Thais are a polite people and, although remarkably tolerant of foreigners walking on their beaches and with their women, you will find that you get more respect if you treat them and their customs with respect.
- The head is considered the most elevated part of the body, the feet the lowest. Never touch or pat a Thai person on the head, even children. If you accidentally touch or bump someone’s head, apologise immediately or you will be perceived as very rude. Also, do not touch people with your feet or even point at them. If a person is sitting with their feet out, avoid stepping on them as this is very rude and could even lead to a confrontation. Hug them or ask them to move. Even if the person is asleep, it is best to walk around as others may notice.
- Thais are conservative compared to Westerners. Public displays of affection are rare, even among married couples, and are generally considered distasteful, although Thais are reluctant to tolerate such displays by foreigners due to the Thai economy’s dependence on tourism. Do not kiss in public. You would embarrass yourself and inflame the sensitivities of the Thai people.
- It is considered rude and disrespectful to visibly sniff food before eating it, especially if you are eating at someone’s home (this also applies if the sniffing is done as a form of appreciation).
- Do not blow your nose audibly in public, especially at the table, but it is perfectly acceptable to pick your nose at any time and in any place.
- In Thailand, the expression of a negative emotion such as anger or sadness is almost never visible and it is possible to enjoy a holiday in Thailand without ever feeling like you are having an argument or seeing an unhappy person. Thais smile all the time, and to foreigners this is considered happiness or friendliness. In reality, smiling is a very subtle way of communicating and for those living in Thailand, a smile can indicate any emotion – from fear, anger, sadness, joy, etc. “Saving face” is a very important aspect of Thai culture and they will try to avoid embarrassment and confrontation.
- In public places (e.g. large markets), the national anthem is played over loudspeakers at 8am and 6pm. When it is played, many people stop their activities and remain motionless for the duration of the anthem. You should do the same. The royal anthem (not the national anthem) is played in cinemas before the film and everyone has to stand up. It lasts for about a minute, and then everyone picks up where they left off. In the MRT and SkyTrain stations in Bangkok, the escalators are also stopped to avoid a big crowd.
The traditional greeting known as wai, in which the hands are pressed together and bowed slightly as in a prayer, originated in Hindu-influenced India and is still frequently practised today. Among Thais, there are strict hierarchical rules that dictate how and when the wai must be given. In short, subordinates greet their superiors first. You should not give wai to service staff or street vendors. The higher your hands are, the more respectful you are. You will also often see Thais doing a wai when passing temples and haunted houses. As a foreign visitor, you should not know how to do a waai, nor should you give back if you do; although you won’t be offended if you do, you might look a little strange. If someone gives you a waai, a slight bow is more than enough for ordinary occasions, and in business most Thais shake hands with strangers anyway, rather than shaking them off.
In Thailand, personal appearance is very important as a measure of respect for others. You will find that being properly dressed means showing more respect in return. This is reflected in many ways and sometimes even leads to lower initial bid prices in the markets. Taking into account the different habits of foreigners, Thais tend to react positively to well-dressed Westerners.
If Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket are exceptions, Thais are traditionally modest and conservatively dressed. Their clothes should at least be clean, neat and free of holes or tears. Except on the beach or at sacred sites, normal Western dress is acceptable for both men and women, except that you should avoid clothing that shows a lot of skin. Trousers are preferable to shorts, blouses should have short sleeves, and if you wear tank tops, the straps should be thick (no spaghetti straps). Thai men generally wear long trousers, and most Thais consider it quite ridiculous for a grown man to wear shorts; shorts are mainly worn by workers and schoolchildren. Shorts for men should be at least up to the knees, if at all.
Taking off shoes in temples and private houses is a compulsory sign, in some shops it is even mandatory. Wear shoes that are easy to put on and take off. Flip-flops, walking sandals and flats are generally a good, pragmatic choice for travelling in Thailand; only upscale establishments require footwear.
At wats and other sacred sites in Thailand, it is best to play it safe; clothing should clearly be modest and cover the entire upper body and most limbs. For men, ankle-length trousers are mandatory; topless T-shirts are acceptable, although a button-down shirt or polo shirt is preferable. Many recommend that women wear only long dresses and skirts; you should make sure that your clothes cover at least your shoulders and knees, and in some places you may need to wear ankle-length trousers or skirts and long-sleeved tops. Shorts and sleeveless shirts are completely inappropriate, as are short skirts. For foreign visitors, the rules are even stricter. So even if you see a room wearing shorts, it is not acceptable for everyone.
