Thai Culture

Thai culture and customs

The information here is to give foreign visitors to Thailand some insight into Thai culture that is relevant to normal daily life. Armed with this knowledge you can avoid causing offence and impress Thai people with your ‘Thainess’. This will make your trip to Thailand that much more enjoyable and your interactions with Thai people much more satisfying.

There is not really a Thai word for culture. If you ask Thai people to describe Thai culture they will most likely answer with descriptions of traditional Thai music, dance or theatre.

Informality and general friendliness in relationships of all age, economic and social groups characterize the Thai culture and people. Thai people are tolerant of almost all kinds of behaviour and never expect foreigners to understand the intricacies of Thai social customs. But by following a few simple rules for conduct, and adopting a few Thai ways, you can quickly and easily gain respect from the people in Thailand.

A Thai greeting

In Thailand people do not normally say ‘good morning’, ‘good afternoon’, ‘good evening’ or ‘good night’. They greet each other with the word Sawadee, and instead of shaking hands, they put their palms together in a prayer-like gesture and bow slightly. It is customary for the younger or lower in status to begin the greeting. When taking leave, the same word and procedure is repeated. This gesture is called a Wai. If you are greeted with a Wai you should reply with the same gesture, though it is not necessary to return a Wai to a child. Think of a Wai as you would a handshake. Initiate a Wai because of sincere pleasure at an introduction. You will not cause offence if you Wai inappropriately in Thailand, but you may create confusion. Don’t return a Wai from waiting staff, drivers or other help. You might hope to strike a blow for equality, but will in fact cause embarrassment. A Wai to your teacher (any kind of teacher) is definately appropriate; any smiles you receive in return are of appreciation.

Sanuk means fun

One of the first things you will notice when you visit Thailand is the Thai people’s inherent sense of playfulness and light heartedness. Sanuk is the Thai word for fun, and in Thailand anything worth doing, even work, should have some element of Sanuk. This doesn’t mean Thai people don’t want to work or strive. It is just that they live more in the moment, and do their best to enjoy it. The famous Thai smile stems partly from this desire to make Sanuk.

The concept of saving face

Thai people have a refined sense of public image and believe strongly in the concept of saving face. That is, they will go to great lengths to avoid confrontation and endeavour not to embarrass either themselves or other people (unless of course it is Sanuk to do so!). The ideal face saver does not bring up negative topics in conversation, or talk in an argumentative, judgemental or aggressive manner. Raising your voice or losing your temper will never be constructive in Thailand. It will result in loss of face for everyone involved, and you may be ignored as a result. You may notice Thai people smiling in the face of another’s misfortune. This is not a sign of callousness, but an attempt to save face for the person suffering misfortune. Saving face is the major source of the famous Thai smile. It is the best possible face to ease almost any situation.

Social status in Thailand

According to simple lines of social rank defined by age, wealth, and personal and political power all relationships in Thai society are governed by connections between Phu Yai (‘big’ people) and Phu Noi (‘little’ people). When meeting someone new a Thai person will automatically make an assessment regarding their Phu Yai or Phu Noi status. They may ask quite probing questions in order to place them. A set of mutual obligations requires Phu Noi to defer to Phu Yai through demonstrations of obedience and respect. In return Phu Yai are obligated to care for and offer assistance to Phu Noi they have regular contact with. Phu Noi may ask Phu Yai for favours such as financial help or assistance securing employment. It would cause Phu Yai some loss of face to refuse these favours. When eating out in restaurants, Phu Yai will normally settle the bill. Examples of automatic Phu Yai status include: adults over children, bosses over employees, elder classmates over younger classmates, elder siblings over younger siblings, teachers over students, military over civilian, Thai over non-Thai. As a visitor to Thailand you may be assigned Phu Yai status as a sign of courtesy, stemming somewhat from assumptions regarding your wealth and education. Do not be offended by these assumptions. If you are lucky enough that Thai people hold you in high regard, take it as a compliment.

Mai Pen Rai – never mind

Mai Pen Rai means ‘never mind’ (or more literally ‘it’s nothing’). Symbolising Thailand’s unofficial national philosophy these three little words help to calm the heart of a nation. Mai Pen Rai enables the Thai people to retain their composure, keep smiling and be happy in everything they do. Thai people care little about trifling things. If they are frustrated, instead of getting angry they simply say Mai Pen Rai and solve the problem by some other means. Thai people believe strongly in avoiding confrontation, which is one of the reasons travel in Thailand is such a pleasure. To the Thais, foreigners over-worry, see trouble where there is none, and are constantly fretting over the future. When Thai people think about their future, they are optimistic. If they are not so happy now, they believe they are sure to be in their next life!

