Modesty and cultural sensitivity


Screen Shot 2016-03-18 at 11.07.24 PM 3Visitors who dress immodestly will no longer be allowed to enter Cambodia’s famed Angkor Wat temple complex, the agency that oversees the site announced last week. Beginning August 4th, all tourists will be required to wear pants or skirts that fall below the knee and shirts that cover their shoulders.

When I read that, I immediately went back to our photos from Jan 4, 2009 to see what we were wearing the day we visited the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is also Cambodia’s biggest tourist attraction. Would we meet the new standard, I wondered.

We got up at 4:30 a.m. the day we toured Angkor Wat so that we could be there in time to watch the sun rise over it’s towers. It was still a bit chilly when we arrived and at that point, dressed in a warm fleece hoodie and capri pants, I would definitely have met the new dress code.


Richard would not have, however, as he was wearing shorts and later, in the heat of the day, I wouldn’t have either.

I almost hate to post that picture because I look so frumpy, but please keep in mind that we were basically backpacking through southeast Asia. We had just traveled the length of Vietnam by night bus and we were staying in a $12/night guesthouse that wasn’t much more than a roof over our heads. I may not have looked great, but I was having the adventure of a lifetime and fashion was the farthest thing from my mind!

The question here, though, is what is modesty? My tank top may not be particularly attractive, but is it immodest?

In 1 Timothy 2:9, the apostle Paul advises women to “adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation” but he doesn’t give a lot of detail about what that looks like. He does go on to say, “not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing” but to understand what he was getting at, one needs to look at the culture and the context. In this passage, Paul was advising women on how to dress for church, telling them to adorn themselves in a manner that was considered appropriate for worship. In Ephesus, where his protégé, Timothy, was pastoring at the time, the elite of that culture were known for their gaudy and extravagant wardrobes, their elaborate hair styles, and their expensive clothing that communicated extraordinary wealth. Paul’s description of immodest dress conjured up a picture of someone preoccupied with appearance, fashion, luxury, and perhaps even sexual prowess. He was simply advising the Christian women of that time and place not to mimic that behaviour, but to dress in a way that showed that they desired attention to be on God, not on themselves.

Dictionary definitions of modesty include “behavior, manner, or appearance intended to avoid impropriety or indecency” and “the quality of behaving and especially dressing in ways that do not attract sexual attention.”

In discussing dress codes, it’s important to note that modesty must involve cultural sensitivity. We don’t find the wearing of shorts or sleeveless tops offensive here in North America,  but Cambodia is a completely different culture. Angkor Wat was the spiritual centre of the Khmer empire that dominated that region from the 9th to 15th centuries. It’s a symbol of great national pride and is depicted on the Cambodian flag. As such, it is worthy of utmost respect. If, to the Cambodian mind, that means a certain manner of dress, then visitors definitely need to honour that.

Though it’s unlikely that I will return to Angkor Wat (only because there’s so much world that I have yet to see), but if I do, I won’t be wearing a tank top. If you haven’t been yet, I would definitely suggest adding it to your bucket list, but make sure you pack accordingly. After August 4th, those who are not dressed appropriately will be turned away or required to change their clothes before being allowed to enter.







We’ve been home for almost a week already so it’s time to try to wrap up this travelogue. We flew from Saigon to Siem Reap, Cambodia on Jan. 3. After purchasing our visas and making our way through immigration, we took a taxi into town. The guest house where we had hoped to stay was full so our taxi driver suggested another one that was nearby. It wasn’t much more than a roof over our heads but it had a warm shower, the staff was friendly and for $12 US/night, we couldn’t complain.

The guest house hooked us up with Tiger, a young tuktuk driver who pretty much became our personal chauffeur. A tuktuk, a small trailer pulled behind a motorcycle, is a fun and inexpensive way to travel and see the sights. For $20 US, Tiger would tour us around to all the Temples of Angkor, waiting at each spot for as long as we wanted to explore. Since one day tickets go on sale at about 5:00 p.m. the day before and can be used that evening, he took us out to the ticket booth on the way to the temples in time for us to be the first in line and then to Phnom Bakkheng, the first of Angkor’s several temples and a popular hilltop location from which to watch the sunset. It was too cloudy for that but we did catch our first glimpse of Angkor Wat in the dying light and also enjoyed looking out over the dense jungle.

