The Do’s and Don’ts in Thailand

The Thais are known for their hospitality and tolerance. While Thailand is fast becoming more and more Western, the Thai culture is still kept very much alive by its people. The average tourist may find that it can be quite difficult to adjust to normal customs, but don’t worry. Thais are quite tolerant and will not show obvious displeasure when it comes to foreigners committing the occasional faux pas, and they do appreciate attempts to pay respect to their culture.

culture of thailand
Thai Culture

That being said, a visitor to any foreign country must be aware of certain do’s and don’ts to avoid unintentionally insulting anyone during his stay. Here are a few tips for travelers to Thailand:

The Thai Monarchy

The Thais love and revere the Royal Family, so visitors should always show respect for His Majesty the King, the Queen and their children.  Be careful about the way you talk about the monarchy because the Thais will not appreciate even the slightest joke ridiculing them. Everyone in Thailand honors the King with a deep respect because of his many accomplishments and sacrifices for the country. Always keep in mind that respect for the King is not just done to be polite: it’s done in compliance with a law.

According to the Thai Constitution, “The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated.” Therefore, any act that insults the monarchy is considered a serious offense. In 2007, a Swiss national named Oliver Jufer was sentenced to ten years in jail for defacing pictures of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. A store refused to sell him alcoholic beverages on the King’s birthday, so he bought two cans of spray paint and wrote graffiti on outdoor posters bearing the King’s face. After serving three months, he was pardoned by the King and deported immediately.

king of thailand
King Bhumibol Adulyadej

Jufer’s case is extreme, and it made the country’s strict lèse majesté laws known to frequent travelers to Thailand. Apart from defacing pictures of the King and his family, anyone who is found to be guilty of speaking ill of them can be sentenced to anywhere from three to fifteen years in prison.

Hence, it is best to keep any negative opinions of the King to yourself when you’re in Thailand. Of course, some visitors may unintentionally cause offense by, say, stopping a rolling coin which bears the King’s face with their foot, or using a rolled-up picture of the King to squash a bug. Though these are not serious enough to warrant any jail time, it will greatly offend any Thai who witnesses it. It’s probably a good thing that the Thais are forgiving, so a sincere apology will be enough to make up for the honest mistake.

The sacred and taboo parts of your body

The Thais regard the head and feet as the highest and lowest part of the body, both literally and figuratively. The head is considered by the Thais to be the most sacred part of the body. They do not approve of touching anyone’s head, even if it is just to give a child a friendly pat on the head. At social gatherings, young Thais take care to keep their head lower than those of their elders so as not to give the impression that they are looking down on them.

As for the feet, it is generally considered very rude to use them to point at something, especially to point them at a person. Shoes should also be removed when entering a home and some places of business.

Social Customs

Public displays of affection are very much frowned upon. If you’re on your honeymoon, it might be quite challenging to keep your hands off each other; however, try to avoid offending the Thais by doing spontaneous makeout sessions in the street. Couples in Thailand usually can be found holding hands but you won’t see them kissing in public.

The Thais love to smile, and they have the ability to smile under any kind of situation, so when in Thailand do as the Thais do and smile as often as you can.

Never lose your temper in public. For the Thais, only those with poor upbringing lose their temper in public. Never talk in a loud and angry voice, and never use harsh words. You’ll have a greater chance of getting what you want if you keep a cool head.

Don’t be surprised if you are addressed by your first name, such as Miss Sally or Mr. John, instead of your last name. This is because Thais refer to one another in this manner.

The Thai Way of Greeting

If you offer your hand for a good ole’ fashioned handshake, a quizzical look might be thrown your way, followed by a somewhat reluctant and very quick handshake. Keep in mind that the Thais don’t normally shake hands, but instead press their hands in a prayer-like gesture called “wai”.

A wai is usually performed in giving thanks, saying goodbye, apologizing, praying to the Buddha and paying respect to sacred things such as a spirit house or the image of the King.

thail greeting
Wai – Thai greeting

When should a person wai? A younger person should wai an older person, who will then return it. Also never wai someone of lower status, though it seems like the politically correct thing to do, because you’ll only embarrass the person you’re wai-ing. A wai is not used to greet children, nor is it done to greet waiters, drivers, tailors or shopkeepers. It is customary that an employee will wai first to the boss, and a student will wai first before the teacher does the same thing.

How does one do a wai? There are actually four types of wai, the first three being the traditional wais, and you may need to practice in front of a mirror to do them correctly:

1. Wai to monks

  • Press your hands together
  • Put your thumbs between your eyebrows
  • The index fingers should touch your forehead
  • Present a slight bow by bending your body a little.

2. Wai to a superior or an older person

  • Press your hands together
  • Put your thumbs on the tip of your nose
  • The index fingers should touch between your eyebrows
  • Present a slight bow by bending your body a little

3. Wai to a person of the same age as you

  • Press your hands together
  • Your thumbs should touch the tip of your chin
  • The index fingers should touch the tip of your nose

4. The modern wai

  • Press your hands together
  • Place your hands at chest level
  • Slightly bow your head

Take note that you can wai a monk but monks don’t have to return the wai. If someone wais you and you want to do it in return, just put your hands together at chest level and say “sawatdee ka”.

When visiting a religious place

Thailand is filled with temples that will be definite must-sees on your itinerary. Upon visiting a temple, remember that all Buddha images are regarded as sacred. Whether they are big or small, ruined or not, they are sacred, period. So don’t climb on them or take inappropriate selfies with them.

Always dress appropriately. Never go to a temple in shorts or in a tank top. Men should wear sleeved shirts and long pants, and woman should wear modest blouses or shirts that cover the cleavage, arms, back and stomach, and should also wear a long skirt because pants are considered unsuitable attire for women who are visiting a temple.

visiting temples
Show respect when visiting temples

Buddhist monks are not allowed to touch or be touched by a woman or to directly accept anything from a woman. If a woman wants to offer something to a monk or to a novice, she must give it to a male companion who will then present it to the monk. In case a woman does not have a male companion, the monk or novice will spread out a piece of saffron-colored robe or handkerchief on the ground or a table for the woman to place the object on it before it can be handled.

Always be polite and do as the Thais do

The Thai customs were born out of the people’s innate sense of respect for their leaders, elders and countrymen, so when you’re in Thailand, the main thing that you have to remember is to show respect for everyone and be on your best behavior. The gentle nature of the Thais is part of the charm of Thailand, so reciprocate their polite behavior with genuine respect and you’ll draw many people to you and even make a friend or two before you leave.

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