Cultural differences

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 Western culture.


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 attention.


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 teaching stick.

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

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.

Three characteristic phrases

There are three catchphrases which sum up a good deal of the way Thai society works:
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.