Tourist Do’s & Don’ts in Thailand
The Thais are charming, friendly people. They genuinely like visitors and appreciate others sharing their love of Thailand and all things Thai. They are tolerant and readily overlook the usual tourist faux pas, but it is always nice to be prepared to avoid even the most minor offense. The following are highlights on general Thai culture do’s and don’ts.
When visiting Thailand or a Buddhist Temple (otherwise known as a “Wat”), please treat all Buddha images with great respect. If taking a souvenir photo, you should never lean or climb on a Buddha, nor should you point your feet directly at one. This is considered very rude and could be met with a verbal warning in a more formal setting such as the Buddhist Temple at The Royal Palace in Bangkok. Also always remember to remove your shoes before entering a temple (it is not difficult to find a place; there are usually piles of shoes near the entrance or racks on which you may place them nearby.)
Try to restrain from showing overt affection (i.e. fondling or more serious kissing) for your partner in public. This causes embarrassment. Times may be changing, especially in Bangkok, but it's best to err on the side of caution and be considerate of your host culture.
A smile in Thailand is used in many situations: to be friendly, to show amusement, to thank someone, to excuse oneself, to show embarrassment, to smooth over situations, to repair breeches in etiquette, and to overcome the language barrier.
You will find that smiling in these situations goes a long way. So, if you ever notice a Thai person smiling “at you” remember they are not making fun. They are trying to smile WITH you. If you find yourself in this situation, simply SMILE right back.
There are many ways to say “thank you” in Thailand. You can simply smile and slightly bow your head, say Kob Khun Ka (for women) and Kob Khun Krab (for men), and of course, either can be accompanied by the traditional Thai Wai.
Doing the Wai is easy. Just put your palms together with your fingertips pointing upward (like the western prayer position) and raise your hands to your face with fingertips just covering your nose. You can use the wai to say thank you, hello, and goodbye and generally show respect. You will find the wai is often met with a smile and a wai right back.
Thais are always pleased when foreigners or “farang” pay respect to their culture. Incidentally, you may often hear the word “farang” while visiting Thailand. It is not an insult, just simply a Thai word for anyone not Thai.
To attract the attention, it is customary to use your hand to beckon with your palm facing downwards. This avoids pointing your finger at the body, which is considered impolite. You should also never clap or snap your fingers to call a person’s attention.
It's fun to bargain for souvenirs and goods with good humor, but remember to respect vendors. Extreme underbidding is seen as disrespectful. While bargaining is always expected and welcome, be reasonable when offering prices. A smile always goes a long way and calculators can help to bridge the language gap.
Entering a home
It is customary to remove your shoes before entering a Thai home. It is considered disrespectful to bring dirt from the street into a clean home. There are usually shoes lined up next to the door or a rack on which you may place them. Some offer slippers, but to most, bare feet are welcome. If you are fresh from the beach, you may ask for a hose or water to clean before entering.
Never touch a Thai person’s head or hair. If you should do so accidentally, it's polite to apologize. The top of the head, inhabited by the khwan (spirit essence) is considered to be the most important part of the body, and the feet are the least important and dirtiest. Therefore, keep your feet to yourself. While visitors are invited to enter homes barefoot, you should never rest them on a table or step over anybody or their food, nor should you ever point your feet directly at anyone.
Interacting with Monks
Women should never touch a Buddhist Monk or the robe he wears. If a woman needs to hand something to a monk, they can set it down for the monk to pick up or give it to a man to hand over. If a woman wants to give food to a monk (all of their food is donated either at the temple or on the street at meal times), they can place it in their bowl or on a piece a saffron cloth, which the monks keep handy for this purpose.
Keeping your cool
An essential value in Thai culture is to always remain calm and maintain a cool heart, or jai yen. Displaying anger or impatience entails a loss of face. Remember, always relax and keep your cool, and of course, a smile can work wonders!