gardens of wats, temples and palaces, dressed simply and sensitively, intrigued visitors frequently do quite the opposite.
One might query why not more is said to those who ignore the regulations (though a counter-argument runs that the tuts and stares should be enough). Equally, though, it’s fair to think that nothing need be said: travellers should take it upon themselves to accord with, and respect the values of, the culture in which they are guests.
Of course, conservatism is not always a popular approach, and, in any case, many might feel that far greater are the issues of environmental degradation and damage to these impressive sites.
That, though, is precisely the point: whilst most would be quick to admonish a littering tourist, few would feel comfortable correcting the clothes they’ve chosen to wear. In this way, subtly, gradually, the cultural integrity of several Southeast Asian sites is being degraded in just the same way.
Mountains, molehills? Perhaps – but, when dressing respectfully becomes an optional extra, the world takes one step closer to becoming a giant tourist trap, where the culture that suits is the culture that sticks.
Next time you take a tuktuk or a push bike to a temple or pagoda, muse on the value of respecting your surroundings. If it seems insignificant to sheath your shoulders and cover your knees, why not do it? It’s a small step for you, but a better future for sensitive travel.
WORDS & IMAGES BY CHRIS ROWLANDS