Europeans behave differently from Thai people in many ways. In fact, you could write an entire book about the differences between these two cultures. The following hints will help you avoid the biggest misunderstandings.
Head and feet: Touching other people’s heads is extremely impolite in Thailand, even a friendly pat on a child’s head. The head is seen to house the soul and must be treated as sacred. In times gone by, even executioners must apologise to their victims for ‘touching’ their head. Exceptions to this taboo apply to hairdressers, masseurs and ear doctors. To beckon somebody in Thailand, you hold your hand downwards and make a swift movement towards you. Never point at somebody with your finger as this is a sign of disrespect, signifying that the ‘pointee’ is of lesser worth. In the past, only slave masters would point at their slaves in this way and this was never a good omen for the slave. Nod quickly at someone instead of using your finger. Using your foot to point at somebody is an even greater sign of disrespect than using your finger, as the feet are regarded as the most impure part of the body as they come into contact with dirt the most frequently.
Visiting temples: You must be both bare-headed and bare-footed in all holy sites in Thailand. If you walk round a pagoda, you must walk in a clockwise direction. If you carry your shoes in your hand, use your left hand, as shoes are regarded in the same way as the feet and may not point towards the sacred site. If you sit with your feet pointing to a Buddha statue or a monk, you are guilty of one of the most deeply offensive gestures. Photos of Buddha statues are also not appreciated by the locals.
Tips for Engaging with Monks
Monks must not be touched under any circumstances, especially by women. If a woman touches a monk, the monk must subject himself to complicated purification ceremonies (abatt). If a woman wishes to give something to a monk, it is best to do it via a man or lay the object down in front of him. Women are also best advised not to sit next to a monk on public transport, but to make sure a man sits between themselves and the monk. It is extremely impolite to get in the way of a monk or to remain standing in the presence of a monk who is sitting down. It is disrespectful to tower over a monk, so either sit down or make yourself sufficiently small. Monks may not accept money, but they can accept food or drink. Monks are, of course, not uniformly orthodox, just like holy men of any religion.
Enjoying yourself: Sanuk, sabai, suay. In Thai, sanuk means ‘pleasure’, sabai means ‘comfort’ and suay means ‘beautiful’. These are important aspects of the Thai way of life. The Thai are pleasure seekers who strive to enjoy life to the fullest, with the emphasis on the present. Life should contain as much sanuk and sabai and be as suay as possible. The beauty of the surrounding area, of people and of things is of great importance to the Thais. They are almost obsessed with a culture of beauty, and this is expressed in many ways. People always wish to be smartly dressed and well groomed. They wash themselves from head to toe many times a day, and someone who considers themselves well dressed will never wear the same clothes two days in a row. Food must taste delicious, as good food is also seen as an important aspect of sabai. They think almost constantly about food and the short break between the many meals is used for planning the next day’s menus. Everyday implements are first inspected for their beauty before their practical use is assessed. Beauty pageants are organised on an almost daily basis throughout the land. Gathoeys (transsexuals or transvestites) are usually treated with tolerance, as they too are seen as suay. Everything and everyone is acceptable, as long as they are beautiful.
Clothes: Thais like to dress up in formal gear for certain occasions. As mentioned above, Thais are lovers of beauty and are judged mainly on their appearance by their fellow countrymen. Neat clothing suggests effortless wellbeing. Unwashed hair, body odour and dirty or untidy clothes result in a total loss of face. Shorts are acceptable on the beach or within the family circle, but wearing shorts in public is seen as inappropriate. When visiting temples, you must check that your arms and legs are fully covered. This applies to women in particular. If you forget, there are usually cloaks you can borrow or hire to cover up.
Etiquette: Differences in opinion between people are rarely expressed. Losing one’s patience, getting angry or raising one’s voice in public all result in a public loss of face. Confrontations are avoided at all costs in order to ensure that others never feel uncomfortable. Criticism is seen as personally offensive. The expression of positive emotion is also much more subtle than we are used to. Public displays of affection between members of the opposite sex are seen as very inappropriate. However, boys walking hand in hand with boys or girls with girls are an everyday occurrence, and this has no attached meaning as it would in the West. During official or religious festivities, men and women usually sit apart from each other.
