Thailand’s cultural customs

In Thai culture, as with many Asian countries, a hierarchy of respect is a very big deal. Losing face – feeling humiliated or disrespected – can come in many forms and remembering to follow a few of Thailand's cultural customs will go a long way to ensuring you interact with local Thais in the most respectful way possible. Learning some words in Thai and a few of the social norms related to eating out, what to wear and how to behave in a place of worship, are all important features of responsible travel and will help you get much more from the travel experience, as a whole. Below is a brief introduction to Thailand's cultural customs and if you're visiting the country with a local guide don't be afraid to ask how to do or say something, rather than blindly jumping in – bare feet first.

Respect and greetings in Thailand

As mentioned, Thai society works on a time-honoured hierarchy with royalty and devout religious followers, including monks, placed firmly at the top of the pile. The job you hold, your educational background, your age, how you dress, all goes towards how you're seen in the traditional pecking order. It is this social status that will also decree how a person should be respectfully greeted.

Greetings in Thailand usually involve a wai or two. This common gesture is when you place your hands together in a prayer position and gently bow your head. Thai cultural custom dictates that it's the person who is of the lower social status who will offer the wai. Those who are of a very high social status, such as monks, won't even need to respond with a wai of their own. If you're offered a wai in greeting then feel free to return the gesture although you won't be expected to do so for children, waiting staff or street vendors. You’re not being disrespectful you’ll just be observing traditional Thai customs and avoiding any undue embarrassment.

Although people generally touch hands in the West this is not the same in Thailand or many other parts of Asia. It's also disrespectful to touch someone's head or pass something over someone's head. In Bangkok it's perfectly normal for the Skytrain to come to a halt when a member of the royal family is passing underneath. This is because it would be highly disrespectful to be higher than these already elevated members of Thai society.

Feet are another important part of treading in Thailand with respect. As the lowest part of the body, poor old feet are considered the least clean and therefore the least respectful. Showing someone the soles of your feet or pointing your feet in a Thai person's direction or having your feet higher than someone's head – don't ask – will all be deeply disrespectful to a Thai person. This is certainly the case if you're entering a wat (Buddhist temple) or a Thai person's home – and some restaurants and shops – as you're required to remove footwear, making your bare feet at their most offensive.

Keeping the peace

In the main, Thais are peaceful people with any outward signs of aggression, anger and negativity being frowned upon as a facet of losing face. After a long flight, for example, patience can often wear a bit thinner than usual. Keeping calm, smiling and trying not to show negative emotions in public – even with the taxi driver who's just charged you double the standard price – is always recommended. You're also likely to reach a much more agreeable outcome if you keep your cool. Keeping calm also ensures that Thai guides and new found Thai friends or local hosts don't lose face on your behalf. Also, Thai people can come across as slightly direct when asking questions in English. Do your best to understand that no offence or disrespect is intended; honesty in Thailand is simply seen as the best policy. Remember the mantra: nod, smile, and practise your patience.

Right royal colours

The Thai royal family are the head of the country’s hierarchical society. They’re a massive deal. Thailand pretty much puts things on hold every day at 8am and 6pm for the national anthem. The anthem is piped out of speakers attached to trees and posts and anyone in ear shot is required to stop what they're doing and observe a respectful silence. If asked a question about Thai royalty always speak respectfully no matter who you're talking to. Otherwise just avoid the subject. Be warned: it's actually a criminal offence to disrespect the monarchy in any way and that includes their image. Just be careful how you treat your baht bank notes.

Traditional Thais also believe that wearing yellow on Mondays and during the month of July is respectful to the Thai royal family, and will bring them good luck. This is because Monday 28th July is the day that the first King of Thailand, King Rama X, was born. Buddhist belief is that there is a colour associated with a god and a god associated with every day of the week. It's considered good luck, by some, to wear an appropriate colour depending on the day. There are also unlucky colours too. Foreigners will not be expected to know this or require colour-coordinated dress sense. It's just handy to know why some days appear more red, green or blue, than others.

What to do in a wat

Thailand’s Buddhist temples follow a strict dress code that needs to be adhered to before entering. Wat Phra Kaew, especially, as it’s in the grounds of the Grand Palace, insists on long trousers and shirts for men. Nothing tight fitting – in that humidity! – is acceptable, including leggings, and no rips or see-through items of clothing. Women will need to wear long skirts below the knee and basically cover up. Sarongs and shawls always come in handy in Thailand. Men and women will both be asked to remove headgear and footwear before entering a temple. Other wat etiquette includes no shouting, pointing, food, phone calls or walking in front of people whilst they’re praying. Also when sitting down, please don’t point your feet at anyone or at an image of Buddha. This might sound like a lot to get your head around but if you’re accompanied by a tour leader or a local guide you’ll be instructed as to what’s appropriate before you’re invited to enter. Don’t worry, there will be signs.

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Mealtime mistakes in Thailand

If you're lucky enough to be invited into a Thai person's home for a meal then there are one or two things to remember at mealtimes to ensure your host is just as satisfied as you are.

Firstly, gifts are not required although fruit, flowers (not marigolds or carnations) or a box of sweets are usually well received. Don't go for anything too expensive and don't wrap your gift in black, blue or green as these colours are associated with funerals! Also, don't expect your host to unwrap a gift in front of you. They're more likely to save it to be opened in private once you've left.

Chopsticks aren't used as much in Thailand as other parts of Asia. You're more likely to use a fork, spoon or fingers. Make sure you use your right hand for eating and resist the urge to lick your fingers at meal times no matter how good those sticky barbecued ribs taste.

If you're looking to finish your meal then leave a little bit on your plate rather than polishing off the whole lot. This will indicate that you've enjoyed your meal rather than saying that you're still hungry.

Finally, on arrival, wait to be seated by your host. Everything will usually be informal but still there's a certain level of social etiquette to be maintained when it comes to who sits where at mealtimes.

How to meet a monk

It's not uncommon to see a monk in Thailand. They have often been introduced to Buddhism and the monastic lifestyle from a very young age. In Thai society they do command more respect than other members of society – there are even reserved standing areas for monks on public transport – however, they're just young men and shouldn't be seen as some sort of zoo animal. Taking photographs of monks can be tempting for many westerners but have some respect, and ask first before you do so.

You will often find monks in and around wats and other places of worship. Many monks speak English and will be happy to spark up a conversation. If you are with a Thai guide or friend, wait for them to introduce you to the monk. If you're on your own and are approached by a monk then simply give a respectful wai greeting and see what they have to say. Often it will just be quite normal every day curious questions about where you're from and what you're doing in Thailand rather than deep and meaningful universe expanding enlightenment. But, you never know...

Definitely don't think about coming into physical contact with a monk. For instance, try not to take a seat next to a monk on public transport. It's a strictly observed code of conduct for monks not to come into physical contact with women, especially. Basically, retain a respectful distance and just use your common sense.
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: Alexandre Chambon] [Intro: Peter Hershey] [Respect and greetings in Thailand: shankar s.] [What to do in a wat: pxhere] [Mealtime mistakes in Thailand: Mattes]
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