Top 10 things that a foreigner should know when visiting Tibet
1.) Pointing your feet
Never point your feet towards a monk or a Buddha ( or even a picture of any holy Buddha). If you are sleeping in a Tibetan home, make sure you identify any sacred paintings, statues, or pictures of monks and avoid pointing your feet in their direction. If you happen to sleep in a room full of Buddhist idols, sleep with your head towards the idols and with your feet away from them. Feet are considered a dirty or unholy part of the body and it is disrespectful to point the bottoms of your feet at people – even if it is not on purpose. If you are invited into a Tibetan tent or home, sit cross-legged and try not to point your feet at anyone in the room or at any pictures that hold a religious significance.
Also- Do not point your feet towards someone’s head or walk over people when sitting down. It is better to walk around them (or for that matter food, tea, or anything else on the ground) because walking OVER someone or something is extremely disrespectful. In addition, remember that anything associated with your feet (socks, shoes, slippers) needs to be kept low and on the ground. Please do not hang your wet socks from a stove after a day of trekking and always keep your shoes on the ground.
2.) Avoid touching heads
Never touch a stranger’s head or hat. Just as the feet are considered dirty, the head is considered a holy part of the human body. So if you see a cute Tibetan kid, please avoid rubbing their head. It is especially important to show respect to those older than you and make sure you bow before them and try to lower your posture so that you are not looming over their head.
3.) Watch your behind!
Every part of the Tibetan home has its own history and tradition. For instance, the stove is considered to have its own special spirits that rule over the hearth and the fire. In light of this belief, never put your bottom on a table or stove. These are not places to sit. As with most cultures, the behind is considered an unholy part of the body and you do not want to place it on objects that have sacred significance. When you sit, do not sit with your butt pointed at someone.
4.) Public Displays of Affection
Tibetans are very shy about talking about anything sexual or romantic in public. In fact, even in these modern times of the internet, Tibetan girls usually do not walk next to or near Tibetan boys. Genders tend to stay separated and do not appear exclusively in public together. Knowing that Tibetans are very modest and sensitive about public displays of affection, if you are a couple traveling in Tibet, please refrain from kissing or hugging romantically in public. This is especially true while in a Tibetan village or in a monastery or in front of relatives or parents. Of course, parents can kiss and hug kids and that is socially acceptable.
5.) Treat the waters kindly
Never pee in a local water source or wash dishes or clothes directly in a river or in a lake because someone will need to drink that water downstream. Tibetans also believe in water spirits called “naga” and they are particularly sensitive about treating the water well so as not to offend these beings.
6.) Always face people of high ranks
It is Tibetan custom that when you are saying goodbye or leaving the room with a highly ranked lama that as you walk out of the room, you remain in eye contact with that person and do not turn your back on them. When you walk out of the room, back out of the room and do not turn your back to the the lama or teacher. You must back out the room with your front continually facing the lama. Never put your back towards an older person or a high monk as this is considered to be a social faux pas and a sign of disrespect.
7.) Please be modest
Consider that many Tibetan men – and especially monks- have never met or seen a western women. Also consider the fact that most monks have taken a vow of celibacy and purity in their devotion to Buddha. Therefore, women and men both need to wear long pants in monastery. Women should not wear tops with spaghetti straps or revealing clothing like mini skirts or tights. In general, dress respectively and modestly in Tibetan areas as this is the local custom.
8.) Respect life
Never kill any animals in holy lakes or mountains. This includes bugs and mosquitoes. Tibetans consider all life sacred and it is a great sin in Tibetan culture to take even the smallest life. After all, based on the teachings of reincarnation, Tibetans believe that any given animal could actually be the reincarnation of your great grandmother who has already passed away.
9.)Point with an open hand
Do not point with one finger towards a person or a Thangka painting. This is considered rude. Instead use your whole hand (with all your fingers outstretched in an open palm) to point. Many Tibetan nomads point with their lips so if you are asking for directions and you see them point somewhere with their lips that is the direction they want you to go.
10.) Eat only out of individual bowls
Tibetan chefs do not taste food out of the large pot they are using to cook for a group. Do not eat from the communal pot because if you do sot you may share diseases. Unless you are clearly invited to do so, do not use your chopsticks to reach into a communal pot. Instead focus on eating the food that is served to you in your own individual bowl or plate.
Hopefully these little tips will help you have an excellent experience with your Tibetan hosts!