One of the most challenging aspects of living abroad is understanding foreign customs and practices, some of which can be vastly different from how we do things at home.
However, this is one of the most important things to master. Committing cultural taboos can land you in hot water. On the flip side, showing an understanding of (and willingness to learn) about the culture of your host country will go a long way in garnering respect, and opening up friendships and opportunities which can truly change your life!
So let’s break down some of Thailand’s most important Do’s and Don’ts, and get you on your way to becoming คนไทย (a Thai person).
The wai is the traditional Thai greeting and is also an important way to show respect. While you probably won’t be doing it with your close friends (high fives and fist bumps will suffice) you should do it when meeting someone in a position of authority, such as school officials, parents and grandparents, monks, and police.
To wai, simply press the palms of your hands together with your fingers extended up as if in prayer (see the picture) then bow your head slightly. It may feel a bit strange at first, but it grows on you. Soon enough you’ll be giving the wai to your grandparents back home!
It’s a simple gesture, but goes a long way in demonstrating that you understand Thai culture and know-how to show respect!
The last thing to know is always return a wai. You don’t want to risk upsetting someone who was trying to show respect.
Thailand is a Buddhist country and, as such, is a bit more modest than Western countries. Low cut or revealing clothing can make people feel uncomfortable, and should never be worn in places of business or prayer.
When visiting a temple, your shoulders and knees must be covered. In fact, you may find yourself denied entry if they are not.
You should also remove your shoes whenever entering someone’s home, or the inner shrines of temples. Some restaurants and businesses may want you to as well, but not all. A good rule of thumb is if you see a pile of shoes laying around on the ground, go ahead and pop your shoes off.
Show Respect to Monks
As a Buddhist country, monks are held in extremely high regard in Thailand. As such, there are certain rules of etiquette pertaining to them.
Monks receive a higher wai than ordinary people (hands to your face, as opposed to the chest), and don’t necessarily have to return your wai.
Women must be careful around monks, as one of the tenants of Buddhism disallows them from touching women. Avoid touching them or their robes, or handing things directly to them.
If you’re on a bus or train, giving your seat to a monk is a one-way ticket to being the most popular foreigner around!
Use Your Right Hand
In Thailand, use your right hand whenever you pay, hand over objects, or go for handshakes.
The left hand is considered “dirty”, as it is typically used for…toilet business. You’ll understand what we mean when you use your first local public bathroom.
Thailand is known as the “land of smiles” for a reason. Smiling puts people at ease, seals negotiations on a friendly note, and disarms any potential conflict.
Try to be wary of your facial expression, as some of us with RBF or in a sour mood may find our Thai friends asking us what is wrong!
Lose Your Cool
In the West, it is somewhat acceptable (though still not cool) to get upset when the bus breaks down or you’re brought the wrong food. This is NOT the case in Thailand.
Displays of strong emotion are frowned upon in Thailand and will make the people around you deeply uncomfortable. On the other hand, displaying high levels of emotional control, even in difficult situations, will go a long way in earning the respect of your Thai peers.
Adopt the Thai phrase of “mai bpen rai”, it’s kind of like the Thai version of Hakuna Matata (what a wonderful phrase).
Point with Your Feet
Feet are gross. But in Thailand, it is considered especially disrespectful to show people the bottom of your feet.
Never use your feet to point at people or things. Also, try to avoid putting the bottoms of your feet up on a desk or chair, or around people (like on the van). Finally, NEVER point at a Buddha statue with your feet. In general, try to avoid showing the bottoms of your feet.
Point, in General
Pointing is considered aggressive and a bit rude in Thailand, and may make people feel uncomfortable.
If you do want to gesture to someone, do so using all fingers together. If you want to beckon them over, put your palm facing down and gesture with your fingers. This is also how you’ll hail a cab.
Not pointing is especially important for teachers in a classroom. While it can be easy to forget, your students may be intimidated when pointed at and feel uncomfortable giving answers as a result.
Touch People’s Heads
Remember how the feet are considered dirty and disrespectful in Thailand? Well, the opposite is true for the head.
People’s heads are considered sacred. Avoid touching people’s heads, even just rustling a child’s hair. Also, avoid raising your feet above someone’s head (as impressive as that may be) and stepping over people who are sitting or laying on the ground.
In all honesty, playfully rustling a kid’s hair won’t get you run out of town with pitchforks. Just be sure you have a solid relationship with people and an understanding of what they find acceptable before doing so.
Disrespect the Royal Family
Considering Thailand’s lese majeste laws, disrespecting the royal family isn’t just considered rude. It’s an actual crime.
What’s more, many Thai people, especially the older generations, are fiercely devoted to the king and royal family. Disrespecting any member of the royal family, especially the king, is one of the biggest faux pas you can possibly commit.
This even extends to money. As it has pictures of the king on it, always try to keep it in relatively good shape, and pick up coins whenever they fall.
Finally, doubly sure you don’t share anything disrespectful on social media, as there have been cases of foreigners being straight up deported for doing so.
Public displays of affection are a big no-no in Thailand.
It is a very modest country, and this extends into personal relationships as well. Hand-holding is okay, but do try to avoid kissing or excessive physical contact in public places.
Understanding cultural practices of another country is one of the more challenging, and rewarding, aspects of living abroad.
Though there may be a learning curve at first, follow this simple guide and you’ll soon find yourself the coolest “farang” around!