On the way back to the hotel, Tiger recommended a nearby restaurant so we went there for dinner. The food was delicious but the service very slow, something we quickly came to expect. We returned to the hotel for a drink in the rooftop lounge then went to bed early so that we could get up at 4:30 a.m. and be out at Angkor Wat in time to see the sunrise over its towers. Again,img_3476 there was just enough cloud that we didn’t actually see the sun break over the temple but we did enjoy watching it emerge from the early morning darkness. After breakfast at a nearby restaurant, we began exploring.

What impressed us most was the sheer immensity of the ruins. Between the 9th and 13th centuries each Cambodian god-king strove to build a temple that would better those of his ancestors in size, scale and symmetry. Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious building, was the culmination and is a source of inspiration and national pride for a country that is trying to rebuild after years of terror and trauma.

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After exploring Angkor Wat itself, we moved on to the ancient city of Angkor Thom. Within it’s more than 12 km of walls that are 6 metres high and 8 metres thick, are found several interesting structures including it’s temple, Bayon. There, 216 gigantic faces of the god, Avalokiteshvara, watch over visitors and bas-reliefs incorporating some 11 000 carved figures depict vivid scenes of life in 12th century Cambodia.


After exploring a number of the structures within the walls of Angkor Thom, we took a quick look at Ta Keo, a massive temple that was never finished possibly due to the death of the king. It’s lack of carvings was a stark contrast to the elaborate detail of the others.

img_3615Another fascinating temple with a difference was Ta Prohm. While the other monuments of Angkor have been carefully preserved with a massive ongoing program to clear away the ever encroaching jungle, Ta Prohm has been left untouched. Gigantic tree roots twist their way through its stonework as the surrounding jungle strives to reclaim it. In recent years, it has been used as a set for movies such as Tomb Raider.

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That evening, again on Tiger’s recommendation, we had dinner at a large restaurant with a huge buffet where we also had the opportunity to enjoy traditional Cambodian music and dancing.

We weren’t in Cambodia long enough to get much of a feel for the country but, if anything, it appeared that there was even greater poverty there than in Vietnam. The infant mortality rate throughout most of the country is close to 10% and there are a number of orphanages just within the Siem Reap area. Outside every temple, visitors are bombarded by women and children selling all manner of things including books, postcards, silk scarves and tablecloths, and bead bracelets. Though some are so persistent that they are downright annoying, it’s difficult to ignore their pleas when we have so much and they have so little. Though we did purchase one book, we chose other ways to try to make a small difference.

After going out for a hearty breakfast the next morning, we checked out of the guest house, stowed our luggage in their office for safekeeping and took a tuktuk across town to the Kantha Bopha Pediatric Hospital to donate blood. Please don’t panic! Conditions were sterile and everything was done in much the same way as it would be done at home. One of three such hospitals in Cambodia founded by a European doctor and funded entirely by donations, this hospital has successfully reduced the infant mortality rate in the Siem Reap area to approximately 2%. Here are a few other fascinating statistics concerning the three hospitals: 600 000 visits by sick children, 55 000 hospital admissions, 9000 surgical operations, 100 000 vaccinations and 5500 births each year. All of these services are provided free of charge.

Early January in Cambodia feels much like early July in Canada. The day was hot and sunny so we decided to walk all the way back to the guest house. At one point, we became hopelessly lost in a maze of narrow streets on the outer edge of town. They were really nothing more than dirt paths and the locals looked at us with some curiosity. I’m sure not many tourists pass their way! Fortunately, before wandering for too long, we spotted the red roof of the guest house in the distance and found our way back.

Massage parlours abound throughout southeast Asia and, in many cases, these shops provide employment for the blind so we decided to indulge ourselves once again with full body massages in one of these establishments for a cost of just $5 US each. They weren’t the best massages we’ve ever had but it was a relaxing way to end our visit.

After a quick lunch, it was time to meet Tiger back at the guest house for our final tuktuk ride out to the airport. We flew back to Saigon where we had a four and a half hour layover at the airport and then from there, back to Japan arriving very early the next morning. We managed to get some sleep on the plane and had a full day to rest before going back to work the following day.