You’ve probably read about the “good manners” already in your travel guide. Most of what the guides say is true: you shouldn’t point your feet towards a Buddha image, you shouldn’t touch a monk, etc. But there are a few things, in our humble opinion, that the guides always forget to mention, and there are also a few things not worth mentionning.
Thai people have a true and deep feeling of love and respect for their King, His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX). If you go to see a movie, for example, you have to stand up when everybody stands up (this is at the beginning, when they show a short film about the King). Failing to do so, or deliberately failing to show some respect towards the King or the Monarchy in any situation where it is expected from you, is not only an offense to the Thai people, but it can also get you in very big trouble. As an example, a Swiss man was sentenced to 10 years in jail just because he had sprayed black paint on a King’s portrait (as the story goes, he had been angry because he couldn’t buy alcohol due to the 60th anniversary celebrations of the King’s accession to the throne). So please always remember that it is a very serious matter in Thailand.
The Thai hymn
At 8.00 am and 6.00 pm every day, the Thay national hymn is played in public places. Most people stop and stand still, a few don’t. As a foreigner and especially in touristic spots you’re not expected to stand still, but if you feel like showing some respect, the Thais will of course appreciate it.
- For more information, see our articles about Thai history.
The “wai”: how and when?
The wai (pronounce like why) is the traditional gesture of greeting and thanking. It is done by joining hands in front of the chest and bending the head. Foreigners are not expected to wai, but it’s nice to do it in appropriate situations. So who should you wai? If you’re not sure, you can wai basically any person who wais you first, except if this person is working for you or this person is a child. This means you needn’t wai a maid or a hotel staff, for instance. It’s not that they are “inferior”, but they provide a service, you are the guest, and you are not even expected to thank them. Of course many foreigners thank them and even wai back, and the Thais get used to it, but if you show too much respect to someone, he can also be embarrassed. If you want to be nice, just smile 🙂 and leave a tip!
You can also wai as a way to apologize, if you step on someone’s foot or bump into someone.
In circumstances when you want to show even more respect (if you meet your Thai girlfriend’s or boyfriend’s parents, for example), the wai should take longer, with the hands higher (the higher the hands, the more respect you’re showing). You can also bow a little.
Don’t touch the monks, don’t give them anything directly especially if you are a girl, and try to show them some respect the way the Thais do. If you are in a crowd and stand close to a monk, avoid rubbing shoulders, for instance.
The notion of “losing face” in Thailand is not a cliché, it is present in all aspects of the daily life (family, friends, marital life, when conducting business or doing politics). It is very important to preserve face, whatever the means (including blatantly lying, or violently retaliating). That’s why everybody says you should avoid any conflict of any kind with a Thai person (man or woman), because things can get out of hand quickly. If you see Thai people remain stoical in a potentially violent situation, it’s not that they are “zen”, it’s because they know that things do escalate in very extreme ways. Just check the news and you will find plenty of stories of people killing themselves for what appears to be futile motives, but which is indeed about losing face.
Being a guest
No shoes inside
You should take off your shoes when you enter a house (or a temple, no need to say), or anytime you notice that shoes are being left in front of the door.
The Thai love to make presents to each other. If you’re invited somewhere, always try to bring something along. If you go on a trip somewhere, make sure you buy souvenirs, even small things (it’s really the thought that matters).
Food: the good manners
In a typical Thai meal there are several dishes at the center of the table, and a plate of rice for every guest. You are supposed to help yourself with the spoon in the dish, not with your personal spoon. It’s better to help yourself small portions several times, rather than a big portion. The fork is used to push the food into the spoon, and the spoon is used to eat. Don’t eat rice with your fork. There are no knives on the table, as Thai food is already eminced and you have nothing to cut. Chopsticks are used rarely, primarily for the consumption of noodle soups.
At the restaurant, Thai people usually order several dishes which are put in the middle of the table, and everybody can eat from any dish. So it’s very different from what we do in Europe or USA, where every guest at the table orders his own dish and you have to ask politely if you want to taste what somebody else ordered!
Last but not least, because rice is difficult to grow and harvest, and because it is essential in Thailand, it is considered impolite and disrespectful to leave some rice in the plate. So don’t help yourself too much rice, to be sure you will finish it all.
- Also check our article about Thai food.
