A Beginner’s Guide to Visiting Buddhist Temples in Sri Lanka

If you’re planning a trip to Sri Lanka soon, your itinerary may well list visits to the country’s Buddhist temples. When you visiting one, there are some unspoken rules, hidden paths, and a code of conduct that everyone needs follow, especially to avoid any embarrassment. My wife and I have been traveling the world for quite some time, and we’ve visited numerous temples in cities around the world. Therefore, we thought a simple reminder and guide would do wonders for visitors to have a better understanding of how to act respectfully on these religious grounds.

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Wear respectable clothing

The first thing we noticed while visiting various temples was how clean peoples’ clothes looked and how they were also appropriate. It’s disrespectful and not allowed to enter a temple wearing a pair of shorts, jeans, hats, a colorful dress, short dress or skirt that hangs above your knees, low-cut blouses or tank tops. Women who do are denied access to enter. Female visitors will be asked to buy a piece of fabric to wrap around the waist in order to cover up bare legs and shoulders. Though you may find your clothing appropriate, locals may not. This happened to my wife even while wearing a proper dress. To enter the temple, she had to buy the fabric for $10.

Remove shoes before entering

Keep in mind that you enter a temple either in bare feet or socks. To make it easier to enter and leave a temple, don’t wear footwear with laces—flip-flops make it easier. You can either leave them with your guide, or place them in your bag if you don’t want to place them at the entrance among those of other visitors. Though temples are sacred, sadly many people aren’t completely respectful when visiting them. In some cases, someone might take your shoes (accidentally) just because they look pretty on their feet. If your footwear looks crappy, then the chances are higher that they’ll be left alone.

Go with the flow

Though free to enter, donations are appreciated. Buy some incense, flowers, a candle, or offerings. The aroma of incense and the flicker of candle light enhance a temple setting. Be nice and don’t do the eye-rolling thing, or complain about donations when asked.

 Be respectful

When you enter a temple, place the palms of your hands together in front of your face and bow your head. Though you may smile at someone, don’t be offended if this sign of friendliness isn’t returned. Respect the monks, statues of Buddha, stupas, trees, and sculptures on the temple grounds. This sign of regard works in your favor among locals.

Silence is golden, and you’ll notice that temples are quiet places. The only thing you may hear is the monks’ chanting. We have a tendency to speak loudly, but it’s best to keep that tone for later. Besides, there are people meditating and praying, and it wouldn’t be appropriate to disturb them. Don’t bring guides inside a temple, either, Not only would this annoy you (because they don’t know how to keep their mouth shut), it might break the silence and make people give you the stink eye.

If you have your smartphone with you to take photos, then make sure it’s on mute, so that you don’t disturb others around you. It’s not respectful to check your messages, or go live on social media channels, either.

Also, don’t point, as this is considered disrespectful too. This applies to monks, locals, statues, stupas, etc.

No photos please

If it’s forbidden to take pictures, then don’t. Despite signs with “NO Pictures,” I’ve seen many tourists ignore them. Though foreign visitors may not speak English, the image of a camera with a crossed line makes the message quite clear. When in doubt about photographing in a temple, all you have to do is ask.

PDA isn’t tolerated

Avoid public displays of affection when visiting a temple. Locals don’t appreciate tourists doing it at such a holy site—there are other moments and places to show affection towards one another. Even though PDS isn’t tolerated, Sri Lankan temples have somehow become the places to go to on a date.

Watch your children

If you’re traveling with children, it’s best to tell them the rules they need to follow before visiting a temple rather than on the spot. Then, they understand what to expect and what you expect of them.

Don’t touch

It’s not allowed to touch the face or other parts of a statue of Buddha. Some temples may allow people to touch the hand or feet to pay respect. If you don’t know, then simply ask someone.

It’s also frowned upon for a woman to touch a monk. If a monk comes your way, step to the side and let him pass by. Though monks in Sri Lanka are open to conversation, it’s polite to ask first and request to sit next them. In some countries, like Thailand, monks enjoy speaking with visitors as it’s also a way for them to practice their English.

Help the needy

Finally, you’ll see many poor or homeless people outside temples. If you have any spare change, feel free to give it to them. You’ll probably receive a blessing from them for it. Now that you have these useful tips on how to behave at a Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka, or elsewhere in Asia, you’ll better appreciate your visit even more so.

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