Big cultural no-no when you are in Thailand

Are you accidentally causing frowns in the land of smiles? Do you go with the flow, embracing the Thai outlook, or do you get hung up on the wrong thing?

Don’t worry! If you’re visiting Thailand for the first time, or even if you are a frequent tourist, our travel-ready etiquette tips will let you relax and enjoy your trip without worry.

The Kingdom of Thailand is a primarily Buddhist country and this naturally colours Thai culture and identity. The people value serenity, a sunny disposition, and will easily forgive foreigners for common mistakes.

At the same time, knowing how (not) to behave in advance can help you get the most out of your Thai holiday and allow you to fully immerse yourself – body, mind, and spirit!

The Body

Following Buddhist principles, the head is the highest and most sacred point of the body, and the feet are the lowest and most impure. This directly translates to behaviour – it can cause great offense to touch someone’s head, and being careless with your feet should also be avoided.

Head level is a quick and easy way to see the hierarchy. To show respect people bow, sit, or stand so their head is lower than someone else’s.

The ‘wai’ is another good way to show respect – join your palms at chest level as if in prayer, fingers pointing upwards, and bow your head with a smile to greet in the traditional Thai fashion.

Notice that Thais take good care of their appearance, and you should too. If the body is a temple, treat it as such! Wear clean clothes, wash often, and spend some time grooming yourself – not only will you feel fresh and ready, but it will also be appreciated by your fellow travellers and locals.

Avoid pointing, snapping your fingers, or clapping – these are rude ways to get someone’s attention. Instead, beckon with an open palm, with fingers pointing downwards. Whistling is also considered poorly.

Although the attitude is changing in recent years, Thailand is not fond of public displays of affection. Be considerate when travelling, and keep a modest profile.

Mind your feet! Never touch, point towards, push, etc. anything or anyone with your feet. Do not put feet on tables, or cross them so your soles are facing anyone. Be extra careful with what you step on, especially if the object is sacred or revered.

Lastly, remember to smile!

The Mind

Thais will often say ‘mai pen rai’ – it doesn’t matter, or nevermind. This is a way to take it easy, and not get agitated about the small details. Follow this principle by keeping your voice soft, your mind free, and your smile ready.

Always honour the monarchy. Thais love their royal family, and are very patriotic – standing whenever their national anthem is played. An insult to the King could land you in jail, so show respect and avoid stepping on money or other images of the royals.

Thais are eager to please, and will not tell you ‘no’ if they can help it. This can sometimes mean that they will not correct your behaviour, or may not give you complete information for fear of seeming foolish or displeasing you. Do your own research for peace of mind, and keep a sense of ‘sanuk’ – of fun, to enjoy your stay the Thai way.

The Spirit

Buddha images are sacred, serving as a link to his teachings. By extension, temples and monks are also given great respect, with certain rules to keep in mind.

Dress modestly in sacred spaces, ensuring your clothes are long enough to cover your arms, chest, and knees at the very least.

Monks are forbidden contact with women, so be considerate of this and avoid touching them. Make sure your head is always lower than a monk’s, and kneel with your feet facing away from them or Buddha statues.

There are also regulations about taking Buddha imagery outside of the country. Although you can still buy statuettes, shopkeepers may not tell you about this, so you might encounter difficulties at customs.

If you take pictures, do so discreetly and respectfully, and do not allow children to climb on Buddha statues. Likewise, do not perform any rude gestures in the presence of sacred objects.

Now you know what cultural no-no’s to avoid in Thailand, you are ready to enjoy your next adventure!

What other tips have you learned about visiting Thailand? Let us know in the comments.

Violetta Buono