No matter how well-travelled you are it is still possible to make mistakes when you are in a new culture or even one you are fairly familiar with. What to you may seem a perfectly innocent remark or action can cause offense or even outrage!

Here are four tales from travellers who have fallen foul of cultural faux-pas.

Thailand: Even the dogs stood still!

Can you imagine what it would be like to be happily wandering through a market, munching on a tasty snack when everyone around you suddenly stops still and stares at you! Quite surreal and disconcerting I should imagine. This is exactly what happened to Dani and Jess from Globetrotter Girls.

Cultural cock-ups, Jess, Globetrotter Girls“There is nothing we love more in Thailand than walking through the night markets. Dani and I can stroll along for hours sampling vegetarian street food for under $1 a plate. We arrived quite early once to the Sunday Night Walking Market in Chiang Mai, and were almost squealing in delight sampling a delicious potato-chip-on-a-stick concoction when we suddenly realized how quiet it had gotten for a bustling night market. Looking up from the stick, tongue still wrapped around the salty edge of a crisp potato chip, I saw thousands of tolerant Thai eyes warning us to be silent as they all stood still like statues.

Music played over speakers placed on every street throughout the entire 10 block radius of the market. We quickly froze and the color of beet red rose up our necks into our cheeks and we stood unsure of what was happening, with only a faint sense that we weren’t in danger or suddenly part of a video game.

It turns out that at exactly 6pm, every single market visitor and vendor, seemingly even stray dogs, stop to pay tribute to the king as the national anthem plays over the loud speakers. We quickly learned that the Thai national anthem is played everyday at 8am and 6pm in public spaces and on television and luckily never made that mistake again.”

Read more about Dani and Jess’ adventures in Thailand (and many other great destinations) on Globetrotter Girls.

London: An Indian Wedding

Cultural cock-ups, Ana aka Mrs OAna, who writes the luxury blog, Mrs O Around the World, is originally from Portugal but now lives in England has fallen fowl closer to home.

“On one of my first visits to London, I was invited to an Indian wedding. When asked (by the hotel waiter) if I wanted some wine, I obviously said yes – I got a lot of stares but didn’t think much of it. Later I found out that I was the only person drinking at the event. I felt so embarrassed – but I truly didn’t know that Hindus did not drink!

Read about another event, which Ana recently attended, where wine was definitely on the menu –  My date with Three Wine Men.

Turkey: A walk along Abraham’s Path

Matthew Teller, Cultural cock-upsThere is a path that runs from the putative birthplace of Abraham from southern Turkey, through Syria, Jordan and on to Palestine ending in Hebron where Abraham’s tomb is. Matthew Teller, a well-respected and knowledgeable journalist, came unstuck while walking part of this path with a small group, as they passed through a little village in the far south-east of Turkey.

The village was expecting them and had erected a tent where they gathered. Greetings were exchanged and the walkers were given a light snack including an apple. Matthew, not wanting the apple, asked some nearby children if they would like it. One kid nodded and Matthew threw him the apple. “I just tossed the apple to him. He caught it and suddenly the people started shouting and screaming ‘What are you doing?’ ‘How can you do that?’ ” Although this was in Arabic so he couldn’t understand exactly what they were saying he understood well enough the sentiment of their words. “There was a whole big kerfuffle. I found out that you only throw food to animals. By throwing food, I was calling the village children a pig or a dog or a goat. I was casting aspersions on the children of this village. I didn’t know. I genuinely didn’t know. I’d been travelling in the region for quite a while and I hadn’t come across that one before.” Profuse apologies followed but it took the villagers a while to calm down and Matthew, with his group, slinked away embarrassed and feeling like a bumbling foreigner.

Read more of Matthew’s fascinating tales from the Middle East on his blog Quite Alone.

Thailand: Be careful where you tread!

Cultural cock-ups, Laurel RobbinsWe started in Thailand so let’s head back there with Laurel for my final tale of cultural cock-ups!

“I was riding on a crowded bus in Thailand, fiddling with my change purse.  I accidentally dropped a coin and immediately reached out my foot to stop it.  Normally Thai people are incredibly polite and friendly, but all of a sudden, everyone was glaring at me – clearly I had done something wrong.  I spoke a little bit of Thai and asked the women next to me what I had done wrong.  It turns out that by stepping on the coin, I had stepped on the revered King’s head (the highest part of the body) with my feet (the lowest part of the body).  Inadvertently I had insulted the beloved King in the worst possible way in Thai culture.  I apologized profusely and explained that I hadn’t meant to insult the King, but was shamed off of the bus, three stops later. I learned that sometimes even a simple, seemingly harmless gesture can be a faux-pas.”

Laurel writes the superb blog Monkeys and Mountains

Thanks to Jess, Ana, Matthew and Laurel for sharing their stories. If you have a similar tale I’d love to hear it! You can email me at travelwithkat@rocketmail.com and the best will be featured in another post about cultural cock-ups and blogger blunders. I’ve certainly made a few  myself while travelling and recently wrote about one of them in my post ‘Me, the Raj of Thanjavur and a bowl of soup’.

Pin It on Pinterest

More in Blogger blunders, Cultural cock-ups, Culture, London, Topics, Travel tips
Camel riding with the Bedouins - Egypt travel safety
Egypt… is it safe to travel there?

The political crisis in the Middle East over the last few years has severely impacted on the tourism industry throughout...

Close