On many tourist beaches, Western women often sunbathe topless. However, this is not advisable on beaches frequented mainly by Thais.
Monks are an integral part of Buddhism in Thailand, and Thai men are generally expected to live as monks for a time at least once in their lives.
Buddhist monks are expected to avoid sexual temptation and especially not to touch women or take things from women’s hands. Women should make an effort to give monks space on the street and give them room so that they do not have to approach you. Women should avoid offering anything with their hands to a monk. Objects or donations should be placed in front of a monk so that he can pick them up or place them on a special cloth that he carries. Monks are sometimes assisted by a lay person who accepts items from deserving women on their behalf.
Theravada Buddhist monks are also expected to avoid material temptations and are therefore not allowed to touch money. Offering money to a monk is therefore considered a sign of disrespect in most Theravada Buddhist cultures. Therefore, if you wish to make a donation to a monk, you should only offer him food and place your monetary donation in the appropriate donation box in the temple. Monks who accept money are almost always fakes.
As in neighbouring countries, the swastika is also widespread in Thailand as a Buddhist religious symbol. It is 2,500 years older than National Socialism and has no anti-Semitic connotations.
When entering a temple, always remove your shoes beforehand, as entering a temple with shoes on is considered a major faux pas. When sitting on the floor in a temple, make sure you cross your legs “mermaid style” so that your feet are not pointed at a person or statue. Do not pose for a photo next to a Buddha statue and certainly do not climb on top of it. It is permitted to take photos of a statue, but everyone must face it. As doorways are considered a place of refuge for spirits, it is also important not to walk on a high threshold, but to cross it.
The Royal Family
It is illegal to show disrespect to royalty (lèse-majesté), a crime punishable by 15 to 20 years in prison. Do not make negative remarks, or remarks that could be taken as disrespectful to the King or any other member of the royal family. As the King is depicted on the country’s currency, you should not burn, tear or mutilate it – especially in the presence of other Thais. If you drop a coin or note, do not step on it to stop it – this is very rude as you are trampling on the image of the King’s head printed on the coin. Also, anything to do with the stories and films “The King and I” and “Anna and the King” is illegal in Thailand. Almost all Thai people, including those from other countries, are very sensitive to any version of this story. They feel that it makes a mockery of their centuries-old monarchy and that it is completely inaccurate. In 2007, a Swiss man (Oliver Juffer) was sentenced to ten years in prison for painting graffiti on the King’s portrait, although he subsequently repented and was pardoned by His Majesty himself (quote: “It disturbs me that such harsh sentences are imposed”) and deported to Switzerland.
Elephants make up a large part of Thailand’s tourism business, and smuggling and mistreatment of elephants for tourist attractions is common. Be aware that elephants are often separated from their mothers at a young age to be cruelly trained in captivity for the rest of their lives. If you are planning to take an elephant ride, buy an elephant painting or ‘use’ elephants for other activities, please be aware of the mistreatment. There are a few ethical wildlife tourism operators in Thailand, such as Elephant Nature Park and Maetang Elephant Park in Chiang Mai.
In the crowded streets of Bangkok and other tourist centres, elephant begging is a depressing spectacle. At night, mahouts (trainers) approach tourists with begging elephants to feed the banana animals or take a photo with them for a fee. The elephants are brought to the city to beg in this way because they have no work, are mistreated and visibly suffer from the conditions in the city. Please avoid supporting this cruelty by refusing mahouts who offer you bananas to feed the elephants.
Drug-addicted animals like lizards and birds are sometimes used as photo motifs by thugs. You often see them on Thailand’s main tourist beaches. The doggie takes a photo with you and the drugged animal and then demands payment.
Rare and endangered species are often sold at animal markets, and many other animal products are traded as luxury items. Avoid buying rare pets, leather, ivory, greenhouses, dried marine animals (e.g. starfish), fur, feathers, teeth, wool and other products as these are most likely the result of illegal poaching and their purchase contributes greatly to animal endangerment and mistreatment.