Thai customs and etiquette

Even Ronald 'wais' in Phuket, Thailand

You might get away with acting-up in Phuket, which is awash with tourists, but observing some etiquette that is important to Thais will make your stay more pleasant and avoid displeasure. Knowing a few important dos and don’ts will certainly make it much easier during your stay in Thailand. Thai people are, generally, polite and non-aggressive by nature and expect the same of others; they will seldom display their displeasure with rude behaviour but you could be getting yourself into a troubled situation if you disrespect a few important aspects of their culture.

The Thai are a proud nation of people with a long history and well-established, complex hierarchal structure of status. Starting with the Royal family and percolating down, everyone in Thailand knows and respects their place in society. A polite Thai will usually immediately identify whether another is of higher status than them (usually deemed by age or wealth) and initiate the wai - a submissive and graceful bringing together of the hands to the chest or beneath the nose (to show ultimate respect). Even on a social level, they will refer to their elders as pii (older sibling). In fact, social grace is paramount and the formal suffix kha (for females) and khrap (for males) is added to the end of all sentences when addressing strangers, employers/employees or elders.

There are many other habits of etiquette which the foreigner will do well to observe; the most important being to avoid loss of face by losing your temper. The feet are considered dirty and should not be pointed directly at people or raised; shoes are usually never worn in indoor living areas, and the head is sanctified, so avoid touching someone else on the head. Thai people also value their ego in a subtle and silent manner and any afront to this might result in some unpleasant reaction. They might not immediately react, which is dangerous since you're unlikely to notice when they're about to snap and get violent. But this doesn't happen often.

Contrary to popular impression, Thais are quite conservative and expect visitors to dress appropriately in formal public places. They are also discreet about showing affection, especially in public. Holding hands is considered taboo among the older generation. Most importantly, topless sunbathing by women really is taboo, and though you might see others exposing their breasts, it really is seen as tasteless by Thais. They'll be used to it in Phuket, but would rather you not do so, unless it's a very private beach.

Thais welcome you with respect

While Westerners tend to pick up subtleness in tone of voice to indicate someone's mood, Thais read more into body language, approach and the eyes. Emphasis is usually placed on passiveness and although they are used to foreigners being abrupt, it pays to smile constantly and go gently. Thai people are very patient and seldom complain, nor do they accept complaint easily. You're better off quietly leaving a restaurant, or taking your business elsewhere than irately complaining as it's only going to fall on deaf ears. Furthermore, raising your voice and being petulant will get you nowhere, if anything it will only make them more uncooperative.

Eye contact is a common and important method of placing strangers at ease and there is good reason why Thailand is known as 'the land of smiles'. The Thai are incredibly patient and forgiving in an imperfect society and are happy to accept things as they are. The best you can do as a foreigner is to offer a soft laugh in testing situations, and say mai pen rai (never mind); a frequently used excuse.

For most Thai people, even in the modern era, acting appropriately to maintain or improve status is extremely important and this goes some way towards explaining their desire for material gain and wealth. Above all, they adore their King and greatly respect the Royal family; indeed, his Highness King Bhumibol (Rama IX) of the current Chakri dynasty (and the world's longest reigning monarch still alive) is hugely respected for his compassionate servitude to the entire nation, along with Queen Sirikit.

Thai cultural behaviour is far reaching and subtle, and often creates some frustration for foreigners who are unaware of the cultural habits that may influence everyday business and service. For an in-depth, albeit slightly dated, insight we recommend Robert and Nanthapa Cooper's Culture Shock: Thailand (Times ISBN:981 204 157 5).

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