What Are the Etiquette Rules to Follow When Traveling to Thailand?

Many foreigners (farang) visit Thailand because of their unspoiled culture, unique food, opulent temples and royal palaces, stunning beaches and landscapes, vibrant nightlife and friendly people. Thailand, which literally means the “land of the free”, is one country that has kept itself free and independent from foreign conquerors. The people take pride in being able to maintain their customs and traditions.

Whenever traveling to a foreign country, the last thing that we want to do is offend our hosts. It is therefore imperative for you to learn the customs of a place before going there to show your respect and regard for their ways. Adopting local customs will also help to gain local people’s respect and friendship. 

Here are basic etiquettes to follow when heading to the lovely tropical island of Thailand.

The “Wai” Greeting

The “Wai” is the famous Thai greeting that is performed by pressing your palms together in a prayer-like gesture with a tad of gently bowing your head. Although foreigners may not be expected to do this, it will definitely help you make a good impression and get ahead when meeting locals. Parenthetically, the “Wai” greeting is usually unnecessary to younger people or children.

The “Wai” is performed at different levels. Making a “Wai” to a Buddhist monk in a meditation retreat, for instance, would involve kneeling and making a prayer-like gesture in your forehead supplemented by an extended low bow.

Phonetic Greetings

Performing the “Wai” greeting is usually accompanied by saying hello or how are you. In Thai, this is pronounced as “Sawasdee Ka” for women and “Sawasdee Krab” for men. People also perform the “Wai” to say thank you, which you can distinguish when they say “khop khun”.

While a foreigner may not be expected to return a “Wai”, you can acknowledge a “Wai” by answering “Sabai dee” or “sabai sabai”, which means everything is fine. If the “Wai” is to say thanks, you can answer by replying “khob-kun-Ka” for women or “khob-kun-Krub”  for men.

Respect the Monarch

The Thailand monarch or King remains an important figurehead and symbol of the country. While sovereignty rested on the people, the king maintains a strong political influence on government workings as head of state. The monarch traditionally commands deep respect from people. Since 1908, it is not only disrespectful to insult, defame or threaten the royal family of Thailand (including the Queen and regents), but illegal with the ‘lese majeste’ laws. This is one of the strictest laws in the country which can cause a person including foreigners a prolonged jail sentence.

Respect Buddhist Religion

Buddhism is the religion in Thailand. Around 95% of Thais are Buddhists. Religion specifically Buddha and images of Buddha is something that the people take seriously. You can be sentenced up to seven years in jail for insulting or disrespecting Buddha. Here are things that you must not do:

Don’t get a tattoo of Buddha.   While getting tattoos in Thailand is not illegal, having Buddha images as a tattoo is considered offensive and profane because Buddha images are sacred objects of worship.

Don’t take Buddha statues or images out of the country. While there are plenty of Buddha images, souvenirs, and statues that are sold by vendors to tourists, it is illegal to bring them if you cross borders. You need to have an export license to carry Buddha souvenirs out of the country. Without prior authorization, you can get penalized by fine or imprisonment.

Respect Buddhist Temples. Temples are places of worship. You must be properly dressed when visiting temples. Properly attire means that your clothes must not be too revealing like shorts or short skirts.  This is one of the most common mistakes of many foreign tourists. Many visitors usually wear summer attire because after all, Thailand is a tropical country and the weather is hot. As a general rule, the clothes that must be worn by men or women should cover shoulders and knees. Wearing formal clothes is better. Visitors who aren’t dressed up appropriately are barred from entering temples. However, you can opt to purchase shawls or pants from vendors outside temple entrances for a hefty price.

Aside from the dress code, you must remove your hats, shoes, and sunglasses (shades) when entering the temple. Although some temples may allow you to wear hats and shades, the removal of shoes is strictly forbidden. You may not also be allowed to take make poses and take pictures inside the temple. Again, the temple is not meant for sight-seeing but for praying. 

Respect the Monks

Buddhist monks in Thailand are ordained practitioners of spiritual self-discipline who serve as teachers or scholars of Buddhism. As priests, they took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Monks are treated with respect in the social hierarchy and are given certain privileges in society. This included getting a seat in public transportation, and being allowed to eat first in gatherings.

Monks are very common in Thailand. You can see them in public talking to their phones, using computers, walking in the street or buying things. You can treat them with respect by greeting them with a higher “Wai”, which they don’t normally return.

Monks are supposedly prohibited to have any close contact with women. Female tourists should, therefore, avoid taking a seat or standing next to them, getting in contact with their robes or handing something to them. A foreigner should also avoid crossing their legs in the presence of a monk.

Respect Social Norms and Customs

As a country that has never been colonized, Thailand is one of the few nations which have successfully preserved their customs and way of life. While the country has already been exposed to western and other cultures, the locals still very in touch with their social norms and beliefs which visitors of the country are expected to observe. Here are basic manners to follow when in Thailand.

Don’t touch a person’s head. Thai people believe the head as the cleanest and most sacred part of the body because it is the nearest body part to enlightenment in their religion.  You must make sure to avoid touching another person’s head whether intentionally to caress or fix hair or accidentally when hugging someone. This social norm does not strictly apply to families and close friends.

Don’t show the soles of your feet. While the head is considered cleanest and sacred, the feet are considered the dirtiest. Thus, you must avoid showing the bottom of your feet. This means you should keep your feet on the floor and avoid putting it up on tables, chairs or anywhere that it is not supposed to be. Incidentally, using your feet to point and get someone’s attention is also considered rude.

