Etiquette & Taboo
Cultural Considerations: Be aware that your cultural values may differ from those of locals. These may include different concepts of time, personal space, communication, etc., which are not wrong or inferior, just different. Making the extra effort to respect local customs and cultural differences will enhance your interactions with locals during your time in Tibet and contribute to building mutual respect between locals and tourists.
Appropriate attire: Most Tibetans are pretty conservative from our western perspective so it is always polite to wear long pants at all times (guys and girls). If you wear shorts in rural villages or in the Barkhor district in Lhasa you will definitely get more strange looks than normal! Women should wear long pants or skirts. Shirts should not be revealing and bras should be worn. Unfortunately, many tourists ignore these cultural norms and can be seen in towns and villages wearing shorts and revealing summer attire: while it may be comfortable, it is not appropriate especially when visiting monasteries. Don’t be shy to inform other tourists of the proper dress for monasteries; perhaps they are not aware of the cultural considerations and etiquette.
Taking Photographs: Most Tibetans don’t mind having their picture taken, however it is always appropriate to ask for permission first. Some enterprising locals may ask for payment for photos. Don't always assume that giving money to ordinary people to have their picture taken is honorable, (it is often not appropriate) and never take pictures of people who do not want their picture taken. Many Tibetans in rural areas have experienced polaroid pictures so you may have to explain that your digital camera will not deliver images on the spot! If you promise to print and deliver images please follow through with your promise. Pay close attention to where you can and cannot take photos. Photography is prohibited in places such as inside some monasteries, at sky burial sites and around military bases.
Beggars: Giving money to beggars is considered as a form of generous practice and is accepted in Tibetan society. On the road you'll often see pilgrims traveling towards Lhasa or Mt Kailash. They finance their pilgrimage through alms. Giving food or money to these hardy folks is considered an act of merit. However, especially in towns, you'll find quite a few pushy monks and pilgrims who may or may not be legitimate. You'll also find opportunistic kids and some adults in popular tourist sites. Please do not give into their demands. Encouraging begging in this context is not appropriate and leads to dependency. Handing out sweets or pens to kids also leads to a very unhealthy local – tourist interaction where local kids see tourists as a source of free handouts. If you want to make a contribution, find a worthy organisation such as a school or orphanage and donate money where it can be accounted for and used effectively to help those truly in need.
Visiting Monasteries: Most monasteries welcome visitors. The larger urban monasteries will be set up to recieve tourists and entrance fees will likely be in place. During certain times of the year some Eastern Tibetan monasteries may not accept visitors if it is retreat time. Central Tibet has no restrictions on women entering monasteries although certain protector chapels may be off limits to women. Visiting monasteries is often one of the most fascinating experiences of travelers’ time in Tibet. When entering monasteries it is appropriate to wear modest clothing: long pants and shirts or tops that are not revealing. Always remove your hat but you may not always have to remove your shoes. Ask your guide or check with the caretaker monk. It is inappropriate in smoke in or close by a monastery. It is not common to be able to stay overnight in monasteries in Central Tibet. However, in more remote rural places or in Eastern Tibet it is possible to stay a night. Monasteries are not hotels and monks are often going out of their way to put you up for the night. Payment may or may not be requested but it is always appropriate to leave a donation especially if food and drink was provided.
Visiting Homes: It is not unusual to be invited into someone’s home (or tent) for tea or a meal. Tibetan culture is renowned for its hospitality even in the most remote and harshest of places; in fact it can often be hard to refuse hospitality! Families will invite you in, sit you down and ply you with butter tea. It is polite to refuse a number of times but your host will insist on drinking up. Don't be afraid to put your hand over your cup if you really don't want anymore! In remote villages you'll find kids and adults alike very curious and while theft is not common it is advisable to keep your belongings safely tucked away in your backpack. These kinds of interactions are where your guide can be invaluable and will enable you to have fascinting conversations, learning about Tibetan culture and sharing your own culture too. If you do have the opportunity to stay in a local house it is appropriate to offer a small payment for food and lodging. It is always best to establish a price before you stay to avoid any confusion. In the T.A.R. foreigners generally aren't allowed to stay in local residences but in Eastern Tibet (Kham and Amdo) you'll find wonderful homestays tastefully set up for bed and breakfast accommodations.
Communicating with folks at Home: As much as you want to get away from things like computers and enjoy your trip in Tibet, finding ways to stay in touch with family and friends back home are essential. Most cities like Lhasa and Shigatse have internet cafes where you can send and receive emails before leaving for remote areas. You can make phone calls from public telephones (VOI) that cost as little as 10-cents per minute. If you need to be able to receive more frequent phone calls, purchasing a local SIM card for your unlocked phone (or you can buy a basic phone in China for ~ 500 rmb) would be the best option. Surprisingly, cell phones have decent reception in most major towns and even in some surrounding villages of Lhasa. The Chinese cell phone companies (mainly China Telcom and China Mobile) keep installing more cell phone towers. Alternately, you may want to send family members the phone number of your tour guide where you can receive phone calls. Remind callers of information sensorship in China and be careful about what you say or send.