If ever in your life you’re going to say, “I’m not in Kansas any more!”, it will be in Thailand.
On many fundamental levels, Thai culture greatly differs from American culture. Previous travel in Europe or the Americas will not prepare you for all these differences; we advise that you read one or two guidebooks before departing.
Certain cultural differences are so important that, while they will be discussed in any good Thailand guidebook, they bear emphasis here.
Do smile. Often. Thais smile for all occasions: To say hello or thank you, to apologize, to make a request, to smooth over bad feelings. And even because they’re happy.
Do learn three phrases, as recommended on the language page.
Do show respect for the king. This isn’t just a guideline; it’s the law. Rise when the national anthem is played (typically at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. in many public places, and before public events.) Never insult or joke about the king or royal family. As you learn more about the present king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, you’ll readily respect him; in more than a half-century on the throne, unlike so many other rulers, he has been a powerful and positive force toward improving the quality of life for the Thai people.
Do dress modestly. Thais now understand that Americans may show up in shorts and tank tops in public, but would never do so themselves. Wearing long pants, and clean, neat clothes, will gain you an extra measure of respect.
Don’t wai unless you know what you’re doing. The wai — the slight bow with fingertips touching in front of one’s face or chest — is a greeting, and a way of showing respect or thanks. But it’s more complicated than that. If you return a wai to someone of much lower social status, for example, you may feel you’re striking a blow for equality; actually you’re just embarrassing the person. Unless you’ve got an audience with the king, a westerner can just smile instead of doing a wai. If you’ve got an audience with the king, you need a more exhaustive website.
Do show respect for religion, for the Buddha, and for monks. Don’t wear shorts or tank tops to a temple. It’s considered improper for women to touch a monk. Don’t arrange a comical pose of yourself with a Buddha; tourists have been arrested for such offenses.
Do not touch anyone on the head, a spot which is considered sacred.
Do not point your feet at anyone. (It’s easy to do so unthinkingly when you sit cross-legged in a chair, or sit on the floor.) Feet, located at the opposite end of the body from the head, have an opposite status. Don’t use your feet for anything except walking, and keep those feet off the furniture. (If you’re studying to become a Thai kick-boxer, you need a more exhaustive website.)
Do speak quietly and gesture softly. Loud voices, calling attention to yourself, pointing at people or things, throwing things, and making big hand gestures, all seem graceless to the Thai sensibility. In the U.S., making a scene might get results. Here, it gets you avoided.
Do not lose your cool. At times, everything will move more slowly than you think it should. To show irritation or frustration will only make things worse.
Do watch for con games. Anything offered for free probably contains a hitch: A free cab ride will include stops at knick-knack or gem shops. Even when you pay for a ride, cabbies and tuk-tuk drivers may try to deliver you to a shop, from which they collect a commission, en route to your real destination. Any jeweler with a printing press can sell jewelry with a certificate of authenticity. Don’t be paranoid, but do be cautious.
Many of your usual habits will need to be re-thought on your first visit to Thailand. This page (and the preceding “Thai Customs 101”) will help you gradually make sense of them.
The items below needn’t be quite as high a priority. Some of these pertain to how you should behave; others will merely help you to better understand what you observe.
Use your right hand to pass an object to someone, and for most other purposes. We won’t go into details on the origins of this custom. But did you know that toilet paper was only recently introduced into Thailand, and many people still prefer traditional methods?
Hats go on heads, shoes go on feet. You already knew that. But here in Thailand, those facts have new connotations. A hat, being associated with the head, merits respect. Shoes, like feet, have a much lower status. Hats and shoes shouldn’t even touch each other.
Rice gets respect, too. It’s the staff of life. No need to wai your bowl of rice, but do treat it with respect.
Do remove your shoes when entering a home or temple, or any place where you see other shoes left at the entrance.
Don’t overdo the thank-you’s. In the U.S., it’s fine to thank a doorman who opens a door for you. In Thai culture, it seems awkwardly excessive to those around you.
Thais avoid conflict. That attitude ingrained in the culture, part of the mai pen rai attitude. If you put a Thai in a confrontational situation, chances are he or she will disappear at the first opportunity. To get results, avoid conflict.
Do not clean your plate. That’s right, forget what Mom told you. Leave a little food; to do otherwise implies that you weren’t given enough. This advice is most important if you’re dining at someone’s home, but is fine to follow even in a restaurant.
Do not ask for chopsticks to eat Thai cuisine. Only a few Thai dishes are eaten with chopsticks, in which case they’ll be provided. The standard utensils are fork and spoon. Use the fork to push food onto the spoon (the pushing motion should be toward yourself, if you really want to get this right), and the spoon to eat. Knives are unnecessary; everything’s already bite-size.
Do be generous. It’s expected that the person of higher social status and wealth will pick up the check and show generosity in other ways. Generally, that would be you. (If a Thai clearly issues an invitation to you to go out to dinner, then picks up the check, that’s fine.)
Don’t expect to go Dutch. Dividing up the bill just isn’t done. Someone is generous and picks up the bill. Generally, that would be you. This applies to movies, bus fares, and other group excursions, as well as dining out.
Gift-giving is common, and comes with its own customs and expectations. An attractive wrapping counts. Don’t expect a gift to be opened in front of the giver; the recipient typically sets it aside, to be opened in private. And it’s not just the thought that counts; while your gift needn’t be expensive, it shouldn’t seem too cheap, either. An appropriate item brought from the U.S., showing that you made an extra effort, would mean more than something purchased at a local Thai market.
Don’t be too tall. That can be difficult for a westerner! But height is associated with superiority. In a setting such as a temple, standing tall suggests that you fancy yourself superior to the monks and others who are kneeling. Be as unobtrusive as possible; bending over a bit, as you walk in or out, will help maintain suitable appearances. If you enter a temple where others are seated, you should also sit down — and remember to point those feet back, nor forward.
Thai life centers around the family. You’ll find Thai’s far more devoted to their family life than are most Americans. Parents and elders are respected, and even in adulthood, “making my parents proud of me” remains a driving goal for most Thais. As for terminology, don’t be surprised if a new friend says he’s an only child; then later refers to his “brothers”. Terms like brother and uncle are often used to indicate an affectionate but non-biological relationship.
Do not be surprised to see many people picking their noses in public. It’s okay here. However there’s no need for you to adopt every differing Thai custom that you encounter!
A philosophy for The Land of Smiles.
If bamboo could talk, it would say mai pen rai.
Or maybe not. Maybe it would say, “Mom, I just outgrew those jeans you bought me yesterday.” Regardless, if you want to understand Thailand, learn mai pen rai.
Technically, mai pen rai translates as It’s nothing. Informally, we’ve seen quite a few loose translations:
Don’t get mad, get glad.
Take it easy.
Oh well, I can’t do anything about it.
In short, mai pen rai is ultimately a philosophy of life: Bend with the wind, like a bamboo tree. And above all, keep smiling.
The ubiquitous Thai smile can seem artificial to visitors. Yet it serves a useful purpose. If it were possible to measure such things, quite possibly the people of Thailand would be found to be happier with their lives, and more free of stress, than their counterparts in wealthier nations.