Where to limit public displays of affection, and where to let loose.
As I walked through the parks of the Miraflores neighbourhood in Lima, Peru, I wondered if there was something in the air. On practically every park bench sat a young couple locked in an embrace, necking furiously. And often more. Much more.
It was the middle of a sunny afternoon. The benches weren’t sheltered from the sidewalks by leafy bushes. Families with young kids were walking by in full view of the make-out sessions. But the kissing couples were all but ignored.
I travel to four, five, or even six continents annually, where I’m a keen observer of local culture and behavior. Eager to not cause offense, I make sure I’m covered shoulder to knee in Buddhist countries. I don’t blow my nose in public in Turkey. In Asia, I accept business cards with two hands. I put only a spoon (never a fork) in my mouth in Thailand. And I avoid using my left hand almost everywhere. So when showing affection to my sweetie abroad, I want to make sure I don’t disrespect the culture I’m visiting.
In the West, a romantic couple might hear a growled “get a room” when they’ve gone too far in their al fresco amour. But in many parts of the world the same enthusiastic embrace might result in smiles, clapping, embarrassment, shock, or even arrest. In many countries, kissing is thought to be as intimate as sex—a behavior that no one, not even a couple’s children, ever witnesses.
Here’s what you need to know about PDA-prohibitive and -licentious places around the world.
Laos, Cambodia and Thailand: In these Buddhist countries, modesty is highly prized. Considerate travelers will leave their revealing clothing at home and limit their embraces to their hotel rooms. Even tourists walking hand in hand can embarrass your hosts. Be particularly careful at religious sites. To you, Angkor Wat might be just a beautiful UNESCO architectural site. To Cambodians, it is a holy temple. Keep your hands and lips to yourself.
Morocco: In many Muslim countries, you will see heterosexual men holding hands or walking arm in arm, and a kiss is a common greeting. It’s just an expression of friendship, as well as a good tactic to keep conversation flowing in a crowded street. Female friends may also do this. Opposite-sex couples, however, should not. Physical expressions of romance are best kept out of the public eye.
Egypt: As in Morocco, you’ll see same-sex friends in close contact. But kissing is prohibited and can be prosecuted under public decency laws. Onlookers will likely shame anyone spotted kissing in the street. Any form of public touching between members of the opposite sex is frowned upon.
India: The ban on public lip locks was recently lifted, though not before Richard Gere and Shilpa Shetty shocked the country so much with their public kiss that a warrant was issued for Gere’s arrest and the couple was burned in effigy. Today, the bigger the city, the more likely no one will bat an eye at a smooch. However, in Punjab it’s frowned upon for opposite sex couples to hold hands (though you’ll see male friends holding pinky fingers while they walk). Kissing and cuddling are considered completely outrageous—even a wedding ceremony has no kissing.
Nepal: Only very brave couples in a very serious relationship will risk walking down the street holding hands. You can count on everyone noticing your public declaration of love.
Israel: Gay couples hold hands. Hetero couples hold hands. Friends hold hands. Everybody holds hands! Well, in most places anyway. At holy sites and in the city of Jerusalem, you should be more conservative and refrain from any public displays of affection.
Sri Lanka: PDA isn’t really accepted, but you’ll see couples on park benches hiding their embraces behind open umbrellas.
Japan: PDA is uncommon, so it will be noticed. One traveler reports an innocent smooch in a coffee shop that was applauded by local tourists on the street outside. Perhaps they thought the rare occasion of public affection meant the couple had just become engaged?
Europe: Generally Europeans are more open to passionate public kissing than Americans or Canadians. Couples here aren’t shy about noise either, so you might hear kissing before you see it. In Prague, escalators are a popular place to pucker up. Young Italian couples still living at home (and without even a Fiat Cinquecento to shag in) have been known to use the bushes surrounding archeological sites for cover. I don’t recommend it.
Mexico: Passionate and loud kissing takes place everywhere—on the street, in restaurants, and even in libraries. Hand holding is just fine, though Mexican men will always walk on the outside of the sidewalk. An old Mexican custom is ingrained in even the most modern of men: If you walk with a woman beside the road, it means you’re selling her.
Argentina: The expression of passion is commonplace. I’ve been in several coffee shops where a young couple used a corner as the perfect place for a necking session. It also seems to be a great time killer, as couples smooch while waiting for Buenos Aires’ crowded buses.
Peru: Romantic couples feel free to express their love, especially in Lima’s Parque del Amor, the Love Park featuring sculptor Victor Delfín and his wife in a deep embrace.
If there’s a pattern to figuring out the written and unwritten rules in a particular destination, look to the country’s dominant religion. For some reason, Catholic countries such as Italy, Mexico, and much of South America are generally the most blasé about public displays of affection—even more so than secular places like Canada, Australia, and the U.S.. Buddhist and Muslim countries are much more conservative.
In many countries in the world, discrimination against same-sex couples is still rampant. However in many of these same countries, same-sex dancing, hugs, kisses and hand-holding is perfectly acceptable, in a platonic way. This means LGBT couples may find casual hand-in-hand sightseeing easier than opposite-sex couples.
Johanna Read is a Canadian writer and photographer specializing in travel, food, and responsible tourism. Social media handles and links to all her stories are at TravelEater.net.