Religions can have a huge, interesting and exciting influence on the character and culture of the countries you visit.
As an outside observer, you need to behave respectfully and appropriately. As a traveller, you also need to know how religious practices and festivals might affect your trip.
The world’s major religions
The three largest religions after Christianity are Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. Together they’re followed by more than 43% of the world’s population.
Islam is followed mostly in northern African, the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, Hinduism in India, and Buddhism mostly in East Asia.
Visiting religious venues
Bear in mind when visiting a mosque, church or temple that, even if you don’t follow the religion, it’s a sacred place for those who do. Act calmly and behave respectfully. Avoid loud conversation and laughter, and don’t criticize the religion or culture.
At Hindu temples and Christian churches, wear modest clothing that covers your shoulders and knees. You may be asked to cover bare arms and legs with shawls or sarongs.
At Buddhist temples, dress modestly. Bow your head to show respect to the temple and statues. Take your shoes off and be careful not to point your feet towards statues, monks, nuns or elders. Public displays of affection are not acceptable.
In mosques, everyone must remove their shoes. Women should avoid tight clothing, instead wearing ankle-length skirts or trousers, and high-necked tops with long sleeves. It’s best for women to wear a headscarf.
Religious festivals and travelling
Religious holidays can mean disruption to local business and public transport, as people close shops and restaurants to take time off and visit family or religious sites.
Below is an overview of some major religious festivals. It’s far from exhaustive, so before you travel abroad, make sure you know which holidays and festivals might affect your trip, as well as your behaviour.
Major Islamic festivals
The Muslim calendar has two official holidays: Eid Al-Fitr, celebrated at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, and Eid Al-Adha. Both move with lunar calendar, so occur on different dates each year.
During the month-long Ramadan fast, healthy Muslim adults abstain from smoking, drinking and eating during daylight hours. Some even choose not to swallow saliva.
Out of respect, you shouldn’t eat, drink, smoke, kiss, hug, hold hands or play loud music in public during daylight. In less strict regions and multi-faith countries, you may not be expected to abstain, but do be discreet.
Fasting at Ramadan can make people tired, so be aware that government offices and private businesses can come to near standstill during the day. Public transport can also become sparse and unreliable.
Major Hindu festivals
Diwali, the festival of lights, is celebrated in autumn with five days of prayers and rituals. It ends with the lighting of lamps and candles, and the setting off of fireworks. Be prepared for crowds and disruption to transport.
Holi is known as the festival of colours. It’s held in spring and involves a free-for-all where people chase and splash each other with coloured powders and water. There are no particular religious or cultural sensitivities, but beware of wearing your favourite clothes as they may end up stained.
Kumbh Mela is a mass pilgrimage made every three years to one of four towns in India. More than 100 million people attended the most recent event in 2013.
Diwali and Kumbh Mela particularly can see huge numbers of Indians travelling, so avoid these times or book well in advance. Government offices and many services are likely to be closed during Diwali.
Major Buddhist festivals
Several of the main festivals in the Buddhist calendar fall in March, April and May, so be particularly aware of their effects on travel plans at this time of year.
Buddhist New Year is a three-day celebration starting on first full moon in April, and consequently has a variable date. The date also varies for Vesak, which celebrates Buddha’s birthday on the first full moon in May. Many restaurants and shops stop selling alcohol, and some may close early or not open.