Etiquette and Taboos When Travelling in Tibet

In any country you may visit, there are certain forms of etiquette that should be followed according to the customs and religious beliefs of the local people. Tibet has a very unique culture, and the people are friendly and easy to get along with. Tibetan culture has many different aspects from any other culture in the world, and visitors should always respect their religion and customs, and always be polite.

Etiquette and TaboosEtiquette and Taboos

Tibetan is a special nationality, do respect the local customs there or you might have trouble with local people. Tibetan people believe in Buddhism, they have a lot of customs related to their religious belief. Visitors should respect local customs and the traditions while traveling in Tibet. To ensure that you do not offend anyone by mistake while on your Tibet tour, you should get to know the etiquettes and taboos before you leave for the land of snows.

Etiquette and Taboos When Dining in a Tibetan Restaurant

Tibetans have a very different set of etiquettes when eating out to most other countries. It is expected that people eat and drink quietly, and not to eat too much in one bite. Also, eating with your mouth open is considered offensive, and when eating with your hand – for something like traditional tsampa – only the right hand should be used. Normally, Tibetan food will be served with bamboo chopsticks, instead of normal, western cutlery, and it is an art to be able to eat all the food just with chopsticks. One should always wait until all the guests are served before you start eating, and if there is a host who is paying or has invited you, wait until they have started first. Fish is not eaten in Tibet for religious reason.

Dining in a Tibetan RestaurantDining in a Tibetan Restaurant

When Visiting Tibetan Family

As hosts, Tibetans will normally allow their guests to proceed first, whether it is walking or talking. If you get the chance to spend some time with a Tibetan family, let the oldest go first when walking together out of respect. And it is taboo to touch the heads of the children with your hands. If you are invited into the Tibetan’s home, make sure that you do not step on the threshold as you enter, and one should always add the word “la” after someone’s name as a mark of respect.

Visiting Tibetan FamilyVisiting Tibetan Family

It is customary to take some small gift with you when you visit a Tibetan home, and it is traditional to include some butter tea and barley beer in the basket of gifts. When you present the tea and beer, the family will normally give you something in return or will leave a part of your own gift for you. This does not mean they do not like your gifts it is merely a custom. When presenting gifts or hada, use both hands and bend slightly with the gift raised above your head to give it.

When sitting with a Tibetan family, your feet should be facing away from the group of people, so sitting cross-legged or with your feet facing back is customary. It is considered rude to point the soles of the feet at people. Guests do not pour their own drinks either. The lady of the house will always pour the drinks, and the host will hand it to you with two hands. You should accept it in the same manner. A polite guest will never completely empty their bowl of tea, as this signifies a lasting abundance, and the host will always add more tea to ensure your bowl is never empty.

When offering food, Tibetans will normally keep serving you with food until there is nothing left, as a way of showing their generosity. You need to be prepared to politely refuse more once you have had enough, as Tibetans will keep offering until forced not to. To politely refuse more, one should press the palms together and bow to the host, as if praying for their forgiveness.

When Touring Tibetan Monastery

When entering a Tibetan monastery or temple, all visitors should remove their hats, and their arms and legs should be covered. While the monks may remove their shoes or sandals, tourists are not really expected to. It is considered disrespectful to enter a shrine wearing shorts and short skirts, or with no shirt on, so make sure you are wearing the appropriate attire. Speak softly while inside, and do not touch anything, as many of the objects inside the temples are revered and sacred. Taking photographs inside the temple is generally not allowed, although some do allow it in certain parts of the monastery for a small fee, as long as you do not use a flash, and taking photos outside is permitted. Again, the soles of the feet should not be facing any people, altars, or sacred objects when sitting, and one should never walk in front of a person who is at prayer.

Touring Tibetan MonasteryTouring Tibetan Monastery

If the monks are in prayer or chanting inside the temple, it is permitted to enter, as long as you stay at the rear and remain quiet. Walking around the monasteries and temples should always be done in a clockwise direction, except in Bon temples, where it is done counter-clockwise. If you buy butter or oil for the lamps, as the local people do, it is important that you spoon it into the lamp yourself. And while it is ok to wander around the monastery, and you may enter any room that is not locked, rooms on the roofs of the monasteries are normally for retreat, and should be left alone.

Many of the small, religious altars have donation boxes, although some do not. In Tibetan Buddhism, people praying at the altars normally make a cash donation and an offering of yak butter or such first, and you are welcome to follow their lead when bowing or praying at religious shrines if your heart is really in it. Where donations are concerned, many larger monasteries have donation boxes inside the main doors, and donations are voluntary, so you can feel free to give a little if you wish. If there is no donation box, you can just leave the donation on the floor.

When Buying Souvenirs in Bazaar in Tibet

Barkhor Street is one of the largest bazaars in Tibet and a great place to buy things to take back as souvenirs. There are many things you can buy there, as well as in other bazaars and markets around the region, especially the sought-after Tibetan knives. While they are not allowed on the plane home, you can send it by parcel post before you leave Tibet.

Buying Souvenirs in Bazaar in TibetBuying souvenirs in Bazaar in Tibet

As with any market or bazaar, it is normal to haggle a little over the price. Guaranteed, the price they are asking is a lot more than they expect to get for the item, and it is normal to start the bargaining by offering around half of their asking price, and working from there. Your guide can often help in this, and once you have reached an impasse as to the vendor’s lowest price, you can be sure they will not go lower. Bargaining can also be fun, and a great way to interact with the locals, as they enjoy the thrill of the selling as much as the actual sale.

