With its chaotic veneer, Thai customs are easily overlooked in Bangkok. Respect the local people by knowing these ten cultural points before you embark on travels in Thailand.
The wai, or pressing your palms together at chest or nose level and bowing your head slightly, is a gesture that you will encounter almost immediately upon arrival in Thailand. An integral part of Thai etiquette, it denotes respect (or reverence when performed in front of a Buddha image), and can be used to express a hello, thank you, or goodbye.
Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, and the royal family is revered throughout the country. The King is especially beloved for his six decades of public service and humble demeanor. His image is everywhere, from posters plastered on the exterior of buildings to photos displayed on taxi dashboards. Always stand when the King’s anthem is played before movies, concerts and sporting events. Travelers should also refrain from making disparaging remarks about the royals. Strict lèse majesté laws apply, and offenses are punishable by imprisonment.
Over the past several decades, the government has introduced various practices to encourage nationalism. One example of this institutionalized patriotism is twice daily broadcasts of the national anthem. Pedestrians, commuters, and students are required to stop or stand whenever this song is played. In recent efforts to boost patriotism, a group of generals proposed that traffic also come to a standstill, arguing that motorists “already spend more time in traffic jams anyway.”
Based on pre-Buddhist Hindu legends, a particular auspicious color is associated with each day of the week. This is most noticeable on Mondays, when many people wear yellow shirts, acknowledging and honouring the day on which the King was born. Other popular colors include pink (Tuesday) and light blue (Friday, the Queen’s day of birth). Given recent political protests, the colors red and yellow are also of significance, representing opposing movements.
The phrase Mai pen rai (never mind) describes the country’s unofficial philosophy, capturing locals’ knack for keeping cool in taxing or annoying situations. In the grand scheme of things, why stress about trifling matters? Mai pen rai! This laidback mindset goes hand-in-hand with an inherent sense of light-heartedness. Nothing is taken too seriously, and anything worth doing should contain some element of sanuk (fun)!
Thailand has long enjoyed a reputation for sexual tolerance, based more on non-confrontational (as opposed to progressive) attitudes. The country is very safe for GLBT travelers. Transsexuals, also known as krathoeys or ladyboys, are highly visible in mainstream society, from scantily clad teens to high-profile celebrities.
About 95% of Thailand’s population is comprised of Buddhists from the Theravada school. Despite teachings against material attachment, many Thais worship Buddha images and don amulets for protection. Various animist practices have also been integrated into Thai religious life. Most buildings boast spirit houses or altars, where offerings of food and garlands are made to appease the spirits inhabiting the land. Avoid touching such displays as some Thais can be highly superstitious, fearing disruption of harmonious balance.
Based on Buddhist beliefs, the head is the most valued part of the body while the feet are the lowest, symbolizing attachment to the ground, a cause of human suffering. Touching someone’s head is highly offensive, as is raising your feet or pointing them at people or religious objects. Shoes are to be removed before entering homes and religious structures. Most types of attire are tolerated in areas frequented by tourists. It is a good idea, however, to cover up when visiting temples and shrines. Those wearing sleeveless tops, short skirts, shorts, and flip flops may be denied entrance. It is not unusual to encounter signs prohibiting women from entering highly sacred places, such as temple libraries. Women who wish to worship do so outside the buildings. Also, while it is taboo for a woman to touch a monk or pass things to him directly, polite conversation is fine.
Thais are generally addressed by their first names, preceded by the honorific title Khun, appropriate for both men and women. In more casual settings, mono-syllabic nicknames are used. More traditional monikers cover categories such as colors, animals, and fruit, including Daeng (red), Lek (small), and Moo (pig); these days, you will encounter nicknames such as Good, Money, and Benz (as in the luxury auto).
Outside of large cities, squat toilets rule. These are flushed by pouring water from an adjacent bucket into the hole. Also, used toilet paper is to be discarded in the bin provided; never try to flush it down as it most plumbing isn’t designed to handle paper. Traditional washrooms include a trough filled with water where a ladle or bowl is used to sluice water over the body. In areas where outdoor bathing is the norm, women will don a cotton sarong or wraparound, and men will bathe in their underwear.