Buddhist monk taking a photograph with a DSLR camera

Taking Photos in Thailand [How To Be Courteous]

by
Kevin Landwer-Johan
  • Can you photograph monks in Thailand?
  • What is temple etiquette in Thailand?
  • Is it okay to photograph Buddha statues in temples?
  • Are there restrictions on photographing in shopping malls in Bangkok?

Are you interested in photographing temples in Bangkok? Or photographing hill tribes people in Chiang Mai? Being aware of the culture you are visiting and how to behave well can help you take better photos in Thailand.

Taking pictures in Thailand it’s good to follow proper local conventions. Thai people are generally very polite. I’ve found following this lead you will most often get better photographs.

Tricycle Taxi during a Chiang Mai Photo Workshop

In this article I will share photography tips on how to be a photographer with good manners in Thailand.

#1 : Read a Good Travel Book

Read a good book before you travel. Don’t buy a postcard type book, you will see all that when you are here. Pick a book which teaches you some of the unseen subtlety of the people and their culture. You will find this far more beneficial. “Thailand – Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture” is a great companion to any visitor who comes to Thailand.

Thai people are very good-natured and will not tell a foreigner when they are behaving or dressed inappropriately. Doing so would mean you lose face. In Thai culture it is not appropriate to cause anyone to lose face.

A published book will often provide you with better information than reading a few travel blogs. I so often read bad information written by well-meaning travelers on their blogs. Reading a blog written by a local or an expat who’s lived in Thailand a long time is also valuable.

Tricycle taxi rider greeting

#2 : Learn Some Thai Language Phrases

Learn at least a few basic phrases in Thai, or the language of wherever you are traveling. This will help immensely. When you want to take someone’s photo asking them in their own language will usually bring a smile to their face. Even if your pronunciation is not perfect, people will appreciate your effort. The photographs you make will be better because you’ve tried.

Jack and Masu Outdoor Studio

#3 : Are You Allowed to Take Photos of Monks?

Probably the one question people who take our photography workshops in Chiang Mai ask is: “Is it okay to photograph monks?”

Yes, is the short answer. Yes, and be respectful and polite is the slightly longer answer. Read more later in this article regarding correct etiquette for photographing monks in Thailand.

tourists photographing monks in Chiang Mai

#4 : Are You Allowed to Take Photos at Temples?

Yes. How could you come to Thailand and not photograph the amazing Buddhist temples? Temples are everywhere and an intrinsic part of Thai culture. There are deep traditions associated with them and it pays to be aware of these when you are taking photos.

  • Know and respect Thailand temple dress code
  • Don’t turn you back to the Buddha (no selfies with the Buddha)
  • Don’t climb on anything to get a better vantage point
  • Don’t stand inside the temple when monks are seated
  • Don’t step on the temple threshold

I will go into more detail about correct etiquette for temple photography in Thailand later in this article.

Chiang Mai Photo Workshops Doi Suthep Temple Prayers

#5 : Photographing People in the Street in Thailand

Thai people, especially in the north, are often comfortable for you to photograph them. Approach them with a polite smile, greet them with a ‘sawatdii krup/ka’ and you will most often capture a lovely picture.

When you greet someone watch for their response. If they nod their head and return your smile, you know it’s okay. They may tell you ‘no thanks’ or may just put their head down and look away. In these cases find someone else to take a picture of.

If you get a positive response, take a few photos. Show them their picture on your camera monitor or phone. Enjoy the experience and interaction. Don’t think of it only as taking a photo but communicating. Thais love this way of connecting.

#6 : Should I Pay Someone For Taking Their Photo?

Give a tip if it’s asked for or when you’ve had a particularly enjoyable time. Consider how little this person may live on compared to you.It will only be very poor people who ask for money in exchange for letting you photograph them. Think about the camera in your hands and how little they have. 20 baht is not much to you and can be a lot to them.

Old Shan woman in a northern Thai village

I was in a Shan village in the far north and this woman saw my camera and immediately started shouting “haa baht, haa baht”. She was asking for 5 baht to take her photo, (despite holding up all her fingers.) I made some pictures of her and gave her 40 baht. She was so happy she introduced me to her neighbor and we spent about on hour with them taking photos as he played his bamboo instrument for us. Being even a little generous can have tremendous advantages.

Some people will dress their children in traditional clothes and have them pose for tourist photos. They can make a good living this way, but I typically avoid these situations as I prefer more natural, spontaneous photos.

Shan Musician in Mae Hong Son Province, Thailand

#7 : Private Property and Photography in Thailand

In most countries you need permission to photograph on private property. This is also true in Thailand. Shopping malls are private property and often display ‘No Photo’ signs. However, it is very common to see people taking selfies and group photos in these places. Often malls will welcome tourist photos and set up displays to help facilitate this because of the promotional value it brings them.

Rocking up to the mall with your big camera, bag of tricks and tripod might not be so welcomed. It’s all in your approach. If you really want a photo and play it low key you will probably not be moved along.

The Skytrain platforms are another place where this happens. I have been told it is okay to take photos there, but not using a tripod.

Asian woman taking a photo

#8 : Taking a Photography Workshop or Tour

Hire a guide or take a photography workshop. In Chiang Mai and from our home in Chom Thong, (just south of Chiang Mai,) we run photography workshops. Within our photography teaching we offer cultural information and are happy to answer questions.

For more details of our workshops please click here.

Kevin Landwer-Johan teaches photography

#9 : Can I Photograph Thai Children?

