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Dos and Don’ts in Thailand

Dos and Don’ts in Thailand

General Dos and Don’ts in Thailand
There are a number of general things to be aware of when it comes to Thai culture and Thai people, and it pays to keep in mind a few of the more common dos and don’ts to make your time in Thailand pleasant.  Not only will they prevent you from inadvertently offending someone, but they will also save you the embarrassment of realising that you committed an unintentional faux pas.  Of course, these are very broad, and there will always be some exceptions where you see people doing differently or when people say a particular thing wouldn’t be an issue for them personally.
Hopefully, these handy hints will make your life that little bit easier:

Respect the Thai Culture
This one is a bit of a no-brainer.  Sure, you may have your own opinion on many things, and that’s perfectly acceptable, but it’s how and when you show your views, and knowing the times when it’s best to just keep quiet.  There will, no doubt, be some things that you just don’t understand and those that you find frustrating.  It helps to remember the famous saying, “When in Rome …”  If you are curious and want to learn more, ask!  If you are being critical it’s best to keep your mouth shut.

Stand for the National Anthem / Royal Anthem
Many Thai people have a profound respect for their King (more about this later), and you should also display a level of respect for the Royal Family.  Every day at 8am and 6pm the National Anthem is played with pride.  You will hear it in bus stations, train stations, etc, and in some places it is broadcast over loud-speakers into the community.  If you are out and about in public pay attention to what Thais do and follow suit.  If you go to the cinema you will see that the Royal Anthem is shown before each film and you should stand for this.  It’s only a few minutes of your life and it will stop you from looking like an ignorant clown.

Use the Wai
You will notice that Thais don’t typically greet each other with a handshake but rather they use a gesture that looks like a cross between a small bow and prayer.  This is known as the Wai.  There are lots of social etiquette rules and conventions surrounding the Wai, for example who should Wai first and how high the hands should be placed, but you will certainly pick these up as you go along.  Start simple.  Place your hands together as though in prayer, with the fingers extended, and as you life them in front of your face bow your head slightly so as to meet your hands on the way up.  As a rule of thumb, your middle finger should end up level with your nose.  It is especially important that you greet older people and people in higher positions of social power in this way.  If somebody Wais you, make sure you return it.  The exceptions are children and people working in the service industry – a return Wai is not expected in these situations, but it never hurts to be polite!

The Wai is also used to say goodbye, give thanks, offer an apology, and similar such circumstances where a certain level of respect is expected.

Take Your Shoes Off
If you see a pile of shoes outside a place it shows that you are also expected to go barefoot.  You should always take your shoes off before going into a temple and a person’s home, and it is sometimes expected for government buildings, some small stores, and so on.  There are often signs, but a handy hint is if you are unsure and you can’t see any shoes outside, try and take a peek through a door or window and see what the people inside are wearing on their feet.

Learn a Few Basis Phrases
Most people won’t expect you to speak perfect Thai – it’s a tricky language to learn!  But a few basic words and phrases can really go a long way to show that you are being polite.

Dress Respectfully
Again, a handy way to gauge appropriate level of dress is to see how Thais in the local community typically dress.  Rural areas are often more moderate and conservative than in the cities.  As a guide, ladies should wear skirts and dresses to around the knee and have their shoulders covered.  Men shouldn’t go shirtless.  Neither gender should wear really short shorts or see through garments.

If you’re unsure about how to dress for work, ask someone!  If you’re out and about in the community err on the side of caution and keep it covered.  These dress standards are especially important if you’re visiting a temple, and, of course, you wouldn’t wear the same thing to go shopping or sightseeing as you would clubbing!

Be Patient
The Thai way of life is often a lot slower than foreigners are used to.  This can be charmingly refreshing or painfully frustrating.  Deal with it.  It’s the way it is and you’re not going to change it.  Be patient and don’t sweat it.  Getting upset about it will only make you feel worse and make you look silly.  It can also lead to misunderstandings and loss of face (more below).

Enjoy Yourself
Thais have a concept of “sanuk” – fun – which they try and import into every area of their life.  Whether they’re at work, rest. Or play, Thais will try and make the most of things and have a good time.  Follow this lead, go with the flow, and have fun!

Disrespect the Monarchy
Whether or not you’re typically pro or anti royal with regards to any country, showing any critical ideas, negative thoughts, or disrespecting behaviours towards the Thai Royal Family is really not a good idea.  Many Thai people idolize the Royal Family and casting any bad light on this can cause serious offence.  It could also get you into trouble too though as Thailand still has Lese Majeste laws, making it an offence to disrespect or question the Monarchy.

Talk Politics
If there’s a hot topic that is likely to inflame a social situation it’s politics.  Of course you can have your own ideas, but keep them to yourself.  Sometimes you may find yourself in a discussion with a Thai person who you knew pretty well and they actively want your opinions – in this situation it’s fine, but stop if things look like they’re getting out of hand.  Don’t be the one to start any political conversations.

Get Angry
It’s often said that Thais don’t get angry or lose their temper.  You will quickly see that many Thais do indeed get pretty worked up at times.  A foreigner who does this though is often seen as being mad or crazy.  Also, confrontation can lead to a person losing face.  The concept of face is where you cause embarrassment or disrespect a person, especially in public.  Losing face is a major cause of serious conflicts, which can escalate and sometimes turn violent very quickly.  Keep a level head and try and resolve any issues calmly and rationally.  The same applies to emotions – try and avoid any excessive emotional outburst.

Touch Heads
The head is considered the most spiritual part of a person’s body and to touch someone’s head is to really disrespect them.  Don’t do it!

Use Your Feet
Well, don’t use your feet for anything other than walking!  As the lowest part of the body the feet are seen as being unclean and unholy.  You shouldn’t use your feet to point, pick up things, move things etc.  You shouldn’t step over people or their belongings.  Be careful where you’re inadvertently pointing your feet too – to position the soles of your feet at someone, for example when you cross your legs, is often really insulting.  The same goes in temples – make sure your feet are pointing away from Buddha images and monks.

Are there any things you think should be added to this list?  What else do you think people should be aware of when living in Thailand?

(2) Comments

  1. Stu Baker

    on   said 

    Great post! Especially agree with the points about suitable conversation topics and feet. And appropriate dress. It always amazes me when I see foreigners walking around temples barely dressed. (But it’s worse in the south, granted.) I would add “don’t underestimate the importance of family.” Family ties and obligations can seem a bit stronger to people from western countries – but that’s the way it is. This is particularly useful for people starting a relationship with a Thai – you’re almost in a relationship with the whole family!


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