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Cambodia is home to one of the most visited religious sites in the world: Angkor Wat. Built in the early 12th Century, it was first a Hindu temple and then became a Buddhist one. The awe-inspiring and incredibly well preserved national symbol (it’s on the country’s flag) is an archaeological and spiritual wonder that is now open to the public. But the busloads are not giving it the same respect as its original visitors.

From Buddhist temples in Cambodia and Hindu sights in India to churches in Italy and mosques in Morocco, you could tour the world visiting places of worship and find some of the best art, history, archaeology and music of all time. Depending on which religious site you visit, though, the proper etiquette can vary.

There are some general rules, of course, that most of these major houses of worship all share. You should always turn off cell phones, mp3 players and other electronic devices before entering religious spaces. If cameras are permitted, remember to turn off the flash, which can actually damage old art. You should also refrain from loud or inappropriate conversation.

Jana Melpolder, editor of the spiritual website Beliefnet.com, points out that timing is another important consideration. “A loud tourist group that visits a place during a ceremony can be offensive, so be sure to study when a more appropriate time for a visit would be,” Melpolder said.

To further help you along your spiritual (or educational) journey, we have put together a list of do’s and don’ts for visiting the “big five” in places of worship traditionally open to the public: Buddhist temples, Hindu temples, mosques, churches and synagogues.

Buddhist temples

  • Take off your shoes and hats before entering. There will almost always be a sign outside of the temple pointing visitors to the designated area for shoes and hats. The many pairs of visitors’ shoes clumped together will tip you off.
  • Cover your shoulders. Since it gets very hot in Asian countries during the summer, many tourists forget to cover their shoulders and legs before entering places of worship. One way to plan ahead is to dress in layers and bring a scarf or shawl along, no matter where you go. When visiting temples, capri pants and long skirts are preferable to shorts, although men can sometimes get away with wearing long shorts.
  • Stand when monks or nuns enter. Just as you would stand to greet someone in any formal setting, try to remember to stand up when a monk or nun enters the room.
  • Ask permission before taking pictures. Make sure it’s okay to use your camera, especially when taking photographs inside a temple with statues. If you do take pictures, it’s always nice to leave a donation.
  • Use your right hand. When handing a donation (or anything else) to a person, use your right hand.
  • Don’t point. Instead, if you wish to point something out to a fellow traveller, use your right hand, open, with the palm facing the ceiling.
  • Don’t touch Buddha statues. Remind your kids before entering not to touch or climb on top of the Buddha statues.
  • Don’t touch Buddhist monks, especially if you are female. Women are not supposed to hand items to monks, either. Men who need to hand something to a monk, or take something from a monk, should try to use their right hands.
  • Don’t turn your back to Buddha statues. You may notice people walking backward away from the Buddha. Follow their lead, turning around only when you are a few feet away from the statue.

Hindu temples

  • Take off your shoes before entering. There will almost always be a sign outside of the temple pointing visitors to the designated area for shoes. The many pairs of visitors’ shoes clumped together will tip you off.
  • Cover your shoulders and legs. Bring a shawl or sweater, and try to wear long pants or long skirts. Wearing tank tops or shorts in a Hindu temple is seen as disrespectful.
  • Ask permission before taking pictures. Make sure it’s okay to use your camera, especially when taking photographs inside the temple of statues or images of Hindu deities. If you do take pictures, it’s always nice to leave a donation.
  • Use your right hand. When handing a donation (or anything else) to a person, use your right hand.
  • Try not to wear leather inside. While this is not a steadfast rule, it is polite to remove leather shoes, belts, jackets, et cetera upon entering a Hindu temple.

Muslim mosques

  • Take off your shoes, hats and sunglasses. There will usually be a rack for shoes outside of the entrance to the mosque. In addition to removing your shoes, take off your hat and sunglasses.
  • Cover your head and hair. Bring a scarf or shawl, which you can use to cover your head upon entering a mosque.
  • Dress conservatively. Wear long sleeves and long pants. If it’s a hot day out, dress in layers, and bring along a long-sleeved, solid-colour sweater – in addition to a scarf or shawl. For women, ankle-length pants, skirts or dresses are often required. Avoid tight clothing or shirts with slogans or advertisements.
  • Pay attention to signs at the entrance. Some mosques will have separate designated entrances for men and for women. If you miss the sign, but notice that men and women are gathering on different sides, enter accordingly.
  • Don’t take pictures during prayer. Tourists are generally allowed to use cameras inside mosques, but they should refrain from doing so during prayer times.

Christian churches

  • Take off shoes in some churches. In Ethiopia, for instance, visitors are expected to take their shoes off. In American churches, though, that’s not usually the case.
  • Cover your shoulders and knees. It’s polite to avoid wearing a sleeveless top or short shorts. Bring a sweater or shawl to cover up, and wear knee-length pants and skirts.
  • Ask permission before taking pictures. Some Italian churches don’t allow cameras at all, so check first before taking pictures or filming.
  • Don’t cross your legs. When seated in Greek Orthodox churches, refrain from crossing your legs.

Jewish synagogues

  • Wear a yarmulke if you’re a man. Even young boys should cover their heads with this small, circular cap. Yarmulkes to borrow are usually available at the entrance to the synagogue.

  • Dress conservatively. Women usually wear dresses to synagogue while men usually wear suits. If you are in a touristy area, though, you can often get away with conservative business casual. Women and men should wear long sleeves.

  • Pay attention to entrances and seating. Some synagogues will have separate entrances and designated areas for men and women. If you notice that men and women are gathering on different sides, enter accordingly. Orthodox synagogues separate their seating by gender, so make sure to sit in the correct section if visiting during a service.

  • Don’t use cameras during Shabbat. Don’t take pictures on Friday nights or Saturday mornings, during the Shabbat (Sabbath day).

  • Don’t turn your back to the Western Wall. If you visit the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, you may notice people walking backward away before turning around. When you are ready to leave, remember not to turn your back to the wall.

Travelwise is a BBC Travel column that goes behind the travel stories to answer common questions, satisfy uncommon curiosities and uncover some of the mystery surrounding travel. If you have a burning travel question, contact Travelwise.

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