Do’s and Don’ts in Thailand

A photograph I took at one of the many temples in Chiang am
A photograph I took at one of the temples in Chiang Mai

I have decided to put together a list of things that you should be aware of , even if you are only visiting the country.

The list is not exhaustive and may seem silly to you coming from another culture or country.

Being in a relationship with a Thai lady, you would have thought I would have been told about a lot of these do’s and don’t but alas no. I have learnt a lot from other Europeans in Thailand who have passed their knowledge to me.

Asking Questions / Directions

If a Thai person does not know the answer to your question, or directions, they will not say” I don’t know” They will give you an answer , the wrong answer , or directions, rather than say they don’t know. They may even spend 20 minutes talking to each other or another person, ( In Thai ) trying to get some type of answer for you. While you stand there waiting, expecting either the answer or the obvious “I don’t know”
So bring a map, sat nav and don’t expect correct directions from the locals, as they will point in the direction they think it is.
There is no malice in any of this, but they will lose respect / face, if they say I don’t know. It took me some time to discover this as my other half kept telling me off when I answered her question with I don’t know, and told me to say anything but “I don’t know” Then the penny dropped for me when I was told.

Greetings

A big part of Thai culture is about being respectful and polite to one another at all times. One simple way that visitors to Thailand can show respect to Thai people is by learning the traditional hand gesture for greeting and thanking. This gesture is called the ‘wai’ and it is done by putting the hands together, in front of your chest and slightly bending your head.

Thai people do not expect foreigners to do the wai but it is a respectful and courteous ting to do in different situations. For example, if someone wai’s to you first then you are expected to wai back, unless the person is a child or someone serving you, such as a maid. However, there is no harm done if you do wai to these people. You can also wai to people who you are meeting for the first time or when you are greeting people generally.

The higher you hold your hands and the longer you bow you head shows that you are being even more respectful. For instance, this is appropriate if you are meeting your girlfriend’s parents for the first time.

Only two types of people do not return the Wai back, the Royal Family and Monks.

Touching of the Head

Unless you’re in a very close relationship with someone or are with a child, you shouldn’t be touching or putting things over people’s heads. The head is considered the cleanest and most holy part of the body, so touching someone’s head is seen as disrespectful and will make others uncomfortable.

Be careful of your feet

Pointing your toes or the bottom of your feet and people, places and things is considered extremely impolite. Having your feet facing toward, temples, Buddha images or monks is especially rude and unacceptable. You’ll also be chastised for using your feet to help shut a door, stepping over or kicking something.

Whistling at night

It’s a Thai superstition that whistling at night is bad luck, you’re calling spirits! It may no longer be a big deal to some, but you’ll notice many people becoming uneasy if a whistle is heard after dark.

Getting dirty

Appearance and cleanliness are key. You may get sweaty, but that doesn’t mean you can look like a hot mess. Even in the middle of the hot season you’ll see Thais meticulously put together and even physical labourers will have clean clothes. There may be a relaxed vibe here, but not when it comes to your appearance and how you take care of yourself.

Raising your voice or getting angry

As a whole, Thais are usually mild-mannered and soft-spoken but you can hear foreigners a mile away! Keep your voice down in stores and restaurants, and stay calm if you find yourself in an argument. Raising your voice or yelling won’t help the situation and causes everyone involved to become embarrassed or lose face.
If you intend to be a teacher in Thailand, the best way to lose your job is to shout or lose your temper with a student, no matter how misbehaved they may be.
If you do get into an altercation, remember two things, if the police are called, you as the foreigner or Falang, will not win, the Thai will be believed before you. To apologise , say sorry and a Wai is compulsory.

Signs of affection

When in Rome you may make out on the street, but when in Thailand you shouldn’t touch tongues. You’ll notice that Thais often don’t even hold hands or hug in public, so any kissing or extra closeness is out of the question. It’s okay to sneak a little peck in here or there.

Take your clothes off

Yes, Thailand is tropical but unless you’re on a beach, in a certain type of bar, or in your hotel room keep it covered up. It’s hot and sticky but, guys, that’s no excuse to go around with your shirt off you don’t see the Thais doing it! Girls, cover shoulders, cleavage and knees while entering temples. It’s easy to keep a wrap on you for such places and means a world of respect.

