The traditional way of greeting in Thailand is the “wai” (pronounced wye) in which the palms are pressed together in front of the body. There are many subtleties involved in the wai: how it is done and where the hands are placed as well as where the eyes are focused are beyond the scope of the newcomer. Basically, remember that the wai is how Thais greet others, including you. If you are greeted with a wai, you may wai back, or simply nod. Do not extend your hand (to shake hands) unless a Thai offers his/hers first (many western educated Thais will do this to make you feel more comfortable). Generally, the higher the respect one is accorded, the higher the wai given. For most greetings, make your wai on the chest with your fingers just below your chin.
“Sawadee” is the all-purpose greeting, as well as when saying goodbye. It accompanies the wai. Males end with “krup,” females end with “ka.” Thus, “Sawadee, krup” or “Sawadee, ka.”
One thing you will probably notice right away is that conversations in Thailand are quiet. Even the drivers of the millions of cars in Bangkok very rarely use their horns. It is a peaceful country, and that includes the voice. Westerners sometimes use very loud voices in conversation or in trying to make themselves understood. Remember to follow the lead of your hosts and keep your voice even and low. Never shout.
One of the cultural norms in Thailand is “saving face.” Most Thais, when entering into a discussion that involves a disagreement will leave a way out for everyone rather than try to win an argument. The visitor would be wise to do the same. A favorite phrase to use if a person may be embarrassed or has made a mistake is “Mai pen rai,” which means, “It doesn’t matter,” or “Don’t worry about it.”
Head, Hands, and Feet
- Never touch another person’s head—the head is considered the highest part of the body and therefore is accorded the most respect.
- Never step over a person or a person’s food—the feet are considered not only the lowest, but dirtiest part of the body. You should also be sure your feet are clean before getting a foot massage, although the masseuse will probably clean them anyway, but it is a courtesy.
- Never point your foot at anyone, and never, ever at a monk, image of the royals or at an image of the Buddha (when seated on the floor of a temple, point your feet away from the altar).
- Don’t elevate your feet. Putting your feet up on a desk is a big no-no, even putting your feet on the back of a bus seat or the console of the taxi or bus: it is impolite to do this to the person in front of you.
- Never touch a monk or his robes. Females should not sit next to a monk, for example on the skytrain or bus.
- It’s a good idea for a male to not touch a female. Even though this is changing, a great many Thais are uncomfortable being touched, even if having fun. Let them take the lead. If they don’t touch you, don’t touch them.
- In general, Thais consider it impolite to point at someone.
- You may notice that some Thais will lower their head or even crouch as they pass you, particularly if they have to pass between you and someone with whom you are having a conversation. Try to avoid putting them in such an uncomfortable situation.
The Thai language is tonal. Many different words sound the same to foreigners but may have completely different meanings. Don’t be surprised if Thais have no idea what you are saying, even if to you it “looks” or sounds right. It takes some time to know the difference, and some foreigners never do. Do try to learn basic vocabulary, but don’t worry if you don’t get it right. Thais will appreciate the effort. See “Sawadee Thailand” on the web site for common and useful Thai phrases.
In the Temple (Wat)
All wats (temples) are holy places, even those considered tourist attractions, and should be accorded the greatest respect. Appropriate clothing is expected (no short shorts or tank tops), although the standards are more lenient than a few years ago. Remove your shoes before entering a temple (follow the lead of the Thais).
Nearly all homes will have pairs of shoes in front of the door: Thais remove them before entering a house. In some commercial establishments the same practice is followed: For example, when you see shoes in front of a massage spa, then remove yours before entering. In most other commercial shops and stores it is not necessary.
Don’t be surprised if
You don’t get what you order. There is a saying here: “Order what you want, eat what you get.” Even if written down, the dish brought to you may not be exactly what you ordered, especially when it comes to spiciness and sweetness. “Not spicy” (mai pet) often means “don’t add any more chilis than usual,” and “Not sweet” often means “don’t add any more sugar to the sugar syrup and sweetened condensed milk that are standard.” If you absolutely do not want any sweetener in your drink, say “Mai mee namtaan” (no sugar). You might get it the way you want it.
- It is common for a Thai to serve you portions of food from the dishes brought to the table. It is considered good manners to do this for others as well, sharing your food rather than keeping it all to yourself.
- Thais often use a spoon to cut with, unless knives have been placed at the table. The main utensils are a fork and spoon. Chopsticks are rarely used except for eating noodle soups.
- Most food is not eaten with the fingers, even pizza and chicken wings! There are exceptions: follow the lead of your hosts.
- Do not rest your chin in your hand at the table. It signals that you are bored.
- If using a toothpick, don’t roll it around or dig away at your teeth. Hide the pick and your teeth with your other hand as you clean your teeth.
In Thailand, the king and his family are revered. The highest respect is always paid to the royal family. This belief is so strong, that there is a law in effect forbidding any negative comments about the king, either spoken or written, with severe penalties, including prison time, for offenders. For instance,
- Do not make jokes or make disparaging remarks about the king.
- Never deface an image of the king.
- Never use an image of the king for anything that would be considered offensive.
- Do not stop a rolling coin (the king’s image is on all coins) by stepping on it. Use your hand.
Patience & tolerance
Thailand’s motto may well be “Jai yen yen.” Translated, it literally means “cool heart.” It is considered extremely rude to display anger. It also indicates lack of control on the part of the person making a fuss. Thais are extremely patient. Even in rush hour traffic it is rare to hear a car horn except a short beep as a warning to another driver who may be coming too close.
Thais are very tolerant and patient with foreigners who cannot keep a cool heart, but that doesn’t mean they like or accept it. They just won’t tell you so. Patience is important in this country where things don’t always go as planned, especially with the famous traffic slow downs. So, lengthen your fuse, and relax. You will get much more out of your visit if you can have “jai yen yen.” Remember, this is not where you came from. Watch and follow the lead of this very patient society.