Hide these feet that I ought not to see
Feet are the less sacred part of the body. When you sit in a temple, get on your knees and keep your feet behind you. If you’re not sure how to sit, just look at the way the Thais sit and adopt the same position. This is also true when you sit on the floor with other people, like the Thais like to do when they eat or talk with friends. You can sit cross-legged or on your knees, provided you keep your feet out of view. When sitting on a chair, if you feel the urge to cross your legs or rest your feet on an empty chair in front of you, make sure your feet are not directed to anyone. If you need to tie up your shoelace, be careful where you put your feet on. I remember when a friend of mine had to tie up his shoelace and he put his foot on the pedestal of a statue of the King. Very bad idea, fortunately they were no passers-by.
Oh my head
The head is the most sacred part of the body, and the guides usually say that you must never touch the head of a child, as it is where their soul is. Well, this may be true, but I’ve seen many Thai people, even perfect strangers, pat the head of my kids or stroke their hair. So it’s probably no such big deal. But never throw anything at someone’s head, even if you think you’re just kidding.
B.O.: stay fresh all day!
Thailand is a very hot and damp country, and Farangs (Westerners) often sweat like madmen. Miraculously, the Thais always look fresh and clean. If you are a tourist, it’s not such a big deal, you can reduce the damage with a good deodorant and some comfortable clothes. If you’re working, you should adopt all the Thai tricks: avoid walking under the sun (use taxis or buses with air conditioning, or moto-taxis), or if you can’t avoid walking under the sun then protect yourself under an umbrella (you won’t look stupid). You can also have a small towel to wipe sweat (you won’t look stupid either). Use lifts or escalators, don’t climb stairs. The sun is hot here!
Keep your voice down
Farangs are often thought to be noisy people. On many occasions I sat on the BTS (the Bangkok subway) at rush hour, with Thai people speaking on the phone or talking to each other, but always in a very quiet atmosphere. And then you have a group of big Farangs stepping in, laughing out loud and getting everyone’s attention. We are what we are, and we speak like we speak, but the Thais usually like to keep their voice down (except my wife, can you believe it), so if you want to show your good manners, you shouldn’t speak too loud in closed public spaces.
Like the languages we speak are not the same, the body language also varies from one culture to another. In Thailand, pointing at someone with your forefinger, for instance, can be an aggressive gesture. When calling a taxi or gesturing for someone to come closer, make sure your palm is down, the fingers directed to the ground. When passing between some people who are talking to each other, make sure you bend your body to show that you apologize for the disruption. Also bend a little if you have to walk and everybody else sits. The idea is that having your head higher than someone else means that you are in a superior position, so if you can’t avoid it, you must bend to show that you are at least aware of it. You will also notice that people who consider themselves in an inferior position (maids for instance) may even bow until their head is actually lower than the people they show respect to, even if these people are seated. You also have to remember it is simple politeness, not a humiliation in any way.
Just keep smiling!
Maybe you already witnessed such a scene: a car breaks down in the middle of the traffic, jamming all the other cars, and it’s a cacophony of horns… In the middle of the chaos sits the poor guy behind the wheel of his useless car, and, incredibly, the guy is smiling! Or you desperately need to buy something, and the shop owner seems delighted to tell you he has run out of it! Why are they smiling like that, isn’t that unnerving, huh? When they say the “land of smiles”, you probably expected smiles and welcoming crowns of flowers, not hypocritical smiles of people making fun of you! Well, just relax, nobody is making fun of you. The Thais smile when they feel embarrassed, that’s all. It may seem hard to fathom, but it’s true. If they are in a very difficult situation and they can’t do much about it, chances are they will just smile, as a way of not losing face. So they may smile just because they would like to help you but they can’t. Yes, sometimes they may also make fun of you too, we’re never sure, are we… 😉
Last but not least, the always classic but necessary warning: don’t take drugs while visiting Thailand. Don’t buy any, don’t carry any, don’t get involved with anything or anyone about drugs. The laws here are very tough, the prisons are no Disneyland and you don’t want to take the risk of spending many years in a Thai jail just to have a fun party or earn a few bucks. It’s not worth it, whichever way you look at it. You should never accept any bag or anything from someone you don’t know very well, as it may contain drugs. And beware of your own compatriots, it’s not because you are thousands of miles away from home that the fellow countryman you’ve just met will prove to be a nice and reliable friend. There are many scams of all kinds run by foreigners and aimed at foreigners…
If you’re not sure what to do or how to behave in a specific situation, just look at what the Thais are doing and do the same. If it fails, just smile. 🙂