Etiquette & Taboo in Tibet
Cultural Considerations: Be aware that your beliefs and values may differ from local values. 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. This will build mutual respect between locals and tourists.
Appropriate attire: Most Tibetans are pretty conservative from our Western perspective so it is always polite to dress in 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 revealed and bras should not be exposed.
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 unaware of cultural considerations and etiquette.
Taking Photographs: Most Tibetans don’t mind having their picture photographed, however, it is always appropriate to ask for permission first. Some enterprising locals may charge 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 snap pictures of people who do not want their picture snapped.)
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 inside some monasteries, sky burial sites, and around military bases.
Beggars: Giving money to beggars is regarded as generous behavior 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 worthwhile. 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 adults at popular tourist sites. Please do not give in to their demands. The promotion of begging in this context is inappropriate 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 contribute, find a worthy organization such as a school or orphanage. 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 receive tourists and entrance fees will likely be in place. During certain times of the year, some Eastern Tibetan monasteries may not accept visitors during 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 for travelers in Tibet. When entering monasteries it is appropriate to wear modest clothing: long pants and shirts or tops that 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 to smoke in or near a monastery. It is not common to stay overnight in monasteries in Central Tibet.
However, in more remote rural places or in Eastern Tibet it is possible to stay for a night. Monasteries are not hotels and monks often go out of their way to host you for a night. Payment may or may not be requested but it is always appropriate to leave a donation especially if food and drink are 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 challenging to refuse hospitality! Families will invite you in, sit you down, and serve you butter tea. It is polite to refuse a number of times but your host will insist on drinking it up. Don’t be afraid to put your hand over your cup if you really don’t want it anymore!
Remote villages have kids and adults alike very curious. 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. This will enable you to have fascinating conversations, learn about Tibetan culture and share your own culture.
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 advisable to establish a price before your stay to avoid 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.
Shopping Tips: Tibet has a strong bargaining culture. If you plan to shop alone, bargain. The most popular place to purchase in Lhasa is the Bharkor Market for Tibetan paintings, handcrafts, jewelry, ritual objects, etc. Support the local economy by eating and shopping in local restaurants and stores.
Buy handicrafts and artwork directly from artisans when possible, but do not buy wildlife or other endangered flora and fauna products. Most market stalls in Bharkor Square are Tibetan-owned. Many of the larger shops that sell Thanka, carpets, and jewelry may not be Tibetan owned although they will have some Tibetan employees. If street vendors hassle you, there is no need to be angry or aggressive. A firm ‘NO’ will indicate that you are not interested.
Communicating with folks at home: As much as you want to get away from computers and enjoy your trip to Tibet, finding ways to stay in touch with family and friends back home is 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 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 cheapest option. Cell phones have decent reception in most major towns and even in some surrounding villages of Lhasa. Chinese cell phone companies (mainly China Telcom and China Mobile) keep installing more cell phone towers.
Alternatively, you may want to send family members the phone number of your tour guide so they can reach you. Remind callers of information security in China and be careful about what they say or send.