How to Travel Respectfully in Thailand
Published 30 March 2016
Holiday-makers can’t help but fall in love with the country dubbed the land of smiles. Away from the bars of Bangkok, Thailand is a country steeped in ancient traditions and a dominant ideology; centred around religious beliefs, patriotism and a societal hierarchy.
As a teacher living in Thailand, Sandy Dhaliwal has mastered the general etiquette and traditions underpinned by Thailand’s Buddhist beliefs. Read on to make sure that you avoid a social faux pas on your trip to Thailand.
Head and feet
In Thailand, your head is seen as the holiest and most honourable part of your body, as it carries your soul. Your feet, on the other hand, are the lowest and therefore the unholiest. Because of this belief, it is considered extremely impolite to touch someone’s head, especially if said person is older than you.
Thailand is a delight for the Podophobia’s among us. When it comes to feet, avoid touching people with them, or even pointing your feet at someone. In temples, try to point your feet away from any images of a Buddha so as not to cause any offense. Additionally, you must not put your feet on money, as the king’s image is on the currency. So if you drop it and it blows in the breeze either try and catch it with your hands or just accept your loss.
It’s not uncommon to see food and drink offerings outside shrines, but try to leave it alone. Thais are very superstitious, and if you start helping yourself to the ‘free sample’s’ you could be disturbed by spiritual forces. You will also see orange-robed monks roaming the grounds of most temples. Unfortunately, if you’re a woman traveller you must respectfully keep your distance. Monks have to go through a lengthy cleansing process if they come into bodily contact with a woman and that’s just hassle.
Instead of waving, shaking hands, hugging or even kissing, the Thais have their own way of greeting one another, and it’s with a wai – clasping hands together in the prayer position and bowing or slightly nodding. It is the most common and respectful way to acknowledge another person; and you can use it to say hello, goodbye and thank you.
How you wai depends on who you are actually speaking to. There are three places to position your hands; determined by whether the person is older or respected, the same age as you or a monk. If you are wai-ing a monk, you should have your hands placed adjacent to your forehead – same goes with an image of Buddha. If you are wai-ing someone older, place your hands adjacent to your nose. Lastly if you are wai-ing someone that is your own age, you place your hands adjacent to your chin. Basically, the higher up your hands, the more respect you are expressing. One thing you don’t have to do though is wai children. But they will more than often wai you as Thailand is all about showing respect to elders.
The monarchy and patriotism
Thais are fiercely patriotic and love their royal family. So much so that you will hear their national anthem played publicly, twice a day, every day. And out of respect you must stop what you are doing and stand still if you hear it. At 8am and 6pm, if you are in a public place such as at a train station, drop everything as you’ll know the drill! Additionally, if you go to the cinema in Thailand, you will have to stand for the anthem in there before the film starts. I love the novelty of it all really, it is just so different to back home.
Another thing that you must be aware of is that in Thailand, their culture is taught not to question their monarchy or government. This could even lead to a custodial sentence, so save your political views for discussing down the pub when you’re back home.
What we find rude, is not rude in Thailand
Thais can be preoccupied with appearance and the better looking you appear to them, the higher up in preference you will become or respect you will get.
Appearances are often commented on. It would not be strange for a Thai to call someone fat or ugly. It’s just not seen as rude to talk openly about what someone looks like, even I was called fat on occasion – much to my horror!
Embrace the culture
Thailand has made me a much more positive and laid back person. Things that would have driven me insane in England just don’t bother me here and as long as you keep an open mind, and respect the local culture you’ll find that these traditions are what make travelling in Thailand great.