Thai kids often love having being photographed. Their parents are usually quite happy about it too. They love showing their kids off. It always pays to ask first, before you start taking pictures. It’s only polite and appropriate anywhere you are.

Thai ethnic minority girls having fun together during a Chiang Mai Photo Workshop
Hill Tribe Traditions Workshop

#10 : Is It Different Photographing Hill Tribe People While on a Trek?

When you’re trekking in any of the mountainous villages it pays to be more careful taking photos of people. Many older tribes people are afraid of having their photograph taken. I have not encountered this for a number of years now, but it is certainly worth being aware of.

If you are guests in a small remote village overnight the last thing you want to do is annoy the head man’s old mother in law! Ask your trekking guide if the people are open to being photographed.

Chaing Mai Photo Workshops Poi Sang Long Festival
Shan people celebrating Poi Sang Long festival in Mae Hong Son province.

#11 : What About Photography at the Hill Tribe Tourist Villages?

I’m glad you asked. I used to be uncomfortable with the notion that these places were human zoos. They really are not.

For many years we have been visiting a hill tribe tourism village with our photography workshops. We have built some precious relationships with many of the people. Many of their stories of hardship before they moved to the village. They are happy to be living there.

Some stay for the day and head to their homes off-site again in the evenings. Others are migrants and live on site, returning to their home countries from time to time.

You may read some negative articles about this. Most I have read are by ill-informed tourists while others have been poorly researched. One of the most sensitive pieces I have seen is this video by film maker Marko Randelovic : Kayan: Beyond the Rings.

I have also written a more in-depth article on this topic.

Two long neck Kayan women having a good laugh during a Chiang Mai Photo Workshop
Two Kayan women sharing a good laugh at Baan Thing Luang.

These are the best tips I can offer you on maintaining good photography etiquette when you are visiting Thailand. Please keep reading for more detail on photographing monks and at temples.

More About Photographing Monks Politely

Usually when we visit temples in the more touristy areas I see people inappropriately dressed.

  • Wearing short skirts or shorts is impolite when visiting a temple.
  • Having nothing covering your shoulders is also considered inappropriate.
  • Dressing in a sexy manner is not correct etiquette.

If you are dressed like this you are offensive to the monks and culture even. Proper clothing is part of the respect that must be shown. This may seem very strange to many westerners. In Thailand they hold to these traditions firmly.

Too many times I have seen rude, disrespectful tourists getting right in the face of a monk just so they can get their photo. I do not know of any culture where this would be polite, at least where there is no relationship between the photographer and the subject.

young novice monks receive alms in the morning

Think about the monk. Watch them carefully. If you feel they are not appreciating having you take their photo, then don’t. If one monk is not open you being photographed it should be easy to find another one who is.

One of my favorite times to take photos of monks in Thailand is first thing in the morning. Each morning monks leave their temple compounds carrying their baat, round bowls for receiving alms. They will walk in the neighborhood as people come out with food and other offerings to place in their baat.

During this time the monks will walk along or in small groups. As they encounter a faithful local wanting to make an offering they will stop. The devotees will take off their footwear and place their offerings in the monks bowls. Women will be especially careful not to touch the monk, as this is inappropriate.

Once the offerings have been made the people will kneel down. The monk(s) will then chant a prayer over them. Some people will also have a small bowl and bottle or jug of water. The water will be tipped into the bowl at the end of prayers. This is in special remembrance of an ancestor.

Temples in Chiang Mai often will have what is called Monk Chat. This is so they can practice speaking English. It’s a good opportunity to sit and learn more about their lifestyle and a great bridge builder. After sitting and having an interesting cultural conversation it’s very easy to then ask the monk if you can take his portrait. He will most likely oblige.

Buddhis monks light candles for an evening ceremony at a temple in Chiang Mai

More About Being Well Behaved At The Temple

The temple has traditionally been the center of Thai society. Even though the culture is changing, customs remain very strong. It’s good to be aware of ones that will affect you when you visit.

Dress appropriately

This means having your knees and shoulders covered and nothing too sexy, skimpy or tight. These days you sometimes see Thai tourists at temples who are not so politely dressed. You can also hear the locals talking in disapproving tones about them.

Don’t turn you back to the Buddha (no selfies with the Buddha)

You should not stand with your back to the Buddha. This is considered disrespectful of the lord Buddha. This means no selfies with Buddha statues whether they are in a temple or outside.

Don’t climb on anything to get a better vantage point

Climbing on anything to bring yourself a high viewpoint is inappropriate. You should keep your head low, especially when you are walking past a monk or someone older than yourself. When passing try to walk behind or, when you cannot, bow as you are walking past as a sign of respect. Watch to see how the locals are doing this.

Don’t stand inside the temple when monks are seated.

When monks are sitting in prayer, keep your head lower than there’s. Don’t walk around looking for a better place to take a photo or be loud or disruptive in any way. Keep your voice low if you have to talk at all.

Don’t step on the temple threshold

When stepping into the temple be careful not to stand on the threshold.

Check if Women are Allowed

It’s not permitted for women to enter some chedis and smaller buildings at some temples. It is believed there are sacred artifacts buried under these structures. It’s told a woman’s reproductive system can be disrupted if she walks over them.

I hope this list of tips is helpful to you and allows you to be more comfortable when you come to Thailand to take photos. This is such a photogenic nation and culture.

The people are warm and open. Photographing in rural areas at times as I have approached people to make their portraits they are excited at the prospect. They joke that when I take their picture back to my home country it gives them the opportunity to travel overseas with me.

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