Buddhist monks and a devotee at Nai Yang Temple in Phuket, Thailand, Photo Credit: Accidental Travel Writer.
Thais are generally friendly and laid back and will forgive foreigners who commit the occasional faux pas. But a basic understanding of Thai values and etiquette will help to prevent misunderstandings and lead to a more enjoyable stay in the Land of Smiles.
Etiquette Tips for Travelers Visiting Thailand
Thailand is known as “The Land of Smiles” for a reason. Thais like to smile! But keep in mind that smiles can be an expression of many very different emotions.
In addition to expressing happiness or friendliness, a smile could also be an expression of an apology, a thank-you, or a greeting.
A smile could also indicate embarrassment.
So if a clerk at the front desk of your hotel smiles at you when you ask if you can have a discount or an upgrade, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to get it.
She might simply be too embarrassed to come right out and tell you that that is not possible.
Thais are generally happy, pleasant, humble, hard-working, and patient. They laugh a lot, speak in soft voices, and are slow to get angry.
Thais also try not to let others lose face in a bid to maintain harmony.
Rich Cultural Heritage
Thais are rightfully proud of their rich cultural heritage, and they enjoy telling visitors to their country about it.
And there is one thing about Thailand that Thais are particularly proud of: unlike other countries in Southeast Asia (Brunei, Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam,) Thailand was never colonized by a Western power.
Contrary to the image that many people in the West have of Thailand, Thai society is actually quite conservative and hierarchical.
There are, in fact, many misconceptions about the Land of Smiles, and one of the most prevalent is that “anything goes”.
As a result of this misconception, many visitors to the country engage in behavior in Thailand that they would never think of engaging in at home.
John Stapleton, author of a controversial book on Thailand, advises visitors to the country not to leave their brains at the airport!
How to Be Polite in Thailand
If you want to be polite in Thailand, an understanding of Thai customs, the dos and don’ts of Thai culture, business etiquette in Thailand, how to dress when visiting Buddhist temples, Thai table manners, and other aspects of Thailand culture will lead to a more enjoyable stay in the Land of Smiles.
Ten tips for following Thai etiquette (and insight for why they are important) follow.
1. Thai Royalty
Upon arrival at Suvarnabhumi International Airport or Don Mueang International Airport in Bangkok, you will undoubtedly notice one the many “Long Live the King” signs that adorn the airport terminal buildings.
You will also notice pictures of the King and other members of the Royal Family hanging from lampposts on the way to your hotel and on the walls of restaurants, offices, stores, and even private homes.
The Royal Family is, in fact, highly revered in Thailand, and tourists visiting the country should be aware of this fact.
You should never make critical or insulting comments about the King, other members of the Royal Family, or the institution of the monarchy itself – even in private.
Thailand has strict lese majeste laws, and violating them can get you into serious trouble.
Needless to say, this extends to social media. People have actually landed in prison for speaking out against the monarchy on Facebook.
The national anthem is played every morning at 8 am and every afternoon at 6 pm in parks and other public spaces. The anthem is also played before movies begin at movie theatres.
Make sure to stop what you are doing and stand respectfully while the anthem is being played.
The King and I
While it is a good idea to bring a novel set in a country to read while visiting that country, do NOT bring a copy of The King and I or Anna and the King to Thailand.
Both the books and the films based on them are frowned on in Thailand, where they are considered condescending if not insulting to both the country and the monarchy.
Keep in mind that an image of the king appears on currency. If you drop a coin, never step on it with your foot to stop it from rolling away.
The same goes for paper currency. If a bill escapes you, you should never step on it with your foot to keep it from flying off. Either one of these acts would be considered a serious insult.
Word to the Wise
While on the topic of money, never change money at the airport if you can avoid it. You will get a substantially better exchange rate in town.
There are several money exchange booths just outside the airport terminal in the underground walkway linking Suvarnabhumi International Airport to the mass transit station, and they offer the same exchange rates as money-changers in town.
2. Buddhism Dos and Don’ts
Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist country, and nearly 96% of the population identifies itself as Buddhist.
