The last thing you would want to do while traveling through Thailand is offend its people. There are many protocols in Thailand that are vital to your integration into, and respect for, Thai culture.
It's easy to make some of these mistakes in Thailand if you don't know their background and the unspoken rules beforehand. As travelers, it's imperative that we educate ourselves on the customs of a given culture before traveling there, in order to show our regard for other ways of life.
Follow Thailand's rules of cultural etiquette detailed below in order to feel fully confident before heading off on your adventure to the Land of Smiles!
1. The 'Wai'
The 'Wai' is a Thai greeting, consisting of a slight bow with the palms pressed together in a prayer-like manner. Whenever you meet a Thai person, you should always give them a nice Wai, or you will be considered disrespectful.
There are levels of a Wai, too; for instance, if you are at a meditation retreat, Buddhist monks should be met with the deepest of Wais, usually given on one's knees with the index finger touching your forehead, accompanied by an elongated and low bow.
Thais believe in superiority, and greater Wais should be given to those with greater seniority status. Coincidingly, you do not need to Wai people that are younger than you, such as children.
When you Wai a Thai person, you also usually say "hello" to them. The phonetic spelling of a greeting that should be given with a Wai are:
- Females: Sawasdee Ka
- Males: Sawasdee Krab
2. Don't touch anyone's head
The head is the most sacred part of the body in the Buddhist religion, for it is the closest body part to Enlightenment.
When traveling to Thailand, make sure you don't accidentally touch any Thai person's head. Of course, if you know a person very well, or they are a close friend or family member, this rule shan't apply.
You'd be surprised how easy it may be to accidentally caress someone's head. You may simply be going in for a hug or trying to get someone's attention, but just be sure to keep this rule in mind!
As an English teacher in Thailand who had just arrived from an incredibly affectionate Spain, I was simply playing with a student and subconsciously went to braid her hair, moments before another teacher reminded me to never touch the heads of Thai people. Don't let this be you!
3. Don't show the bottoms of your feet
Similar to the ways in which the head is the most sacred part of the body, the feet are considered the lowest and dirtiest parts. Due to this, it is important to never show the soles of your feet to someone or point to something with your feet.
Not showing the bottom of your feet or pointing to things with your feet is a shared cultural custom with the Balinese, Khmer and Myanma. Since these cultures believe the feet to be the dirtiest and least sacred part of the body, it makes sense as to why they always remove their shoes before entering a home, office, accommodation, and sometimes even schools.
While traveling throughout Thailand, you may notice that many hotels, bed and breakfasts, and other accommodations request that you take off your shoes upon entrance. If you don't see an obvious sign stating whether or not you should remove your shoes, it would be polite to ask someone beforehand.
4. The King and Lèse-majesté
In Thailand, it is illegal and punishable by law to insult royalty. This law is known formally as lèse-majesté.
It is forbidden in Thailand to defame, insult or threaten the King, Queen, heir-apparent or regent. It is a law that has been on the statute books since 1908. Thailand's lèse-majesté law is among the strictest in the world and is a matter that should not be taken lightly when traveling there.
While this law may seem absurd to some, Thailand's monarchy is widely revered, especially the King. Though you should never say anything that could even be questionably disrespectful toward the King, it is encouraged to talk highly of him and the monarchy. Thai people will appreciate your reciprocated respect for their culture and monarchy.
5. Don't step on any currency
Now that you know how respected the King and the monarchy are in Thailand, it will make more sense as to why it is looked down upon to step on any currency in Thailand, even if you accidentally drop a coin on the street and are attempting to stop it from rolling.
Currency in Thailand is printed with images of the King, both on coins and on bank notes, hence why it is regarded as discourteous to step on any currency. Note also how stepping on a printed image of the King's face with the dirtiest and least sacred part of your body may be viewed by Thai people!
Buddha and images of Buddha are another culturally sensitive topic in Thailand. Many ignorant tourists come to Thailand and want to get tattoos of Buddha, and though this isn't illegal, your tattoo artist might rightfully turn you down.
Crossing borders with souvenirs of Buddha is, on the other hand, illegal. This will probably seem contradictory when you arrive in Thailand, for almost all touristy markets and street vendors sell images and souvenirs of Buddha. Vendors likely won't warn you of this illegality because, well, they want your business.
Technically speaking, you're supposed to get an export license in order to carry Buddha souvenirs across borders departing from Thailand. Though this is true, many tourists buy Buddha souvenirs and put them in their luggage to take back home without any issues. My advice is that you do so at your own risk, and be aware of the possible outcomes.
7. Temple etiquette
It's important that you arrive at temples properly dressed. If you aren't dressed appropriately, you may be turned away. If you get lucky, vendors will be selling shawls or pants that you can purchase outside of temple entrances. Appropriate temple attire in Thailand includes:
- Covered shoulders and knees; this goes for both sexes (no tank tops, short skirts, cargo shorts, etc.)
- Removal of hats, shoes and sunglasses before entering (depending on the temple)
- Modest necklines
Bisa Myles of the travel blog Myles to Travel knows that tourists violating temple etiquette in Thailand is all too common.
"I hate when tourists don't do their research about the customs of a country before they visit," Myles says. "When I visited the temples in Thailand... so many people came dressed inappropriately and didn't bring something to cover up. Although something can be provided for you, I think if they did research they would have known before arriving. Some places are so crowded that it would speed up lines if more people would come prepared."
8. Standing for the Thai National Anthem
If you decide to go to the movies in Thailand, the Thai National Anthem will always be played beforehand, during which you must stand and show respect for the King and the monarchy.
If you find yourself out and about during the day and hear the anthem being played (it usually occurs once in the morning and once in the evening), it's important to stop what you are doing and stand silently to respect the anthem.
The Thai National Anthem, called "Pheng Chat" in Thai, is undeniably the country's most important piece of music. Too many times whilst living in Thailand did I see Western tourists disregarding the anthem, likely because they weren't even aware of what it was.
If you hear a song being played and notice all Thai people standing silently, you can probably assume it's their anthem and should follow suit. The Thai people will be pleased to see you doing so.
Armed with these handy rules of etiquette, you should have no trouble fitting in. Happy trails!