The culture of Thailand is very different from the culture in America. What is acceptable back home may cause a visitor to be poorly received in Thailand and could cause a very uncomfortable situation. This can absolutely affect the quality of your experience in this part of the world, so it would be wise to keep these simple rules in mind as you explore this tropical kingdom. If you are not prepared to deal with a bit of culture shock, stay at home.
Here is the short list that visitors should be aware of for their time here:
- Don’t raise your voice in any confrontational way. It is in the Thai culture when there are disputes to discuss it in a low tone that is not loud. If there is a problem with a bill at the hotel or you received bad service from the waitress, it is important to speak slowly and in a normal tone. If you do it the typical way things are settled back home, with a loud voice, pointing fingers and maybe with a few choice words that should never have been spoken, you will not get the results you want, you will embarrass yourself and you are likely to have the Thai person you are screaming at turn their back in disgust and walk away.
- Don’t shake hands. Except for a business meeting with mainly Westerners, don’t shake hands and even in those cases, don’t initiate it. That ritual is based on some ancient European custom to prove you don’t have a weapon, and Thailand does not have that kind of history. People wai each other, and the junior status level should wai first. A wai is done by pressing your hands together like in a prayer, with a slight bow. So if you run across an older guy that has a higher status, you should wai him. Most others will probably wai you, and you should familiarize yourself with social protocol. When you get a wai from a store clerk or parking lot attendant, just do a little nod of head. Some visitors return a wai too strongly and it makes foreigners look a little silly to Thais.
- Don’t point upwards or towards a person when calling over a waitress or service person. That is regarded as extremely rude (think equivalent to the middle finger salute in the US). Beckon service from a waiter or clerk or anyone with your palm down an fingers straight with an up and down movement. When hailing a taxi, it is best to keep your hand horizontal, with fingers facing down.
- Show great respect towards Buddhism and Thai temples (wats). When visiting a wat, dress conservatively (preferably in white). Women in particular should wear long skirts or trousers (no knees and shoulders uncovered). Women must never touch a monk. Shoes must come off before entering a wat, and never sit so that your feet are pointed towards the Buddha. Do not point at or touch a person’s head. Speak softly.
- Show the greatest respect possible for the King and the Royal Family. The King represents Thailand, and is considered the father of the nation. Never say anything that might be interpreted as negative towards any member of the Royal family. If you drop a coin and it is rolling away, don’t stop it by stomping on it. The King’s likeness is on that coin, and that would be disrespectful. In public markets and movie theaters or just about anywhere where people gather, the national anthem is played in the evening and mornings and you should stop, hands to side and don’t talk.
- Always take your shoes off before entering someone’s house. You may have to do this for some shops as well. As a rule, look to see if there are shoes outside a shop house.
- Don’t throw anything at anyone. This is the highest level of rudeness. This includes things like throwing a stack of papers on a desk, or throwing some Baht currency at a clerk, or tossing a book to a friend.
- Understand differences in a Thai response. A Thai never wants to say “no”. So you might ask a store clerk if they have something you are looking for, and they may answer “Yes, but we have this…” said with an insecure little smile. It is not ignorance on their part and don’t be offended, and they not simply incompetent. Just realize that a Thai is trying to be polite by not saying “no”, which is a very uncomfortable thing for them to say. In a similar way, Thais will “lie” about little things to avoid having to say they do not know the answer. If you ask for directions, you may get false directions from a Thai to avoid having to say they don’t know where it is you are going. Relax about this.
- Don’t do drugs in Thailand. If a friendly guy offers you a joint in a bar or out on a full moon party, there is a good chance he is setting you up. There is a big commission for him, and a world of problems for you. This is one place on Earth where you should definitely just say no.
- Avoid kissing in public. It is considered impolite. You may likely be arrested for performing sexual acts in public and on the beach.
- Don’t smoke indoors. This is illegal. Don’t throw your cigarettes in the street. You will face fines of 2,000 baht or higher.
- Don’t leave your chopsticks in the bowl, it symbolizes death and is very bad luck.
There are other customs, of course, and you don’t have to worry too much about them. It is always a good idea to watch what others do.
Got more mistakes a visitor to Thailand should avoid? Please share them in the comments.