If you plan on visiting a Buddhist temple, you should dress conservatively and avoid wearing tank tops or short pants.
Women might want to bring a scarf or a shawl to cover bare shoulders or low-cut dresses. Knees should never be exposed.
Buddhist monks are highly regarded in Thailand, and seats should be offered to them on public transport. You should never touch a monk, especially if you are a woman.
Word to the Wise
Buddhism is a religion, and Buddhist imagery should not be treated with disrespect.
While many people treat Buddhist sculptures and paintings as “design objects”, using them as lamp bases or wall hangings, this practice is frowned upon in Thailand.
You might even notice signs as the airport warning that such objects cannot be taken out of the country.
The fact that these things are for sale does not mean that you should buy them. Better safe than sorry.
- Suggested Reading: Living Buddhism, Mind, Self, and Emotion in a Thai Community by Julia Cassaniti>>
3. Clothing Tips
Thailand is not Hawaii, and unless you are at a beach resort, modest clothing is preferred.
In business, that means conservative attire – suit and tie for men and plain dresses, suits, or skirts with blouses for women. Knees should be covered.
While dark colours are preferred for pants, skirts, and jackets, avoid black as it is usually worn at funerals.
Despite the hot weather, Thais tend to dress up when going out or attending festive occasions.
- Suggested Reading: Passport Thailand, Your Pocket Guide to Thai Business, Customs and Etiquette (Passport to the World) by World Trade Press>>
4. Feet and Footwear Tips
The feet are considered to be unclean in Thailand. Just as it would be considered insulting to step on a picture of royalty, it is considered impolite to point at something or someone with your foot.
A video clip of a Chinese tourist ringing bells at a Buddhist temple by kicking them with his feet caused outrage on YouTube.
Be prepared to remove your shoes when visiting someone’s home. This is also expected at some offices, some small shops, some small restaurants, and most day spas, but not usually at shopping malls or department stores.
You can simplify life in Thailand by wearing slip-on sandals. Shoe theft is not unheard of so inexpensive footwear is recommended.
Word to the Wise
When walking into someone’s house, always step over the threshold and never directly on it.
Also, be forewarned that there is often a step down on the other side of the threshold, especially when leading into a public toilet and sometimes into or out of a hotel room.
So be forewarned and tread carefully.
5. A Guide to Table Manners
Thailand might be located in the heart of Asia, but that doesn’t mean Thais eat with chopsticks. Neither do they eat with knife and fork.
Thais, in fact, usually eat with a fork and spoon: the fork is held in the right hand and the spoon is held in the left hand.
The fork never touches the mouth. Instead, the fork is used to “shovel” food unto the spoon, which is then lifted to the mouth.
Some foods are eaten with your hands. In this case, make sure you use your right hand – never your left hand, which is considered dirty.
Chopsticks are usually reserved for Chinese, Japanese, and Korean restaurants. An exception is noodles and spring rolls, which are sometimes consumed with chopsticks.
As in many other countries, finishing all of the food on your plate could imply that you are not full so it is therefore good manners to leave a little bit of food on your plate.
Never lick your fingers when you finish eating – unless, of course, you are eating at Kentucky Fried Chicken, which is highly popular in Thailand.
Despite having one of the world’s most popular cuisines, Thais also LOVE to indulge in American style fast food!
6. Touching and Pointing Don’ts
While the feet are considered to dirtiest part of the body, the head is the most sacred part of the body.
For this reason, you should never touch somebody on the head – and this includes children, no matter how cute they might be.
Pointing at someone is considered rude, especially if you point with your foot. Never pass something over someone’s head. Avoid stepping over someone.
7. The Wai
Pronounced “why”, the wai is a prayer-like gesture of putting the hands together and nodding the head slightly forward.
You should not maintain eye contact when you do this. The wai can be used as a greeting, to express goodbye, as an acknowledgement, as an apology, or as a sign of gratitude or respect.
When to wai can be complicated as social status (Thailand is a very hierarchical society) can indicate who should wai first. Generally speaking, a person of lower status should wai someone of higher status.