Concept of time in Thailand

The Mai Pen Rai philosophy is well demonstrated by the Thai concept of time. Estimates of time, in terms of the past or the future, can be vague or even wildly inaccurate in Thailand. Thais are often late for appointments, but nobody seems to mind waiting. Traffic jams are common, restaurant service, and hotel check-in procedures can seem slow and inefficient, but you won’t see Thai people getting upset about it. In fact, most Thai people find it pathetic to see a person childishly expressing their irritation. Such behaviour will set you apart as someone less than properly evolved. Your best bet is to relax and let things proceed at their natural pace. Trying to pin Thai people down about times will generally get you nowhere. If you must ask ‘when will we be ready to leave?’ or ‘when will this job be done?’ go ahead. But be prepared for an answer that proves wrong, not because of bad planning, but simply a different attitude towards time.

Thai business customs

In business circles some Thai people will have a reasonable command of English. However, most Thais do not feel comfortable speaking English. Address a Thai man or woman by their first name, not their surname, using the prefix Khun instead of Mr or Mrs. It is not considered informal or familiar to call Thais by their first name. Although Thai people appreciate punctuality when conducting business, there is a different concept of time in Thailand. Deadlines are often overlooked and it is necessary to allow for this when scheduling meetings. Don’t contradict or criticise people in public. An essential tool for success in Thailand is patience. A person who lets inconveniences pass and forgives easily is respected.

Thai marriage customs

Following an engagement couples will often consult a monk for astrological advice to set an auspicious date for the wedding. On the day of the marriage couples usually dress themselves in attire similar to that for Western weddings. The marriage ceremony is presided over by Buddhist monks, but does not normally take place in a temple. There is also a non-Buddhist component to the wedding service. These folk traditions centre around the couple’s family.

Dos and don’ts in Thailand

Loud voices, calling attention to yourself, pointing at people or things, throwing or dropping things, and making big hand gestures all seem graceless to the Thai sensibility. Preferred modes of comportment are those that reflect the quiet, subtle and indirect as opposed to the loud, obvious and direct. Although the southern Thais can at times be alarmingly direct in their interactions with others.

The monarchy remains highly respected throughout Thailand and visitors to the country must be respectful also. Avoid disparaging remarks or jokes about the royal family; they will not be appreciated. All Thai people love their king, HM King Bhumibol; if you want to know why, ask them politely.

Public displays of sexual affection are not acceptable in Thailand, although this may be changing with the younger generation in some areas. Thai people are extremely offended by public nudity, along with just about everyone else in the world. Thai people are modest in this respect and it should not be the visitor’s intention to ‘reform’ them. A polite man in Thailand will not touch a woman.

The feet in Thailand are considered spiritually as well as physically the lowest part of the body. Don’t step over people’s legs, even in a crowded place such as on a train; wait politely for them to move out of the way. Do not point things out or pick things up with your feet. And do not wave your feet around people’s heads! If you accidentally touch someone with your foot, apologise. Food in Thailand is often eaten on the floor. Stepping over food is a real faux pas.

Shoes are not worn inside people’s houses, or in some guest houses and shops. If you are not sure watch other people. A pile of shoes at the entrance is your clue to remove yours (socks are OK). To Thai people wearing shoes indoors is disgusting.

Show respect for religious symbols and rituals, and avoid touching spirit houses and household alters. Thai people, particularly those in rural areas, can be highly superstitious and may feel the need for lengthy ritual should you ‘contaminate’ their sacred areas.

Ladies must never touch a Buddhist monk (recognised by his orange robes) or hand things directly to him. Remember always that every monk is looked up to and respected (even if he is a child). Women should never be alone in the presence of a monk. But don’t think that a monk is unapproachable. Polite conversation is quite acceptable, and if you are driving a car feel free to pick up any monk waiting for a lift.

It is an unpardonable error of sacrilege to misuse a Buddha image. Icons should be kept in a place of worship, not used as pieces of furniture, as ornaments, or for commercial advertisement. It is fine though to hang a Buddha from your neck. Many Thai people do so for protection and to attract good luck.

