The Thai people are well known for their tolerance, hospitality and cheerfulness. They will ignore the small blunders of social etiquette that you are certain to make. For the average tourist it’s very difficult to go wrong. Just smile a lot, avoid confrontation, and don’t insult the religion or monarchy of the country. Here are a few specific do’s and don’ts worth pointing out.
All members of the Royal Family are held in the highest reverence in Thailand and visitors should show similar respect. Negative remarks about the monarchy may be considered lese majeste, an offence carrying severe punishment in Thailand. When the national anthem is played, at 8.00 am and 6.00 pm everyday and at public events or in cinemas, for example, you are expected to stand. The best guide is to check what other people are doing and follow suit.
In the big cities such as Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Western customs are well known and widely accepted. Upcountry, traditional customs and social behavior are still used. Here are a few customs to keep in mind.
Thais greet each other with a ‘wai’, a prayer-like, palms-together gesture, not a handshake. Generally, a younger person ‘wais’ an elder or senior person, who will then return the gesture. Even though most Thais are familiar with the Western handshake, a ‘wai’ is always appreciated.
Thais regard the head as the highest part of the body, literally and figuratively. Don’t touch Thais on the head, even playfully. If you accidentally touch someone’s head, offer an apology immediately.
Similarly, the foot is considered the lowest part of the body. Don’t use your feet to point at either people or objects. Don’t touch anyone with your feet. Don’t rest your feet on tables or chairs. Don’t step over people – always walk around or politely ask them to move. When sitting on the floor, try to tuck your feet underneath and to the side so they’re not pointing at anyone.
When handing objects to people, use both hands or the right hand only. Do not slide or toss objects across the room. Get up and pass them in person, no matter how inconvenient this may seem.
Public displays of affection are frowned upon. Some Thai couples may be seen holding hands, but this is the extent of public affection in polite society. Kissing in public is not acceptable behavior.
In Thai society, losing your temper or even speaking loudly is a sign of poor breeding. Keeping ‘face’ is of paramount importance. Never raise your voice or show anger, it will get you nowhere. Keeping cool, hiding your emotions and smiling is far more productive.
Dress & Appearance
The Thais place great importance on personal cleanliness and appearance. Tank tops, singlets, shorts and the like are considered inappropriate dress everywhere except at the beach. Sandals are OK except at formal occasions. Going topless or nude at the beach (or anywhere else) is seen as disrespectful to the local people. It’s also illegal.
When visiting someone’s home or at certain offices and shops, it’s polite to remove your shoes at the entrance. If you see shoes arranged on the floor at the door, don’t wait to be asked– remove your shoes before entering.
Do not insult the religion in any way, whether it be the majority religion, Buddhism, or any of the minority faiths. It is an offence to commit any act that may be considered insulting to a religion. For the traveler, this means proper conduct in temples or any location containing religious images.
All Buddha images, large or small, are considered sacred. Don’t climb atop or pose for photos in front of images of the Buddha. Monks are forbidden to touch or be touched by a woman. A woman wishing to present something to a monk or novice should first place it on a piece of cloth. This can then be retrieved by the monk.
Always dress neatly in temples – shorts and sleeveless shirts are considered inappropriate. Do not wear shoes inside the main chapel of a temple where the principal Buddha image is kept. It’s OK to wear shoes in the temple compound.
In a Muslim mosque, men should wear hats and women should be well-covered with slacks or a long skirt, a long-sleeved blouse buttoned to the neck, and a head-scarf.
The standard electricity supply in Thailand is 220V, 50 cycles. Electricity sockets are usually of the flat or round two-pin type but there is a trend towards earthed three-pin outlets in many modern buildings.
Adapters and voltage converters for any international plug type are available at hardware stores and most department stores.
Thailand Standard Time is 7 hours ahead of Universal Time or Greenwich Mean Time.
Not commonly or traditionally practiced in Thailand although it is becoming more widespread as a result of foreign influence. Tips are sometimes expected in the more expensive restaurants, hairdressers and for hotel porters. Don’t add a tip in hotel restaurants (where a service charge is added to the bill anyway) or in street restaurants. Taxi fares should be rounded up to the nearest 5 or 10 baht.
When it rains don’t bother putting on a heavy raincoat. Slip on something light and cool, a pair of plastic shoes and take your umbrella, just like the Thais.
The temperature in Thailand sometimes gets up to 40 degrees with high humidity. If you’re sightseeing, take along plenty of bottled water to avoid dehydrating. Sunglasses and sunscreen are a must at all times.
Be wary of the ice in cold drinks. Ice often comes from unhygienic sources and is best avoided. The ice cubes with holes through them are generally OK.
When you’re eating out in the evenings, watch out for mosquitoes. Ask the waiter to put a mosquito coil under the table to discourage them. Wearing pale colored slacks and mosquito repellent will also keep them at bay.
Touts & Nuisances
If someone approaches you on the street offering to sell you something such as gems or jewelry, just smile and walk away. Go in a shop and buy them instead. They’re more likely to be genuine and you’ll probably get a better price.
Don’t get angry when someone on the street shouts “hey you” to attract your attention. They don’t realize they’re being impolite. “You” is translated from the Thai word “khun” which is a normal and polite form of address in Thai.
Don’t be surprised if someone addresses you by your first name, like Mr. David or Miss Jennifer. The Thais normally address one another using first names only, usually with the title ‘Khun’ in front. Surnames are not commonly used as a mode of address.
You’ll notice after a short while in Thailand that Thais have three names—a first name, a surname and a nickname. The nickname, usually something short and catchy like Noi or Lek, is given at birth and is used universally among family members and close friends.