Corollary to this, you should also remove your shoes, sandals or slippers before entering a place, whether it is a house, office, restaurants, temple or even hotel rooms. If there is no sign saying the need to remove shoes, you may politely ask someone if you are allowed to wear shoes. Apparently, the need to remove shoes does not apply in public places such as shopping malls, grocery stores, airports or the bus.

Don’t point with your pointing finger. Pointing with one finger to show direction is considered rude because it can mean accusing or commanding a person. Because using hands especially when pointing direction or stressing a point is expedient, you can do so by using all your fingers with an open palm instead.

Don’t step on any currency. Stepping on Thai banknotes or currency is unethical in Thailand because the legal tender bears the image of the king and monarchy of Thailand. It is considered an insult especially because you are using your feet which are deemed as the dirtiest part of the body.  Refrain from stepping on money to stop a coin from rolling or the money from flying when you accidentally dropped it in a public space.

Use spoon when eating. Forks are mainly used to collect food onto the spoon. Do not use a fork to bring food to your mouth. It may imply that you are being picky and are not enjoying the food that’s why you are only making small bites. While Thailand is in Asia, people don’t use chopsticks. Some Chinese and Japanese restaurants, however, can offer chopsticks, especially when eating noodles.

It would be nice if you finish all the food on your plate instead of leaving some. Like, in many other countries, finishing your food is a show of appreciation that you like food. Leaving food on your plate could imply that you don’t like the food.

Always use your right hand. Some food is meant to be eaten by hands such as chicken, crispy Thai ribs, Pla Rad Prik, Thot Man Khao Phot, and Gung Sarong, among others. In which case, be sure to use your right hand. Also, you should not lick your hand or fingers while eating which is inappropriate.

Aside from using your right hand when eating, you should also use your right hand for doing other things such as passing objects, reaching objects, calling someone’s attention, or paying money. The left hand is generally considered dirty because it usually used for wiping oneself in the toilet.

Keep a smile handy. Thailand is called “The Land of Smiles” for a reason. The people always smile for different reasons as an expression of happiness, appreciation, kindness, or even embarrassment and apology. When a stranger smiles at you, it would be decent to return a smile back.

Pay because nothing’s free. Tourism is a major economic contributor to Thailand. While the people are truly friendly, they are also there to help, accommodate and entertain visitors to earn a living. This is especially true when you are visiting a red-light district. Almost everything comes with a price even a snap of photo with a ladyboy.

Don’t just touch women. Thai women are generally conservative in spite of their negative image of being portrayed as randy and frisky in bars and clubs. You should refrain from touching a woman without her explicit approval because it is always deemed malicious and constitutes sexual harassment.

Refrain from public display of affection. Cuddling, kissing and smooching in public are not considered decent. Displays of affection should be done in private. While holding hands with your loved one in public is tolerate and acceptable, more obscene public display of affections like caressing or snogging each other is not appropriate especially in temples and other sacred places.

Keep your composure. Thailand is a county where you can relax, slow down and get away from the rat race in city life. You may find some services to be leisurely than usual. Don’t let the slow phase of services get in your nerves. Yelling and tossing things are considered rude. Don’t lose your temper or blow your top. Remain always cool and say, “Mai ben rai!”, which generally means, “No problem”.

Don’t expose yourself too much. Thailand is a beach paradise where westerners enjoy sunbathing to get a perfect tan. When sunbathing, however, you should refrain from wearing very revealing bikinis, getting topless or getting naked. While the locals will not disturb or interfere with you, showing too much skin is not considered moral.

Do not ride elephants. Many tourists visit Thailand to enjoy a ride on an elephant or watch them do tricks. While riding elephants is not harmful to the elephant, this has resulted in the capture of wild elephants that in turn led to the rapid population decline of elephants.

Other related tips

Here are other important things that you must consider which can definitely help you get ahead or enjoy your visit to Thailand.

Dress up nice. Except in temples and palaces, there is no dress code in Thailand for foreign visitors. However, dressing up modestly is appreciated and will more likely help you get better service.

Exchange foreign currency in town. Don’t exchange your foreign currency in the airports. Do so in authorized foreign exchange centers in the town which provides higher rates and better deals.

Bargain with your tuk-tuk driver. Tuk-tuks have become a symbol of Thailand, although locals hardly use them anymore. Tuk-tuks have become a tourist attraction and give expensive charging rates exclusive for foreigners. While they remain one unique way to experience Thailand, you need to learn how to negotiate with the drivers who are infamous for taking tourists to unwanted shops, where the driver will get a commission for bringing tourists. Haggling is also important when you buy in souvenir stores to get the best deal.

Bring a mosquito repellent. Mosquitos and other insects are common in Thailand because of their well-preserved nature. If you want to really have a good rest while staying in beach cottages or houses, you need to bring a mosquito repellent.

Learning and observing these basic Thai etiquettes and social norms will not only prevent you from inadvertently offending friendly Thai people. It will definitely help you make the most in your visit to the Land of Smiles.

Matthew Ryan

I'm Matthew Ryan, one of the guys behind MannersAdvisor.com I am passionate about the world of good manners, etiquette and proper behavior to have on any special occasion. Here I decided to share my passion with you!

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