Basic Thai culture for the uninitiated

by Travel Paulie on March 15, 2010

If Ronald can 'Wai', so can you =)

For those who have yet to visit Thailand, or even South East Asia, I’m just going to write a little bit about some of their more important culture points of worthy note.  It’s by no means comprehensive.  Some of these are important to be aware of if you are planning to visit that part of the world, though depending on where abouts exactly you intend to go, some of them may be less important than in other areas.  But, it’s good sense to be at least aware of them.

The Thai Smile

If you haven’t heard of the ‘Thai smile’, you will when you get there, or at least it wont be long before you experience it.  The Thais are very friendly, happy people.  But they’re still people and they have good days and bad just like you and I.  When they’re having a less than favourable day, however, or they’re frustrated, they take a slightly different approach to dealing with it than perhaps we do.  Many people in the West will very clearly, outwardly, display the fact that they’re having a bad time of it, and will likely take that out in some fashion on those with whom they interact.  Thais will generally, unless they know you pretty well, keep their true state hidden behind a friendly, inviting smile.

It’s much the same as the stoic expression Japanese people wear, 90% of the time.  There’s no way of telling what’s going on behind it, and you just have to hope all is rosey is paradise.

Try it on for yourself… firstly, it’s a much nicer way to greet people and you’ll find yourself engaged more often and your experience in general a much more pleasant one.  I lose count quickly at the numbers of tourists who wander around the place with long, dour faces.  I wouldn’t want to talk to them either.

Of course, this is a general trend and I’m sure you can meet Thais, who connect with you relatively quickly, confiding in you and sharing their troubles.  Further, as with most forms of repression, alcohol acts as a convenient exhaust and this general rule will probably fly right out the window after a healthy dose of whiskey.  My only advice would be to give an emotional, angry Thai a very wide berth.

Feet

Feet are the lowest part of the body and that’s where they would ideally stay.  When sitting down, you tuck your feet beneath your butt and behind you, rather than stretching out and display your soles to any and all passers-by.  Best not put your feet up on the table, and when sitting on the train, stretching your legs out into the aisle is not a particularly pleasant experience for your neighbours.

Shoes… I think the idea that you take your shoes off before entering most establishments is fairly well known outside of the East.  Of course, in the tourist areas, this isn’t quite so common for restaurants and the like, but if in doubt, slip off your shoes and someone I’m sure will let you know if there’s no need.  Better to prompt a little giggle from your host, than to cause irritation and offense… and be aware that if you have caused offense, you may only receive a smile in return. 🙂

Nudity

Take a trip to Koh Samui, Koh Phi Phi, or other top tourist attractions in Thailand and this point is a muted one.  If you’re out in public places and thoroughfares, nudity is not a sight you’ll see very often, if at all.  It’s just not done, and they’re not comfortable with it.  Yes, it’s hot, but there’s a nice cold shower waiting for you back at your hotel.  As with gross feet displays, don’t expect anyone to come up and tell you what you’re doing is inappropriate either, expect just a few turned heads and a smile or two.

The King and Buddhism

Whatever your take on religion, accept that it’s a way of life for many both at home and abroad.  Forcing your disdain for it on others has no benefits and results typically in offense taken.  Treat it just as at home.  Common sense rules.  Before entering a temple area, look for a place to remove your shoes and respect the place you’ve started exploring.  If religion isn’t your thing, steer clear of the many temples and shrine dotted all over the place.  It might be an attractive tourist site because you haven’t seen these pretty buildings back home, but they’re religious focal points, in Asia.

Bear in mind, for the ladies, Buddhist monks are not permitted any direct interaction with women, just in case you’re tempted to high 5 them on the bus.

In Thailand, perhaps the most important human being in the country is the king.  It’s an interesting fascination they have with this man, but he has provided much benefit for many people there and is revered.  As with religion, regardless of your opinions on monarchy and heads of state, keep it to yourself is a very good rule to follow.

There are 3 conversation points to avoid at all costs at a Thai dinner party – religion, politics, and the king.  Unless you know what you’re talking about, it’s probably better to talk about the weather =)

Thai ‘Wai’

The first thing you’ll receive in Thailand isn’t a heat rash, that comes later, but a ‘Wai’.  It is a greeting Thais give one another and is typically accompanied by a “Sawa dee ka”. Here is a simple little article on it for more information, or you can check out how to wai here.

Common sense rules

Above all, use your head.  It’s easy to stride through a temple with your boots on, your shirt off, sniggering at those silly people kneeling on the floor.  But it’s also easy to open your mind to another perspective and attempt to understand and connect with those around you.  Otherwise, best to stay at home, or in the confines of your resort.

And just another important side note: we each have our choice to recognise other customs and treat them with the respect we individually feel they deserve.  It’s a personal choice, in my opinion.  You will find foreigner crusaders who will tell you this is right, and this is wrong, based on their experience/opinions.  Take it on board, but don’t be pushed into something you’re not comfortable with.

I have been to many Buddhist temples, but I don’t pray there and don’t subscribe to many of the ideas that praying at a temple represents.  Not believing and not joining in isn’t disrespectful.  It’s interesting to understand what they do, and why, but it doesn’t mean you must adopt it.  So why do I go there sometimes?  For my own reasons and there is no relationship between justifying my actions and validation of them.

Enjoy, engage, and learn.

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