What’s fascinating about the rules of Thai etiquette is that they’re so nuanced and multi-layered; with roots that run deep into Thai culture, heritage, and the hearts and minds of the Thai people. This rich cultural texture adds a strong sense of tradition and decorum to the mindset of Thais; a Buddhist-inspired sense of purpose and place that can seem at odds with the friendly spirit of fun and laid-back vibe of the Thai people.
Understanding Thai etiquette is a way of gaining an insight into the real Thailand and creating a deeper connection that is often the case with the average package-holiday tourist experience.
Luxury travelers today are seeking experiential travel on top of staying in high-end accommodations. The unique qualities of Thailand and the warmth of the Thai people have made more than one first-time visitor fall head-over-heels. However, to get to know Thailand and feel more relaxed during your getaway it’s worth being aware of some real Thai etiquette.
Learn the art of the Wai
The classic Thai greeting of palms touching in a prayer-like gesture and a nod of the head or a slight bow involves an intricate set of rules that can be difficult for any non-Thai to master. The good news is that you’re not expected to get it right. However, it is considered very impolite if you do not return a Wai.
As a rule-of-thumb, do not Wai to people in a service capacity but do Wai to show respect and to acknowledge help from others and to say hello to people you meet along the way. As well as a greeting, a Wai is a way of saying goodbye too.
Take it easy
It’s hardly applauded to lose your temper in any culture, however in Thailand showing anger can have a deeper meaning. Traveling and communicating in another country can sometimes be frustrating, even in paradise, but reacting angrily only means you have lost respect for yourself and will lose respect from others. This idea of not wanting to offend or negatively affect the happiness of others is known as ‘kreng jai’ and is at the heart of Thai’s life philosophy that creating an atmosphere where people feel at ease is more important than ‘being right’ or saying what you really think. It is important to respect and return this strong cultural ideal.
Be careful of touching someone’s head and pointing with your feet
Often it is the small, nuanced gestures that can have a great impact culturally and in Thailand, a real no-no is to make sure you don’t touch somebody’s head as this is a disrespectful gesture. Of course, in many countries, it would not be socially acceptable to touch the head of a stranger and not necessarily what you would do anyway, but it’s worth understanding how deeply inappropriate it is regarded in Thailand. Pointing your feet at other people or a Buddha statue is also to be avoided, and Thai culture dictates that you should always make sure your feet are not higher than someone else’s head as this too is a sign of disrespect.
Smile and Thailand smiles with you
The ‘Land of a Thousand Smiles’ is not named so simply because the people are friendly, which of course they are. In everyday Thai culture, a smile is a way of showing respect, of ensuring another person feels comfortable, and sometimes resolving issues and avoiding any conflict and potential loss of face. A smile will get you far on your journey in Thailand, and you’ll come out the other end smiling.
In the same way, Thais have a keen sense of humor in general and this sense of ‘Sanuk’ is viewed as an important part of normal behavior too. Take certain situations too seriously and don’t be light-hearted enough and you may find others take offense.
Follow the rules… if there are rules
Thais have their own unique culture and follow their customs, but keep in mind that if there are rules in place, you’re expected to stick to them and to ignore protocol can be seen as grossly arrogant.
Respect Thai Beliefs
Whatever your spiritual beliefs, it’s essential to respect not only Buddhism in Thailand but also the genuine sense of superstition that surrounds Thai culture and tradition. You may not relate to the Thai love of lucky numbers, auspicious days and appeasing spirits with bright-red sodas at roadside shrines, but mocking or questioning these ideas too closely could offend.
In Phuket, the annual Vegetarian Festival is an incredible way to experience this when some people climb knife-blade ladders and pierce their skin with objects and knives to ward off bad luck.
Wear the right clothes on temple visits
Spending time soaking up the atmosphere at splendid temples is one of the highlights of any trip to Thailand. However, while you may be spending days in t-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops, make sure you pack temple attire. Long trousers and skirts, as well as long-sleeved tops, are required. Open heel and open toe shoes are not generally suitable either, although sandals with a strap around the back are usually acceptable. Some temples offer visitors garments to put over their clothes if they turn-up without the right gear, but not always, so if you know you’re heading out to explore these Buddhist sanctuaries dress appropriately.
Take off your shoes
Before entering into anyone’s house, it is the golden rule to take off your shoes before entering. This is seen as a sign of respect and, of course, hygiene. It’s also good to look out for small shops where you’re expected to do this too, and other places where you leave your shoes at the door are before you enter temple buildings and also at the spa. Make sure your feet are clean, look good and that you wear shoes that can be easily put on and taken off again.
It’s nothing personal
What might be considered personal comments in your opinion are often a way in which Thais are simply being friendly. Exclamations about your appearance, size, shape, and any distinguishing features are not intended to be rude. While they can take some getting used to, the best approach is to laugh along and don’t feel offended.
For a nation not always renowned for their straight-talking approach, you may find that some Thais seem to ask quite private questions about your personal life and even finances. The best response is to politely change the subject and again, not balk too much at what may seem inappropriate inquiries, but which are just an attempt to get to know you.