Most guide books on Thailand seem to have a section on culture or how to behave. However, many of these guides seem to be lacking somewhat on the personal experience front, instead relying on a set of generic rules which doesn’t always directly translate.
Almost always Thai people will make some allowance for Westerners and their ignorance and, as such an easy going people, it is quite difficult to truly offend. HOWEVER, this isn’t true across the board (see ‘Royalty’ and ‘Religion’ for example) and shouldn’t be used as an excuse by lazy travellers to not even make an effort.
Over and again in travel literature I have read that touching the head of a Thai person is a big no-no. Although strictly true, as the head represents the most spiritual part of the body in Buddhist culture, in reality Westerners make much more of a song and dance about this than Thais. With cute children in particular (and there seem to be a wealth of those) it is sometimes hard to refrain from reaching out. While working at a school in Thailand I witnessed many occasions where the heads of children were touched by Thai teachers in gestures of both affection and annoyance.
Try and follow the ‘rule’ but don’t panic if you forget. Thais can tell genuine mistakes intended with good will as well as anyone.
Just as the head represents the most sacred part of the body so the feet represent the most unholy and unclean. As a result Thais NEVER take their footwear indoors. At the entrances to hostels, shops, private businesses and homes you will grow accustomed to the sight of piles of flip flops and sandals. Larger shops, modern malls and certain public buildings are excepted from this rule – if in doubt remove your footwear before entering a building.
Unlike most other etiquette rule transgressions, should you fail to comply you may be greeted with stares of genuine horror and disgust and flapping Thais (rarely seen).
If you do forget, apologise profusely and rectify as soon as possible.
Buddhist Temple Etiquette
Men and women must be covered from shoulders to below the knee and footwear must be removed when entering temples. Many of the more touristy temple locations will hire wraps and sarongs for this purpose should you come unprepared. This is another example where the rules are totally inflexible and there are no exceptions.
Statues of Buddha
From tiny to towering, statues representing Buddha are everywhere in Thailand and not just in temples. It is natural that you will want to capture some of this on camera (although eventually you will stop noticing all but the exceptionally impressive) but don’t ever stand with your back to a statue while you buddy snaps you. This is considered sacrilegious.
My first few sightings of the shaven headed monks in their bright orange robes had me almost star struck and frozen to the spot in awe, so desperate was I to do the right thing. But the reality is this – most monks are not life-long devotees and the holiest of holy. They are just normal people. All Thai men are expected to spend a few months of their lives serving as monks. This duty is usually carried out as a young man so you will see many monks behaving as well…..young men. That is, texting on their mobile phones, smoking cigarettes, chatting and laughing with friends and ogling women.
All this said monks are still revered and there are some rules you may wish to make yourself familiar with. Women are not allowed to touch monks (which also includes sitting next to them on public transport) or hand them anything directly.
Naked shoulders, tummies and knees are considered risqué at best and a sign of sexual promiscuity much of the time. So, by all means wear your vest tops and short shorts around and about but don’t moan when you get treated accordingly. Also know that you are negatively contributing to giving westerners a bad name and showing that you have no manners, respect or intelligence.
In more touristy areas such as Phuket and other islands much on the well beaten tourist path, Thais are more inured to western standards but that doesn’t mean they like it. Thais are often deeply offended by partial nudity and shocked to the extreme by toplessness. You may see this practiced but be fully aware of the offence you are giving before you make the decision to join in.
In restaurants and shops, even in beach towns, cover up. Men – shirts/ t-shirts please (not just for the sake of the Thais but sweaty armpits on show aren’t conducive to good digestion) and ladies – bikinis are for the beach only.
In the extreme South of Thailand the culture is predominantly Muslim and dress standards are perhaps even stricter. Cover ups are expected even on beaches.
Thais don’t eat with chopsticks as a general rule although you may seem them provided in places or you can ask for some. Nor do Thais eat with their fingers as in other Asian cultures. A spoon and fork are the usual meal accoutrements.
Bugs, grubs, rats and a variety of other things considered unsavoury to Western palettes are widely available and widely consumed. They are not just there to amuse and test the strength of the tourists’ stomachs. In poorer rural areas many Thais have blue night lights in their yards to attract and trap insects which are then gathered up and fried. For many poor people this is a valuable source of protein in a diet that might otherwise be entirely without.
The Royal Family
You can’t be in Thailand for longer than five minutes without knowing what the King of Thailand looks like (his face on bank notes aside) or rather, what the King of Thailand looked like 30 years ago (most images use a young man’s face to be more flattering). Photographs, statues, images and posters of him are everywhere – in the street, in shops, bars, hotels, public places and private homes.
Thai people, unlike the populations of most other monarchies, are ALL royalists (certainly publicly) and in many cases to the point of devotion.
It is completely unacceptable to insult or ridicule the royal family whether in jest or earnest. There have been some extreme cases where Westerners have been jailed.
At 8 am and 6 pm daily the National Anthem is played, often piped through loudspeakers in towns. You will most probably witness this most at bus and train stations. You must stop whatever you are doing and stand to attention for this.
Thai Boxing/ Muay Thai
This is virtually a religion. Any Thai who practices will be incredibly proud of his prowess and may want to demonstrate his skills for your approval. Expect to see it on TV screens a lot and opportunities for seeing live bouts are everywhere.
Physical Touch Between Men and Women
You won’t see Thais doing this and you should be aware that doing so yourself, even with a husband or wife, will raise eyebrows and may genuinely offend. In the extreme south of Thailand, while dancing in the street at a New Year’s celebration with a male friend, we were politely but firmly pulled apart……twice. This intervention is in itself extremely rare from a Thai person so just imagine the offence that moved them to act in this way.
Greetings and the ‘Wai’
The ‘wai’ is a palms together, hands to face, head bowed gesture. This polite Thai greeting is very commonplace and not just an affectation of Westerners trying to show they know Thai ways. Thais won’t be offended if you don’t return their wai but will be delighted if you do. If a child offers you a wai, culturally speaking you don’t have to return it but doing so is a joy. You will be rewarded with shrieks of delight and wild giggles.
‘Sawadee’ and ‘korp kuhn’ – if you learn to say nothing else in Thai then at least use these two phrases (each must be followed by ‘ka’ if you are a women and ‘karp’ if you are a man).
Sawadee is a general greeting which never fails to raise a smile while korp Kuhn means thank you and will get you the same response.
If you see a Thai person waggling their fingers at you in a palm down gesture it means come here. The palm up gesture that we Westerners use is considered impolite.
If you wish to summon or stop a taxi/bus/tuk-tuk then extend your arm with the palm down. The gesture used is similar to that we might use for calm down or slow down.
The universal thumbs sign for hitch-hiking isn’t recognised in Thailand. Instead use the same gesture as for hailing other public transport as described above.
This cultural principle is a BIG thing in Thailand which underlines and explains much Thai behaviour. Thai people don’t want to embarrass or be embarrassed which means an extreme aversion to such things as arguing, shouting, contradicting, being pushy or forceful or in any way confrontational.
Generally speaking, travellers in Thailand won’t be over affected, expected to participate or fully understand this cultural peculiarity. Its universal practice just makes life easier and more harmonious for visitors – perhaps with one exception. If you ask a Thai a question they don’t know the answer to or don’t understand, in order to ‘save face’ they will always answer yes or send you off on a wild goose chase if you have asked for directions. This can be rather confusing for travellers until they start to understand the rules of the game.
The whole ‘saving face’ thing is also the reason why if you commit any social or cultural faux pax you might never know.