The taking off of shoes

You will see why sandals and slip-ons are so popular here? Well, it’s hot, and you’re always taking them off. Entering homes, temples, shops even some restaurants and bathrooms you’ll be asked to take off your shoes and walk around barefoot or with slippers. Be aware before entering a place if you need to remove your shoes or it’s okay to leave them on, Seeing a pile outside the door is your biggest clue.

Touching a monk

Monks are forbidden to touch women and often won’t even hand them something directly, instead placing the item down for the woman to pick up. Monks have many strict rules and one of them includes not being in a room alone with a woman. While men are allowed to be in contact with monks you’ll still usually see them keep a respectful distance. No one should stand over, or be positioned higher than, a monk.

Don’t Think too much

There are several reasons and situations where you will be told, ‘Don’t think too much!”. From different ways of doing things, to sometimes seemingly lax safety standards and not wanting to plan too far in advance, often the Thai take will take the mai bpen rai (don’t worry about it) and sabai sabai (easy and comfortable) approach. Because of a more Buddhist mindset and simply just wanting to keep things light and cheerful , you’ll be advised not to worry about things, not to get too serious and not to over think things.

The King and the Royal family

They are very highly regarded in Thai society, as evidenced by the pictures and displays of His Majesty and family everywhere.  Do not say or act disrespectful in anyway towards the King or any member the Royal family, even to the extent of stomping on a coin which has been dropped and is rolling away.  All currency in Thailand bears images of the King or his past relatives further it is insulting to Thais to be touched by your feet
Even destroying pictures or anything with the Royal Family will end you up in jail for the offence of Les Majeste.

The Royal Thai Police

The Police are widely seen as corrupt by Western standards, so if called to the site of an incident may result in the foreigner being expected to pay for their presence. Expect the Thai person to be first believed over the ‘foreigner’.
If you are riding a scooter without a helmet, or a car with no seat belt, you may be stopped by the police and get fines, regardless if the whole Thai population is doing the same.
So the amount of BHT 200 for the Policeman will aid you on your way. If you decide not to do this, then legally your vehicle can be seized and a fine of Bht 500 or more may be inforced. Not to mention the several days of attempting to locate your property afterwards.
So keep some 100 Bht notes available for this purpose.
Please note you will not be stopped by the police if you are obeying the law, so best obey the rules, as being a foreigner (and therefore being rich) you will be picked on first.

Do respect all Buddha images.

Buddha images are held sacred and sacrilegious acts are punishable
by imprisonment even if committed by foreign visitors.

Do treat monks with the highest respect

Alway take your shoes off when entering a temple and women dress
conservatively, as Monks are celibate and dressing provocatively shows
disrespect to the monks.(Who are still human)

Don’t touch a Thai woman without consent.

Despite the image portrayed in some bars and clubs, the majority of Thai
women are conservative, so touching them without permission could get you in a lot of trouble. As in a previous entry,  Thais don’t even hold hands in public, so inappropriate actions are a no no .

Don’t be offended by questions about age, marital status or what you do
for a living.

These are subjects that will often come up in small-talk. Of course, you don’t
have to answer (especially the question about age), you can just smile and
just say it’s a secret or ‘mai bok’ (‘not telling’).

Don’t take Buddha images out of the country.

Strictly speaking it is against the law to take or send Buddha images out of
the country unless special permission has been granted. However, this
doesn’t mean that stores won’t sell them to you.
They will sell them to you, but won’t necessarily tell you about the regulations.

Do Not Get Involved With Illegal Drugs Under Any Circumstances.

Yes they are available, but it is common practice from drug dealers to, every
now and then, tell the police they have given drugs to a foreigner ( Falang) .
This keeps everyone happy, apart from the person arrested. The dealer
keeps the police happy, and the police look as if they are going their job.
Drug smuggling has still a death sentence in Thailand, and the prisons are
renowned for their brutal regime, and bad conditions.

Don’t Think too much

There are several reasons and situations where you will be told, ‘Don’t think too much!” From different ways of doing things, to sometimes seemingly lax safety standards and not wanting to plan too far in advance, often the Thai take will take the mai bpen rai (don’t worry that about it) and sabai sabai (easy and comfortable) approach. Because of a more Buddhist mindset and simply just wanting to keep things light and cheerful , you’ll be advised not to worry about things, not to get too serious and not to over think things.

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