When Talking with Local Tibetans

With both Tibetans and Chinese, it is important to ensure no one loses face during the interaction. One should not make another look bad, feel wrong, or force another to back down on a topic. It is widely believed that negotiations and patience can achieve more than arguments and confrontation. 

Making friends with local TibetansMaking friends with local Tibetans

In general, most Tibetans welcome tourists to the region, and are very accommodating and friendly. many Tibetan children are also fascinated with western tourists and love to talk with them and follow them around. Unlike most third-world countries, this is just their curiosity, and they are not planning to steal anything from you. However, make sure you ask permission before taking someone’s photo, as many still believe that a part of them is captured inside the picture, and remains behind after they die, preventing them from moving on. Those who will allow you to take their picture, however, will often expect a token of cash or a gift in return.

One should not be alarmed if a Tibetan man pokes out his tongue at you when meeting you for the first time, it is a traditional greeting. Ancient beliefs hold that a black tongue is a sign that the person intends to poison you, and those devils have green tongues. By sticking out his tongue, the person is proving he is neither a devil, nor does he have any ill intent towards you. So avoid this greeting after eating licorice or sucking on green candies. Other greeting gestures include touching foreheads and opening their hands at waist level. The latter form dates back to a time when it was important to show a new person you meet that you were not concealing any weapons. Tibetans do not normally hug when meeting after a long time, rather they bow as if in prayer and exchange murmured words of greeting. In Tibet, public displays of affection are taboo, so bear this in mind if traveling with a partner or loved ones.

Unique Religion and Topography in Tibet and Tibetan’s Daily Life

Tibet has its own unique religion, known as Tibetan Buddhism, which is a form of Buddhism adapted from the original Buddhist teachings that were brought to the region from India in the 7th century, and the original, shamanistic Bon religion of Tibet. Buddhism is an important part of the Tibetan people’s daily lives, and is heavily intertwined with Tibetan culture and customs. Much of their daily life is spent with the teachings of the Buddha in mind, and often orders what they do and how they do things. It has shaped their whole way of life, including art, literature, and music.

Holy Mount KailashHoly Mount Kailash

The main aim of Tibetan Buddhism is to practice compassion to all people and animals, and to stop their suffering. Tibetan Buddhism is well known for its elaborate rituals and prayers, and the lamas play a unique role as highly respected members of Tibetan society and are considered to be teachers and guides. Many families have at least one member who is either a monk or a nun, and this is important to them.

Tibetans believe that the mountains, lakes, and rivers are the homes of the various gods of Tibetan Buddhism, and are thus held as sacred sites. There are thousands of these sacred sites all over Tibet, and it is important to know the traditional customs and taboos that surround them. For example, the most revered mountain in Tibet is holy Mount Kailash, which lies in the far west of Tibet, not far from the border with Nepal. The mountain is considered sacred in four different religions: Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, and Bon. It is also believed to be the center of the world and the home of the Buddha Demchok by Tibetan Buddhists, and it is forbidden to climb the mountain to summit the peak. Instead, Tibetans regularly perform the kora around the base of the mountain, as a way of reverence towards it, and to attain merits in their path towards enlightenment.

Similarly, the nearby Lake Manasarovar, as well as lakes Yamdroktso and Namtso, are highly revered in Tibetan Buddhism, and those three for the “ Great Three Holy Lakes” Tibetans believe that the land is sacred and that it gives them life, and that to harm the land, or cause it disrespect comes with a terrible price. Buddha taught that nature gives tremendous support on the path to liberation and that when people care for the world and do what is best for the land, they also benefit themselves.

Brief Summary of Tibetan Etiquette and Taboos

1. Do not try to talk with some lamas about their religions and political position.
2. Walk clockwise around Barkhor Street, especially during the peak hours of pilgrimage from 9 am to 6 pm.
3. Walking wise around the Kora, the praying Pagoda, like Barkhor Street, the Monastery Kora.
4. Do not take photos inside the Chapel of Monastery unless you get the permission.
5. Also, ask permission before taking pictures of Tibetan people, Sometimes you need to pay them money or give them a gift like a piece of chocolate.
6. Monasteries are the holy place in Tibet, Smoking is not allowed. And please dress properly. Not in shorts.
7. If you have a chance to visit a local family, let the oldest people go first when you walk together with them. Do not touch the heads of children with your hands. If the family invites you to have dinner with Tibetans, when the host hands you something, for example, a cup of wine holds it with both hands to show your respect. Do not drink wine fast, otherwise, the host will give you more wine until you are drunk.
8. Do not buy anything made from wild animals' skin or bones, as it may cause problems when you try to leave the area.
9. Bring some small gifts like pens, pencils or candies, the Tibetan Children like them very much.

Master Catherine Jigme

About the Author - Master Catherine Jigme

With exceptional passion and outstanding leadership, Mrs. Catherine has dedicated herself to Tibet inbound tourism and China tour for 15 years. As one of the handful females who see great potential of Chinese inbound tourism, Catherine has made great contribution to promoting Tibet tourism and enhancing the employment of Tibetans and prosperity of local Tibetan community.

Over the years, she travelled overseas with Tibet Tourism Bureau many times to promote Tibet tourism. Currently, Catherine works as the marketing director of Tibet Vista, an opinion leader behind the whole team of Tibet Vista.

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