The how’s and wai’s of etiquette in Thailand

Thai etiquette everyone should know when traveling in Thailand

A road side image of the King of Thailand, decorated for his birthday

Thailand’s King and Queen are the closest things to deities on earth, and are treated with great respect and reverence. So while political discourse is an American hobby, you should never criticize or speak negatively of the monarchy in Thailand. Movies and sporting events are started by playing the royal anthem and  everyone is expected to stand. Defacing images of the monarchy is against the law, this gets complicated when you consider their image is everywhere, awkward situations have come about from dropped or ripped money which sports the royal image. The king’s birthday, December 5th, is a national holiday.

 

Which wai or the art of the Thai greeting

Owner of GW Nunn Adventures, Greg practices his wai with Ronald

The wai is a customary greeting and consists of joining the palms together as if in prayer with the fingers pointed skyward. You should lightly touch your fingers somewhere between the chest and forehead. It is considered both a greeting and a sign of respect; the amount of respect and courtesy is based on the height of the hands and the lowering of the head to meet the thumbs. The wai is observed when entering a house along with the salutation sawasdee pronounced sà wàt dee. Men follow it up with Krup as in Sawasdee Krup while females would say Sawasdee Ka.  Although it is commonly used as “hello” it is considered a derivative of the Sanskrit word svasti which means “well being”. When leaving, you should ask permission to leave, and repeat the wai.  The social graces associated with the wai are quite complex and based on society, age, stature and other factors. As a visitor you will not be expected to understand all of the subtle nuances, but being humble and smiling will get you through most faux pas.

Thai temple etiquette

This young Thai child has the wai down, but missed the memo about appropriate dress

Temples are a place of worship, please be respectful. Keep your voice low and mind your language. Remove your shoes and do not step on the threshold, this applies to all Thai buildings. The threshold is believed to contain the spirit of the building. Enter left foot first and exit right foot first. Thailand is known for its beaches but leave the beach attire at the beach and cover up appropriately in holy places. Short sleeves are acceptable but avoid tank tops, shorts that go at least to the knees are acceptable. If you would not wear it in a church in the Midwest don’t wear it there. Take care to not cross in front of anyone praying especially nuns and monks. Additionally, monks are forbidden from touching women, so if a female is presenting alms it is best to pass it to a male to make the offering. It is also considered appropriate for women to move or avoid the direct path of a moving monk. If given the opportunity to tour the Royal Palace the same rules of etiquette apply, but there is a strict long pants only policy in effect, this will be the same for temples further off the tourist path.

Heads and feet

Although this is from Bali, it shows proper “feet etiquette” for temples

The head is the most holy part of the body in Buddhist culture. Avoid touching anyone’s head, the playful tousling of hair common in the US is a huge offense. If the head is the most holy, then the part farthest from the head must be the least holy. After all it is the feet that hold us down in this world of suffering. Never use your feet to point or as additional hands,  for example to close a door. Avoid pointing your feet at statues of Buddha, the Monarch, or any Thai person, the “mermaid sit” is the local way to avoid this. If feet are bad, shoes are worse, be careful when carrying shoes that you do not touch anyone with them. Stepping over someone is also considered poor form. This is also why putting money (with the king’s image) in your shoe is frowned upon. Monks are often seen sweeping temples this is more about clearing insects than dirt, killing life is frowned upon and a horrible death is through the feet i.e. getting steped on.

Saving face

The people of Thailand are warm, welcoming and known for their seemingly never- ending smiles and are eager to help, this is part of sociological concept often referred to as “face or saving face.”  Thai people will avoid confrontation so do your part to help them.  The concept of personal social value is complex and relies on an unspoken cooperation between individuals to behave respectfully, sometimes regardless of who is in the right or wrong.  If a disagreement should happen, allow for a graceful exit that avoids humiliation. Expressing anger, impatience or raising your voice is a sign of weakness and lack of mental control and will often be met with uncomfortable laughter. To save “face” Thai people will answer questions that they do not know the answers to, like directions. It is more important that they please you by answering, than saying that they do not know.

Eating etiquette in Thailand

Noodle dishes are served with chopsticks and if you have not mastered the art of eating with chop sticks it is high time you learned!  Just remember -  never leave chop sticks sticking up in your food as it is a sign of death. Forks and spoons are common for other dishes but are used differently than in the West. The spoon should be in your right hand and the fork in your left use the fork to “rake” your food onto the spoon. Sticky rice, popular in the northern regions of Thailand, is often eaten with the hands, but avoid licking your fingers. Meals in private homes are often eaten “family” style. It is acceptable to begin eating as soon as you are served, unlike in the West where you typically wait until everyone is served. Leave a little food on your plate to let your host know that you have had your fill and are not going hungry, however rice is sacred and should not be wasted. Before digging into a second helping wait until your host asks, do not deny them the privilege of offering their bounty, but do not take the last bite from the serving bowl.

Farang, me?

Remember you are a farang the Thai slang for foreigner. You will make mistakes, so simply wai and you will be forgiven as long as you are well intentioned. The old saying “When in Rome…” is usually associated with debauchery, but it can mean being conscious of other cultures and customs. By practicing Thai etiquette you will be more welcomed, have a better understanding of the people of Thailand and maybe even learn the secret of why the Thai people are always smiling.

It has always been our experience that if you make an attempt to understand the culture and learn a few words you can go a long way in a foreign country. Imagine you are in your home town and a gentleman clearly from another country extends his hand for a handshake, says hello with an accent and points to a hotel brochure and says please. You would most likely direct him to his hotel, if not go out of your way to help him. Now imagine the same scenario with him yelling in Mandarin and waving the brochure at you, most likely you will side step him, wouldn’t you? Think about the fact that you are a guest and behave as such since “you’re not  in Kansas anymore.”

A few words and phrases to help you along the way,

Hello sà wàt dee

Yes Châi

No Mâi châi

Please Kŏr

Thank You Kŏrp kun

Safe travels,

Greg

Would you like more information about Thailand? Contact the Travel Consultants at GW Nunn Adventures and let them custom craft an itinerary into the Kingdom of Thailand?

Want more information about Thailand check out these other Thailand Blogs;

The “Elephant Shrine” in Phuket, Thailand 

The long tail boats of Ko Phi Phi Island Thailand

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2 Responses to The how’s and wai’s of etiquette in Thailand

  1. Rachelle says:

    Great to meet you at CFL BlogCon this weekend! These tips for Thailand are great! I’m headed there in November and will be sure to keep these in mind.

    Keep in touch!

    Rachelle

  2. c.nunn says:

    Rachelle,
    Glad to hear that they will be useful for your up coming trip to Thailand (I am envious). It was nice to meet you at CFL Blog Con as well.
    Safe Travels,
    Greg

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