It would not be appropriate, for example, to wai someone younger than yourself or someone with less social status, such as a beggar.
If you think this would be a sign of egalitarianism, think again. Far from being polite, this act could actually cause the other person embarrassment or a loss of face.
It is generally rude not to wai back – unless, of course, you are the King or a monk.
Sometimes, however, it is not possible; in which case, a simple smile or a nod of the head is sufficient – especially if you are holding something.
Never attempt a wai if you’ve got a pen or a cigarette in your hand. The same applies if you are carrying a piece of luggage or a shopping bag.
If you are entering a hotel, for example, members of staff will likely wai you as you pass through the lobby. If you are carrying something, simply nod your head or smile.
As a foreigner, you are not expected to understand such things. The safest bet is to return wais but not to initiate them.
8. Language Guide
Thais are proud of their language, and even Thais that are fluent in English often greet foreigners in Thai and sprinkle their English with polite Thai words such as “krap” (for men) and “kah” for women.
Neither krap nor kah has an English translation. They just indicate politeness and are often put at the end of sentences to soften the tone.
These words are also used to indicate agreement or that what you have said has been understood. In such cases, they would be equivalent to saying “yes”, or “certainly”, or “of course” in English.
Thais rarely use their last name. While first names are preferred in all but the most formal of occasions, first names can be lengthy and difficult for foreigners to remember or to pronounce.
Fortunately, many Thais have monosyllabic nicknames.
Whether addressing or referring to a male or a female, it is polite to precede the name with “khun” such as “Khun Mike” or “Khun Mary”.
The most common greeting in Thailand is “Sah-wah-dee-krap” (if you are a man) or “Sah-wah-dee-kah” (if you are a woman). Roughly translated, this means, “How are you?”
The most common answers are “Sabai dee” (which means “fine”) or “sabai sabai” (which roughly means “everything is cool”).
Written Thai is quite complicated, but more and more signage has English transliterations.
Unfortunately, there is no standardized way of Romanizing Thai into English so place names and subway stations often have more than one English rendering, which can lead to confusion.
To complicate things further, there are a few silent letters in Thai, and these are often transliterated into English, as well, which can make place names seem much more difficult to pronounce than they actually are.
A good example is Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport. Suvarnabhumi, which means “Golden Land” in Thai.
While it confounds many English speakers, it is not really all that hard to pronounce.
The problem is two-fold. First, some of the letters are not pronounced the way they are in English. Second, some of the letters are silent.
Thus, the V is pronounced like a W, the R is silent, the B is pronounced like a P, and the I is silent.
Therefore, it is pronounced: sue WANNA poom. Easy, right?
9. Taxi Tips
Many taxi drivers in Bangkok are from the countryside, and they often don’t know the lay of the city.
Don’t expect them to know where your hotel is. And even if you give them the street name and number, they will often still be confused – so getting a cross street can be helpful.
It is always a good idea to get names and addresses translated into Thai when taking a taxi or if you might have to ask for directions.
And make sure to get a phone number, as well, so the driver can get directions over the phone if he gets lost.
Word to the Wise
When taking taxis, insist that the driver either turns on the meter or negotiate the fare in advance.
Be careful taking tuk tuks. Many tuk-tuk drivers will take you shops or tourist destinations where they will get a kickback rather than taking you where you want to go.
Despite your best efforts, cultural misunderstandings can still occur, but it is advisable to give the other person the benefit of the doubt.
Shouting, yelling, or blowing your top won’t generally get you very far. The display of strong emotions is frowned upon in Thailand.
Best to say, “Mai ben rai!”, which roughly means, “No problem”.
Getting Around Thailand
If you’re not driving, buses are the preferred way of traveling around Thailand for short distances.
For longer trips, air travel is preferred. Several airlines fly domestic routes.
For a completely different take on Thailand, read Thailand: Deadly Destination by John Stapleton.
Thailand is a great travel destination, and a basic understanding of Thai culture and etiquette can lead to a much for a more enjoyable stay in the Land of Smiles.