As far as many Asian countries go for visiting foreigners, Thailand is certainly among the most relaxed with regard to customs and rules. Having been a top destination for tourism for over 60 years, Thailand is known for its warm hospitality and uniquely welcoming ways. However, that is not to say that anything goes. While the Thai customs may not be as fixed or rigid as Japanese or Chinese, there are still some big DO’s and DON’Ts to be mindful of when traveling, greeting and eating in Thailand.
Wai – A wai is placing the palms together in a prayer pose just under the chin. A wai can mean “Hello,” “Thank you,” “I’m sorry,” or “Goodbye.”A wai does have a bit of a hierarchy in its use – never use it for children, street vendors or labourers, even if they wai to you. It’s not being snobby, it’s just inappropriate. In these cases, a simple smile or nod is enough. But it’s proper to use it in a restaurant or hotel or certainly in more formal situation like a business meeting or in more traditional settings like a private home. (above image shows the wai by the ever elegant Thai Airways flight attendants)
Say “Khun” – Khun proceeds a given name and is a sign of politeness and respect. For example, I would be called Khun Joanna. It’s the Western equivalent of saying Mr., Mrs. or Miss and is appropriate for use with everyone regardless of marital status or gender. And if you don’t know a person’s given name, it’s proper to address them as Khun.
Eat with a spoon – the spoon is the main utensil in Thai eating. It not only serves the same function as a knife, but it is the utensil used to put food in the mouth. The fork is simply a rake to push food on the spoon.
Smile, A LOT – Thais are very warm people and you will be surprised how a genuine smile can open an interaction or smooth the way in difficult situations. It is a simple and easy way to connect with people of any age or gender. Even when negotiating prices at a market, a smile goes a long way to closing the transaction.
Do use “ka” and “krab” – If you are a woman, it is appropriate to end sentences or greetings with “ka.” For example, “sawasdee” is hello in Thai…as a woman, you would say “sawasdee ka.” If you are a man, your sentences should end with “krab,” so “sawasdee krab” is a proper hello.
Directness is not appreciated – be very subtle in responding with less than favourable information or with a negative reply. In fact, there is no word for “No” in Thai language which will give you some clue as to how inappropriate a negative response is. It is common instead to explain the situation, for example, “We have a family commitment this Sunday otherwise we would love to join you for dinner.”
Don’t get angry – losing your temper or being confrontational is a big no no. Not only will this achieve nothing, you will deeply embarrass the Thais that witness your outburst. In Thai culture, not only do you lose face, but you deeply upset those around you. Furthermore, it is completely non-productive in most situations, e.g. if your reservation is not on the books at a hotel, they will not be inclined to help you out and will avoid further interaction.
Never touch the top of anyone’s head – the head is considered the most sacred part of the body in Thai Buddhist culture. Even with children it is inappropriate to ruffle the hair. It’s so sacred that even hairdressers will solemnly ask permission before cutting hair.
Don’t use feet inappropriately – on the flip side of Buddhist culture, feet are considered unclean as it is the lowest part of the body. So never rest your feet on a chair, or use your feet to touch or even move anything. This is probably one of the biggest offenses you can commit in Thailand.
Don’t discuss the King – ever! And especially not in public places because many loyal Thai subjects would think nothing of reporting you to the police and they would have every right to deport you under the ‘lèse-majesté’ laws of the country – which prevent any public unfavourable treatment of the king or of his images. When I was living in Bangkok, I saw a man arrested for chasing after some dropped money that was blowing away by trapping it with his feet. The King’s image is on the currency and as you now know from the above entry, the feet are unclean. Conversely you should always stand silently and respectfully when the King’s song is played – for example, it is played at the beginning of all movies in a theater and also on all public transportation stations at 6pm daily.
Don’t kiss or cuddle in public – Thais openly frown on those who show intimate affection in public. It is regarded as cheap and tawdry and of the lowest class. That said, it is quite common and perfectly OK for same gender friends to hold hands while shopping or walking down the street.
With these simple rules of etiquette, you can be sure that any trip to Thailand will be smooth sailing. Some people may ask themselves if it is worth it to go to the trouble to learn these common courtesies when traveling. But I always like to remind myself that I am the guest in someone’s home when visiting a foreign country and with that in mind, I think it’s always preferable to be a polite and respectful guest.
About Joanna Hutchins
Joanna Hutchins is a culinary travel blogger based in Shanghai, China.. In 2009, Joanna founded Accidental Epicurean, a culinary travel blog focused on Asia. Joanna is also a contributor to CNNGo, Look East magazine, SE Asia Globe and Two magazine.