Every country has its list of cultural do’s and don’ts and Thailand is no different. The following is a run down of the major things to be aware of. Thais, in general, are a very understanding people and don’t expect foreigners to be aware of all the nuances of Thai culture. But a basic understanding and show of respect always goes down well!
Don’t raise your voice – Thais in general try to remain calm (or bottle things up) and raising ones voice is seen as losing face. If you do this it doesn’t make you any more likely to win an argument or any friends.
Don’t touch, climb on or otherwise degrade a Buddha image or an image of the King (or in fact any member of the royal family). Buddhism is the major religion in Thailand and Buddha images are treated with great respect and care. Any disrespect shown to any member of the royal family is likely to land you in big trouble and probably with a jail term (although these are usually commuted by the King, but result in your immediate deportation and barring from visiting Thailand again).
Don’t touch a Thai person on the head. The head is thought of as the highest part of the body and it is seem as offensive to touch a Thai person’s head. Similarly the feet are the lowest point and seen as dirty. So don’t move things with your feet, put your feet on a table or point to things with your feet (especially not a Buddha image).
Take your shoes off! Following on from the above point, if you ever visit a Thai family home, it is customary to remove your shoes either just outside the house or just inside, depending on where that family store their shoes! Also most temple buildings will have a No Footwear sign outside.
Let the Thai person pay if they offer. This is a tricky one, because in most cultures, often the host will offer to pay for a meal and this results in great discussion over who should pay for what! This especially applies in Thailand where usually the most senior person present will pay. If you try to pay instead it may be interpreted as you challenging their seniority. Instead you can return the compliment by buying them a gift.
Do try and speak Thai. Any attempt by a foreigner to speak Thai is greeted with happiness and encouragement. Generally you can make yourself understood in everyday situations such as ordering food and buying tickets etc.
Wai, but use it sparingly. The “wai” is a Thai greeting, done by pressing the palms of your hand together, prayer-like. By all means return a wai if one is offered to you, however you shouldn’t necessarily offer a wai to every Thai person you meet. Apart from this becoming tiresome after a while, it isn’t necessary. It is something interwoven into the Thai culture and subject to all sorts of rules and intricacies, to do with your age, seniority and position in society and in your family structure. For example, a Thai office worker would greet their boss or a senior member of their partner’s family with a wai, but they wouldn’t do the same to a lowly waiter. Again foreigners aren’t expected to understand all of this, but a basic awareness is always appreciated.
Do show great respect to monks and offer your seat on a boat or bus to a monk. As a general rule women should avoid all physical and eye contact with a monk. Everyone is expected to show respect to monks. It is always appreciated if you give up your seat for a monk and the river express boats in Bangkok even have special Monk only areas. As with many places, giving up your seat for an elderly person is also appreciated.
Do keep your wits about you. When on holiday, people are naturally more relaxed and have a habit of letting their guard down. As such, tourists make easy prey for the many tricksters of Bangkok, don’t let this be you! If you were at home and somebody told you that a well known major attraction was closed for a royal ceremony, would you believe them? If somebody said there was a one day only government gem sale, would you believe them? Exactly! Don’t fall for this trick in Thailand, see my separate article “The Bangkok Tuk-Tuk trick” about this.
Try the street food. Many people are afraid of trying the infamous Thai street food, Bangkok is particularly famed for its excellent street food. This probably stems from our sanitised, health and safety conscious way of life in the West. However Thai street food is up there with the best, the general rule being go to the busier looking stalls and stalls with a large Thai clientele.
Do try and dress respectfully. While no-one could care less if you’re wandering around in shorts and t-shirts, remember that modern Thailand is a relatively conservative place. Thai people (especially the older generation) tend to dress smartly for all occasions, at the very least and polo-shirt and jeans. Certainly don’t wander around town in your swimwear as you see in many European resorts.
You will have a great time in Thailand if you try and respect the above rules and Thai people will appreciate it if you show some awareness of their way of life. Thai people will probably be too polite to say if you are offending/upsetting them so you are unlikely to land yourself in any bother (apart from as mentioned above, anything offensive to the royal family and Buddhism). But for a smoother holiday and if you crave contact and interaction with the locals, this guide should help!
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