Etiquette and customs in Thailand are deeply ingrained within society and its people, and part of Thai culture as whole that dates way back – influenced by neighboring countries and Theravada Buddhism.
Most visitors coming to Thailand for a holiday or short visit do not really need to understand many of Thai customs to get along very well here. You’ll be surprised how far just a polite smile can get you!
Do’s and Don’ts
I’m going to keep these fairly basic and cover customs that a visitor may have the opportunity to use and follow, and anything that could cause offense. As with all countries and cultures – we just do not know that certain customs are an unsaid rule which may cause people to frown or take offense.
Thais know you are a foreigner (farang in Thai) and don’t expect you to adhere to all customs and etiquette. If you get to know any Thai people they will want you to be relaxed and not to worry too much, and they will help immensely with basic cultural differences.
As soon as you arrive in Thailand at your hotel you’ll be greeted with “sawasdee krub (male) and sawasdee kha (female)” and a ‘Wai – palms put together in prayer’. When visiting most establishments you’ll be greeted this way.
Sawasdee with krub or kha in Thai language and the palms put together in prayer towards a person is hello and welcome. The preying hands is named ‘Wai’. The Wai is used in various ways, at certain times, in a different manner depending on the situation and persons, but the basics is hello and welcome.
You’ll not need to return a Wai to staff in establishments etc., as this is a welcome made the Thai way, just as the English and others say hello and welcome. If you’re meeting with Thai people, especially family then the Wai is important to use, and I would avoid going to shake hands as we do in the west unless the other person initiates it.
Most Thai citizens respect their royal family highly, and had a strong bond with the late King (Bhumibol Adulyadej) whom passed away 13 October 2016 (aged 88).
Unlike the royal family in my country (UK) Thailand has a very strict law, named lèse majesté. This law has landed those breaking the law imprisoned for long periods. The best policy as a foreigner I have found is not to discuss these type of matters including politics in public – it’s simply not my business.
Head and Feet
The head of a person in Thai culture is viewed as sacred and the feet as dirty and lowly. It’s important not to touch others on the head and also very important to not point bare feet facing people, place them on chairs etc., and avoid pointing the toes at any Buddhist statues.
You’ll notice Thais in certain places, especially temples or attending any formal gatherings that the feet are placed behind in a position that looks fairly uncomfortable. It can be uncomfortable in that position, but in many situations crossing the legs in the normal manner is fine and Thai people will understand as it’s their culture.
In Thailand people will not use feet to close a fridge door (for example) or for anything else that’s usually done with the hands. We do this in the west, but it’s frowned upon in Thailand.
As with most Asian countries shoes are taken off when entering certain buildings, especially temples. When entering a home in Thailand taking shows off is standard. If you’re unsure, look for shoes already placed outside a building and you can ask someone when opening the door to enter ‘whether you have to take shoes off’.
Tourist areas, especially on the islands and beach areas, the code is pretty much wear what you like for the weather. You’re on holiday and of course the flip flops must come out!
In cities you’ll see Thais and western expats wearing clothes that we wear in the west, which can look a bit odd at first as it’s so HOT. In the cities I dress casually smart, still with shorts and maybe a t-shirt sometimes, but not flip flops. This is totally up to you and what you see, want to follow and are comfortable with.
When visiting temples covering up the shoulders and below the knees is a must. Other establishments (e.g. immigration) will require covering up as well.
If you’re a single man and would like to attract a beautiful Thai woman, dressing well will win you massive brownie points from the beginning. How you present yourself in Thailand is very important to Thai people.
It’s a good idea before arriving in Thailand to buy some light weight but smart clothing for certain occasions. Nothing expensive, just smart, covering the knees, and light enough for comfort in the heat.
Monks are second to royal family in terms of respect given. You’re likely to see many monks politely getting along with their own business on a bus, train and everyday places. At a temple you may be able to speak with a monk if they can speak English, but usually in public places a monk will just quietly get along with their own business and Thai people.
Sometimes I see local Thais speaking with local monks, and a local monk always share a good morning in English when he sees me. I have briefly spoke with monks at temples, but I would never just randomly speak with them elsewhere.
Monks are forbidden to have physical contact with females as part of the Buddhist precepts they follow. Thai women respect this and do not usually stand next to or sit next to a monk in robes.
Etiquette in Public
Physical contact such as kissing and touching in public is usually avoided in Thailand. While its normal to see people snogging in public places in my home country – it’s just not the done thing here. Holding hands is fine. When I meet my wife in public I will touch her arm to show affection and greet her warmly, but never hug and kiss.
Thais in general are quite reserved and conservative in public. You’ll notice people speaking on phones very quietly on buses, trains etc., and not talking extremely loud in public places among themselves. There is a respect for others within their environment.
Avoiding conflict, arguments and causing a fuss about what others are doing is also the Thai way. Creating or participating in conflicts is ‘losing face’ for yourself or the others involved and possibly both. Keeping your cool is important…even in circumstances you know you are in the right – stay cool (Jai Yen). This is a much bigger subject I will cover in another article.
The basics of how most Thais like to appear in public is based on politeness, consideration of others, and being seen as a person with self control.
Tipping can be slightly similar to how tips are given in the west in one way. No service charge “give a tip”……service change no need to leave a tip.
A difference I have found is politeness and good service is mostly much better than I experience in the UK. Most of the restaurants I visit that I use frequently or the places that waiting staff are very helpful I will leave a tip. If I have an opportunity to leave a tip in any situation that I get a good service, I will.
It’s really up to you when tipping, but you do not need to feel like you must tip everyone for every service provided.
Basic Do’s and Don’ts
Take your shoes off when required
Cover up the knees and shoulders when required
Mind your feet (as above)
Touch a Thai persons head
Offend the monarchy
Lose your cool