Thai Cultural Considerations
A brief guide of Dos and Don'ts while navigating the kingdom.
Thailand is a truly fascinating place. Few places in the world have such friendly people, diverse natural beauty, and complex culture. So many facets of Thai culture can take a lifetime to understand – the moment you think you get it is the moment you discover just how much there is to learn. This fact is perhaps what makes Thailand such an incredible place for self discovery and cultural awareness.
Foreigners (or farang) are often given a bad rap, and are sterotypically considered dirty, loud, and rude. Thai culture demands for softer, kinder interactions dictated by greng jai, the guilt one feels when imposing upon another person or causing that person to lose face. The result is that foreigners can act inappropriately for extended periods of time while greng jai prevents their Thai hosts from correcting (and embarrassing) them. Mastery of this concept will help you to navigate through Thailand and be as respectful and appropriate as possible. Below are a few tips that we feel can help you get started.
- Cover up – dress appropriately to show cultural sensitivity, this is important everywhere but especially in or around temples and in rural areas. This means no shorts/short skirts, no shoulder-baring shirts, no cleavage or stomach showing, no bras, underwear or boxers showing, bathing suits, etc. Although you should dress modestly you should also dress well: farang are thought of as generally a little dirty and smelly and we do not want to perpetuate this! You will command more respect if you are well dressed.
- Get used to using your right hand to give things to people, as the left hand is thought of as dirty. This is especially true during financial transactions.
- Take off your hat and shoes when you enter someone’s house, a temple and even some stores.
- Take off your hat and bow slightly to monks.
- Beckon someone to come towards you with your palm facing down, never up. Beckoning with your palm facing the sky is thought of as very sexually suggestive.
- Ask for permission before taking photos of people.
- Talk with your “inside voice” even when you are outside.
- Shower, smell pleasantly, and be aware of your appearance.
- Sit with your feet to the side rather than in cross legged (lotus position) when facing Buddha and NEVER with your feet pointed towards Buddha.
- Give a small donation to temples when you are visiting.
- Get used to Thais wanting to sit beside you, stare at you, touch your arms and hair, etc. They are very curious and also have different ideas of personal space.
- Be friendly and try to get to know as many Thais as possible.
- Accept things when given to you – especially food. If you are not hungry, just take a nibble or sip and leave the rest.
- Follow locals! They obviously know what they’re doing.
- FEET! Don’t ever ever ever do anything with your feet. The bottoms of your feet should never be pointed towards someone, towards Buddha, and especially don’t touch anyone/thing with your feet! Buddhists believe that feet are the lowest part of the body.
- Get frustrated or angry with a Thai national at any time. Keeping good “face” is important here as it is in many Asian nations. Thais will be very embarrassed if you lose your cool. Also never EVER purposefully embarrass someone, what we think of as friendly joking may not be so friendly here.
- Touch anyone’s head as the head is sacred. Mothers may get angry if you touch their children’s head as this is thought of as bad luck to the child.
- Walk over someone. Sometimes this is difficult when there are beggars in crowded areas but it is very important. Again, this has to do with feet!
- Step over books or food. Again, feet.
- Put your feet up on a table or chair (did we mention feet are a big thing here?).
- Wear your shoes in a house.
- Dress provocatively at all – especially females.
- Take up a disproportionate amount of space – either with your person or your stuff. Thais are compact people who keep themselves and their things orderly. Please notice that.
- Start eating before your host has.
- Get frustrated if people don’t understand your Thai.
- Give up trying to speak Thai – people want to understand you.
- Hug, kiss or touch anyone inappropriately in public.
- Touch a monk if you are a female.
- Get hung up on western ideals like “fairness” and “equality” – try to understand how the system works in Thailand.