respect for key institutions Buddhism and the monarchy will make
it easier to establish friendships with the Thai people.
After you grasp these
ideas, graduate to Thai Customs 202
pen rai: Understand this, and you've begun to understand Thailand
Time: Why things don't happen as fast as you expect
life and culture
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 isnt just a guideline; its 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
- 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
- Do show respect for religion,
for the Buddha, and for monks. Dont 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.
(Its 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
- 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.
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.
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. Dont be paranoid, but do be cautious.