There are many aspects of Thai life where it's easy to make major blunders,
however innocently. Fortunately you will be forgiven for most things as an
ignorant foreigner. Because of the non-confrontational style of social
interaction, you may not even discover your error. But if things do go wrong,
smile. The smile is used as a social gesture of
apology (and for many other things) where it would take thousands of words in a
The royal family are regarded with a degree of respect that may seem strange to
a cynical Westerner. You will see their pictures everywhere. Don't forget that
the King's picture is on every banknote and coin, so they too must be handled
with care. In some public places, the national anthem is played twice a day.
Should you hear it, do as the Thai do: stop whatever you're doing and stand to
Thailand is a Theravada Buddhist nation, and they take their Buddhism
seriously. Its ideas permeate the whole way of life, producing a
non-confrontational and largely non-violent culture. The religion has
assimilated elements of others: many temples have murals depicting the Hindu
Ramayana, and "Rama" is one of the names of every king. There are
also animist elements: outside most buildings you will see a "spirit
house" built to accommodate the nature spirits displaced by the building.
Some spirits still stay inside the house: you should not put your feet on the
threshold, as one of them lives under it.
Thai Buddhist temples are called
wats. The compound is a major meeting-place for both religious and
secular occasions. The principal building is the bot, the ordination
hall, not normally open to the public. You can distinguish it from the other
buildings because it is surrounded by eight sema or boundary stones, at
each corner and the centre of each side, which mark the extents of the
consecrated ground. The sema may be simple tombstone-like objects, or
decorated more or less elaborately, and possibly enclosed in their own
mini-shrines. There may be one or more viharns, which are the lay
people's asembly halls (some strict-meditation wats may not have one at
all.) The viharn usually contains the principal Buddha image. There is
also a chedi, that or stupa, a tower symbolising the
Buddha's teaching, which contains some kind of relic.Its base represents the
cloth in which he was clothed, the dome is a begging-bowl and the spire is a
All Buddha images, however tacky some of them may seem, must be treated with
respect. You cannot export them without a special licence.
Monks are easily recognised by their saffron robes. Whatever their age (8-80+)
they should be treated with respect, but don't be afraid to talk to them. Women
need to remember that monks are forbidden any contact with the opposite sex: if
a monk wants to sit down on a bus, be prepared to give up your seat so that he
doesn't have to sit next to you. If a woman needs to give something to a monk,
either she should ask a man to do it, or the monk will hold out a corner of his
robe, and she will put the object on it.
Thai culture is permeated by considerations of relative status: age, wealth,
professional qualifications and social position are all weighed. As a foreigner
who is rich enough to fly to Thailand, you are automatically regarded as of
high status, unless you forfeit it by doing something really stupid. In every
social interaction, the participants are assessing their relative position.
This means that casual conversation sometimes seems intrusive to a reserved
English visitor: it is socially acceptable to ask about marital status, how
much you earn, and such things. On the other hand, it is equally acceptable to
reply indirectly: "enough to live on" is a sufficient reply to
"how much do you earn?" for example.
The wai is a ubiquitous gesture of respect. The hands are placed
together in a prayer-like gesture and raised to the chest or head: the higher
it is raised, the higher the status of the other party. The status inferior
always initiates the wai, and it would be extremely impolite not to
acknowledge it. However, the rules about replying are not straightforward.
Neverwai a child: it's believed to take 7 years off their life!
If in doubt, just nod and smile.Since you're obviously foreign, no
more is expected, and you won't make any embarrassing mistakes.
Smiles may indicate amusement, but they have many other uses: they may
sometimes express embarrassment, and the smile is a sufficient apology for
almost any gaffe. If you think you have blundered, smile and nod.
There are three catchphrases which sum up a good deal of the way Thai society
- Mai pen rai
- "It doesn't matter". This has overtones of accepting one's
destiny, and graceful submission when things go wrong.
- Jai yen
- "Cool heart". This epitomises the indirectness of emotional
expression. To lose one's temper is to lose face and status. So criticism,
where necessary, must be done indirectly. Blustering, shouting and asserting
your rights will get you exactly nowhere when there's a disagreement.
- "Fun" is the nearest English word, but it doesn't really do
justice to the concept. With the right attitude, it's possible to extract fun
from even the most menial of tasks. The Thai can on occasion also exhibit a
very primitive sense of fun: one festival consists mainly of throwing water
over unsuspecting passers-by.
Status is sometimes interpreted very literally. It is considered rude to be
"high": to dominate someone else by standing above them. For a tall
Westerner strap-hanging on a crowded bus, it is impossible to do otherwise, but
you can symbolically become lower by gesturing a stoop. Similarly, when walking
past seated people, try to go behind them: if you can't, stoop as you pass.
Hands, heads and feet
Another consequence of the literal interpretation of height as status is that
the head is regarded as sacred, and the feet as unclean. Except in very
intimate circumstances, you should never touch another person's head, or hold
or pass an object over their head.
At the other end of the body, the feet
are unclean. So, not surprisingly, when visiting temples or private houses you
should leave your shoes outside. In temples your legs must also be covered.
Less obviously, you should not use your feet for anything except standing or
walking. This catches most Westerners out, as we unconsciously use our feet to
push things around in many ways the Thai would find offensive. An example: if
you drop money, our natural reaction would be to stand on it. Don't do
this! Not only have you used your unclean foot, you have just defiled the
King's head with it.
Pointing is also regarded as impolite: never point at people. (An extreme
manifestation of this is in go-go bars, where the hosts/hostesses all wear
numbers: this is so that you can ask for them by number, rather than having to
point.) If you need to hail a taxi, make a downward beckoning gesture towards
the ground in front of you.
And to combine the two, never point with your feet, even
inadvertently. In temples you are expected to kneel or squat (in order not to
be "high") when not actually walking from A to B. Take care that when
you kneel, your feet point away from the Buddha image. Imitate the Little
Mermaid for the most graceful posture.
The Thai, however poor, take pride in their appearance, and expect high-status
foreigners to do the same. Laundry services are cheap, so you have no excuse
for not looking smart. Except in the winter in the North, you won't need a
woolly. Most tourist attractions are temples, where you are expected to cover
your legs, so lightweight trousers for men and long skirts for women are the
best choice. Temples accustomed to tourists may offer some kind of wrap if you
are not adequately covered. Short-sleeved open-necked shirts are perfectly
acceptable. Except for labourers, you won't see many people wearing shorts,
other than at beach resorts.