Asia 101: Grand Tour of Asia Etiquette Guide

Conde Nast Traveler
Photographer: Alamy

You’ll hear it said again and again that you haven’t experienced good service until you’ve been to Asia. Close

You’ll hear it said again and again that you haven’t experienced good service until you’ve been to Asia.

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Photographer: Alamy

You’ll hear it said again and again that you haven’t experienced good service until you’ve been to Asia.

Never been to Asia? You’re in for a treat. Welcome to Condé Nast Traveler's Grand Tour of Asia, an update on the old European Grand Tour of decades past, but answering instead to the call of the East. It all started a few months ago, when Editor at Large Hanya Yanagihara spent 51 days traveling through 12 Asian countries (hitting 26 cities and racking up 14,093 flight miles along the way) with the goal of putting together the best insider guide to Asia, whether you have two months to spend or just two weeks. Check out the whole package—you can follow her route from Sri Lanka to Japan, see all the hotels where she stayed (plus the best of the rest in the region), and even drool over signature dishes from each country. But first, there are a few things about etiquette, language, and losing face that you should know before you go.

Service

You'll hear it said again and again that you haven't experienced good service until you've been to Asia. And it's true: As a rule, the hospitality you'll find throughout the region is attentive, generous, and consistent. However, this is a big swath of territory we're talking about, and the style of service you'll encounter varies widely from country to country. In India, for example, don't be alarmed if you find yourself being greeted by everyone from the second sous-chef to the co-head concierge upon check-in, all of them thrusting their business cards upon you. This bombardment is alarming to many American guests (it always is to me, at least), but Indian and Chinese guests expect the fawning. In Thailand, which has a robust hospitality industry, the service is warm and practiced, and in Japan, it's crisp and gracious. Most interesting are the places that are newer to tourism, such as Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan: Here, the service will be rougher-hewn and tentative, though no less sincere. As a guest, your only job is to recalibrate your pace with each country…and know that you're in good hands.

Language

As always, a few simple phrases—hello, good-bye, excuse me, thank you—go a long way. (We've included language primers for each country in the interactive Grand Tour of Asia map.) You'll encounter the biggest population of fluent English speakers in India and Singapore (English is one of the national languages of both countries), Bali, Thailand, and, to some extent, Japan (although English is compulsory in schools, many Japanese will be too shy to use it). And Asia is not Europe: You'll get no scoffs or sighs if you mispronounce anything (no matter how spectacularly) in their native tongues. Also, people will in general go out of their way to help you find someone who does speak English if you're truly stuck: I can't count how many times I've been lost on a street somewhere, trying to communicate, only to have some well-meaning person run away and return with the one English speaker in the neighborhood to try and answer my question.

Manners

I remain convinced this is one of the major reasons why more people don't go visit, say, Japan: They're worried about that country's baroque code of etiquette and of falling afoul of it. And guess what: You will! But on the other hand? They'll forgive you for it. The Japanese have one of the most complicated systems of manners in the world—there are rules for everything from going to the bathroom to tying a robe—and they understand it's near-impossible for outsiders to master.

There are a few blanket rules you'll want to follow throughout the region, especially in temples: Take off your shoes before entering. Once inside, don't speak too loudly, and don't take pictures unless your guide says it's okay. If you're a woman, it's a good idea to keep a lightweight shawl on hand—in Bhutan, for example, you'll need to cover your shoulders.

Beyond that, use your common sense. And if you're really faux pas–phobic, you're in luck: We've covered the ABCs of etiquette for many of the countries on your Grand Tour (from what to say—and what not to say—to how to bow, eat, and greet) in our Etiquette 101 series.

Losing face

When does yes sometimes mean no? When you're in Asia and asking for something—an upgrade, a special dish, a favor, a tuk-tuk—and are being told yes, yes, of course you can have whatever it is you want…even as it becomes increasingly clear that the real answer is, "No way in hell."

Before you overreact, take a breath. They're not trying to be mendacious; they're just embarrassed that they can't get you what you want and don't want to lose face in front of you. So if you suspect you're being told one thing (but hearing another), try and step aside, away from onlookers, and quietly offer some reassurance: Explain that it's not the end of the world if whatever you want can't be made to happen, but you just need to know the reality of the situation. You'll likely get the real answer that way.

Bargaining

It's not as cheap as it was 30 or even ten years ago, but airfare aside, much of Asia still represents much better value for your money than Europe (with, of course, some notable exceptions). You can haggle—enthusiastically, good-spiritedly, politely—in almost every outdoor market you'll encounter on this trip (with the exception of Japan). In India, deals can be struck sotto voce in many stores. Your guides will give you tips on when bargaining is appropriate and when it's not. Just remember it never is in Japan, where prices are set everywhere and where trying to work a deal will result in great embarrassment for everyone. (Check out our etiquette guides for more tips.)

More from Condé Nast Traveler:

The Top Spas in the World

The Most Beautiful Places in Asia

41 Dream Villas Around the World

Gorgeous Hidden Beaches

The Best Golf Resorts

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