Mongolian Customs - What To Know Before You Go

The Mongolian people take pride in their customs and habits, so showing respect will go a long way. Here's what you need to know about the social etiquette of Mongolia.

Mongolia is not overly religious, conservative or liberal but the local people take pride in their customs and habits. Be aware, respectful and do your best to go with the flow in order to have the best possible time in this beautiful country.

Customs in Mongolia

Of all the major cities in Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar is most likely to provide a familiar experience. On the surface, it may seem similar; large buildings, lots of people, service-based economy, but there are several customs that you should keep in mind while spending time in and out of the capital.

Money

In most cities around Mongolia and in many places around Ulaanbaatar, ATM's and credit cards are becoming more widely accepted however Mongolia is very much a cash based economy. Make sure to stock up on sufficient togrogs before leaving the capital as you are very unlikely to find an ATM out on the Steppe!

Haggling While Shopping

Unlike other Asian countries, bargaining for a price is generally not a prominent part of life in Mongolia. However, there is no harm in doing some fair haggling while shopping at a local market. You don't want to be ripped off but you don't want to low ball the stall vendor either.

Mongolian Scramble

Expatriates have given this name to the way that people in Mongolia deal with public commerce. Basically, body awareness is optional. Queuing generally doesn't happen and people will jostle to buy things, board a bus etc. While this may feel rude, in many cultures it's just part of how things are done. Neither being polite nor getting angry will change it.

Giving Money

Like in many other countries and major cities you may encounter beggars, most notably in Ulaanbaatar. Poverty is obviously a problem; but if you'd like to help out, contact your tour company who can advise you of which organisations or programs to donate to e.g local non-profit organizations in a particular neighborhood or support improvement projects around the city.

Drug Use

Possessing or using drugs is strictly illegal in Mongolia, and if you are caught you may end up serving time in prison. Police are quite strict on this measure, so be sure not to run afoul of the law in your stay in Mongolia.

Homosexuality

Though it is not illegal, Mongolians are somewhat uncomfortable discussing homosexuality or seeing same-sex relationships. It's best if you save your affections for the privacy of your hotel or when you get home.

Local politics

Getting involved is not generally advised; while making a political statement in your country of birth is admirable, be sure to be discreet when travelling in other countries.

Photography

It's always polite to ask someone if they mind being photographed. Some travelers have reported locals getting offended when being photographed.

Religious Respect

Most locals in Mongolia still practise Buddhism despite the previous communist government repressing or killing many of those who practised the religion and closing monasteries across the county.

The Kazakh nomads and some Mongols practise Islam.

If you plan to visit any temples, monasteries or places of religious significance, here are some social etiquette tips to avoid offending the locals:

  • If you walk around a stupa or prayer wheels always walk in a clockwise direction. 
  • Dress modestly; wear long sleeved clothing.
  • Remove any hats, sunglasses and shoes before entering any religious building.
  • Always respect any signage in areas which asks for No Photography. If you are unsure of whether you can take photos in places, always ask as not everywhere is off limits.
  • Don't touch prayer flags, altars, Mani stones or any other items of religious significance.

Etiquette and Politeness in Mongolia

Should you ever get the opportunity to be invited into a local's home, there are a few things you need to know to try and avoid offense with your hosts:

  • Always take a gift with you. 
  • Always say hello ("sain bainuul") when you arrive.
  • Always receive objects with your right hand. Keep your palm facing up when holding cups and accepting things.
  • Always accept gifts. Always take a bite or a nibble of offered food, even if you're not hungry.
  • Always keep your sleeves rolled down - it is considered impolite to show your wrists to someone.
  • Always sleep with your feet pointing toward the door to the room.
  • If your host asks where you are from, where you are going and other questions, always offer an answer. Not replying is considered rude.
  • Never point at anyone with your index finger. Use your whole palm instead.
  • Never lean on a support column or ger wall.
  • Never put water on, step on or put rubbish in a fire. Fire is sacred.
  • Never walk in front of an elderly person.
  • Never turn your back to an altar unless you're leaving the room.
  • Never take food from a communal plate with your left hand.
  • Never touch other people's hats.
  • Never leave your coat and other warm items like gloves on while eating. To Mongolians, this signifies that you think they aren't providing adequate warmth in their home.
  • Never have long conversations with others in your own language in front of locals who don't speak the language.

Obviously, Mongolia has different rules than most Western countries, and some of those may see different to what you know. The locals will generally be forgiving if you mess up any of the etiquette rules, as long as you respecfully give it a try and embrace what the country has to offer.

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8 Comments

  • Miga said

    woAw i like mongolian good<br>its delicous =]

  • Tom said

    I live the UB and while walking the streets and often run into by women. Men always do what they can to avoid contact. But not the women. Then when they do hit you, they get all upset and rais their voice in objection, like you violated them. This is not a small problem. It's an everyday experience. They cross over on the part of the sidewalk I'm walking on and walk right into you. Why do they care so little about such etiquette?

  • Jb said

    Great info and knowledge . Thank you ;))

  • Igor said

    I lived with my girlfriend and Mongolians for couple of months in one flat in Sydney .... Very bad experience. Keeping accusing us of taking their stuff even though we were trying to avoid them as much as possible. No sense for constructive critique, no sense for solving problems, no sense for order and system let alone clean and tidy house. Never again.....

  • Mongolian said

    Igor, not everyone is same. You can't judge the whole country by a few roommates.

  • Mongolian said

    Great article btw.

  • Mongolian1 said

    Mongolian-thank you for a great defense. Like Mongolian said there are so many different people in Mongolia. Igor, If go to Mongolia, perhaps, you will meet the nicest person in the world. Again pls don't judge the whole country by a few roommates. I am sorry for your bad experience.

  • Be good said

    Mongolia has lots of histories and cultures .Mongolian people are polite and brave.You can’t judge poeple of that country.They are different from you, but weall luve in earth.We shouldn’t talk to another person their mistakes.Think about what if you were Mongolians.If they have mistakes you should tell their mistakes and correct them.We are one big family ❤️

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