Grinning: Thailand is reputed as the ‘Land of smiles’. The function of the Thai smile is essentially to make life run as smoothly as possible. A smile or grin can have many meanings depending on the situation or one’s social standing. People also smile out of shyness, submission, anger; but it is usually an expression of happiness or friendliness. A grin can also be used where we would say sorry or thank you. Favours from civil servants or businessmen will usually be granted if you give a friendly smile when asking. Mistakes or blunders are laughed off with a smile which is used to apologize for the particular incident. If somebody grins when a difference of opinion is brewing, it is an attempt to pacify the other person and avoid conflict. A grin can also contain a refusal. If a request or question is answered with a smile without accompanying positive statement to clarify, then this means ‘No, sorry’ or ‘I don’t know’ etc. The grin is usually used to express different emotions, but is still nice to see.
Meetings/appointments: We come from a relatively tense culture where time is money and punctuality is expected. Thais suffer from no such affliction. However, that is not to say that they are always late and they will often turn up an hour early if they have nothing in particular to do. The Thai live more in the here and now, worry much less than us about the future, and have much more patience.
Haggling: Haggling is an everyday way of life in Thailand. You will be expected to haggle at the market, in tourist shops, in taxis which have no meter, with tuk-tuk (motorised three-wheel rickshaw) drivers and samlor (bicycle rickshaw) drivers. In songthaews (small pick up trucks) and local buses with fixed destinations, haggling is not necessary. Remember, haggling is seen as a social activity and is not a matter of life and death!
Superstition: Aside from the belief in ghosts and spirits there are also many other superstitions, so we will give you some do’s and don’ts.
- Carrying out big plans, such as moving house or travelling must never commence on a Wednesday. Even cutting your hair on this day is seen to bring bad luck. For this reason, many barbers are closed on Wednesday, and even if they were open, nobody would go.
- Pregnant women must never sit on doorsteps, as it is believed that this will cause a painful or complicated birth. To guarantee a simple, uncomplicated birth, women must crawl through an elephant’s legs, passing under the stomach. Pregnant women who eat with a large wooden spoon are believed to be born with ugly, large mouths.
- During a family meal, you must never mention that the food tastes good. It is believed that this will be heard by ghosts, who will cause you to experience stomach pain. Small children must never be referred to as beautiful for a similar reason, and must be referred to as ugly. Ghosts are believed to feel jealousy if they hear a child being referred to as beautiful, and may cause the child pain as a consequence.
- Coins are placed in the mouths of dead people so that their souls are not poor during their journey. After cremation, funeral-goers will attempt to find the coin as it is seen to bring good luck.
- Whistling is not permitted in one’s house, as it is seen to attract evil spirits.
The royal dynasty: Foreigners will have difficulty understanding the depth of esteem that the Thai folk have for their royal family, comparable to no other country in the world. The current sovereign, his majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), inherited the throne in 1946, and is therefore the longest reigning monarch of the Chakri dynasty. King Bhumibol (pronounced Phumiphon) and Queen Sirikit are symbols of wisdom, goodness and love of the people. The Thai are extremely loyal to the king, partially due to tradition, but also for the king’s positive contributions to life in Thailand. In hotels, restaurants, buses, tuk-tuks and public buildings you will see many portraits of the royal couple. Many Thai see their king as a demi-god. Negative comments about the king are both socially and legally unacceptable.
Drugs: Don’t be tempted. You may well be offered an innocent-looking opium pipe on expeditions through the north of the country. Don’t accept, it is illegal. There have been many cases in which a Thai has placed drugs in tourists’ baggage and subsequently reported them to the police. In such a situation you will have no legal leg to stand on and drug penalties in Thailand are very harsh.
Remember at all times that you are a visitor in this foreign land. Their behaviour and customs are not bizarre, yours are!