Do not stare at Thai people. They may be smiling, but still do not look into their eyes too long. Particularly in rural areas young and old may react violently to such a gesture, which is considered a rude insult. During normal conversation most Thai people do not look directly at one another, and will avoid anything but the briefest eye-to-eye contact. Phu Nawy (‘little’ people) often keep their head bowed when conversing with Phu Yai (‘big’ people) as a sign of respect. As a foreigner it can be hard to know if you have a person’s attention. And it is difficult to hear what people are saying if they speak with their back to you.

Laundry and bathing

Modest dress and a clean, neat appearance will create a very good impression in Thailand. Keep up with your laundry and you will receive better treatment everywhere.

Most Thai people bathe in cold water. This is not a problem, as it is almost always hot enough for you to feel the need to cool down. Most Thais shower and put on fresh clothes at least twice a day. You will be more comfortable and sleep more soundly in the hot and humid climate if you do likewise. Many washrooms in Thailand do not have showerheads fitted to the wall. There is a cement trough or other kind of water reservoir provided for use. A plastic or metal bowl is used to sluice water over the body. This water is meant for cleaning and should remain clean for other people’s use. Do not contaminate this water. And do not climb into the reservoir in order to bathe! In rural areas many Thai people still use rivers and streams, or will bathe from an outdoor reservoir at home. When bathing in view of others men wear underpants. Women should wear a Pha Sing (cotton wraparound). Nude bathing in public view is not acceptable.

In Thailand the squat toilet is the norm except in hotels and guesthouses geared towards foreigners. If you have never used one before it may take a bit of getting used to. Contrary to what some people seem to think, these are flushing toilets. They are flushed in the same way as western toilets, i.e. by dropping water through the hole. The difference from Western-style toilets being, you must scoop water with a bowl from a nearby reservoir and drop water through yourself, rather than release water from a tank using a lever. You can chuck water all over the place in a Thai toilet, so when you are finished it is a good idea to rinse the floor of any sand or mud you may have brought in on your feet. Thai people do not normally use toilet paper, prefering to rinse themselves thoroughly with soap and water. If you absolutely must use paper don’t drop it down the toilet. Place it in the bin provided. If there is no bin provided, find another facility. Plumbing in Thailand simply isn’t designed to handle paper, and in most places you will cause a great deal of inconvenience if you drop anything other than your natural waste through the toilet.

My personal gripes

Please try to calm down! Keeping a cool heart is essential in all situations in Thailand (unless you are prepared for a very serious kind of confrontation). The Thais are a sentimental people who react strongly to impolite, aggressive or confrontational behaviour (or even the suggestion of such). If you are upset it is most likely because of some kind of misunderstanding. (If someone is obviously trying to overcharge you, simply move on to another vendor without causing a scene; they will hopefully begin to understand the error of their ways through lack of business.) Remember, you cannot expect ordinary Thai people to understand everything you say, or be able to express themselves perfectly in English. And you must accept that you do not have a thorough understanding of every situation in Thailand. In your home country making a scene might get results. Here in Thailand, it gets you avoided. Even small children in Thailand are taught to supress their anger and strong emotions, particularly crying. If things are innexplicably becoming heated your best bet is to stop talking, even if you are just trying to explain or clarify. In Thailand rational discussion is usually percived as a continuation of the argument.

Please do not harp on about how expensive everything is in Thailand. Every single Thai person is well aware of the fact that just about every single thing in Thailand is less expensive than in your home country (apart from a few especially imported items). It is perfectly normal (even where you come from) for bars to serve beer at higher prices than supermarkets, even if they are close to each other. Cigarettes are more expensive on boats and in hotels than at discount stores. If you don’t want to pay the higher price, then please, simply go elsewhere at your inconvenience without comment.

Please do not expect western standards of perfection, unless you are paying western prices. Products and services are inexpensive in Thailand for the simple reason that it is possible to cut corners and pay very low wages in order to keep prices down.

Please do not try to convince Thai people that you are poor; it is embarrassing. Being poor and having little spending money for your holidays do not equate! Running short while away from home reflects poor money management, not poverty. You may not be as rich as you would like to be. Not many of us enjoy that luxury. But to claim poverty after spending on plane tickets (either your own or someone elses money) an amount that for some people matches their annual wage is absurd. A small amount of money does not magically assume a greater value when held in Asian hands. Many Thai people are wealthy. Poor Thai people (and economic migrants from Thailand’s neighbouring countries) own much less than you carry around in your backpack. There are very many people in our world struggling to exist through poverty. Please show some gratitude – thank your god or your family that you are not one of them.