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Photo by jurvetson….feature photo by permanently scatterbrained

For many travelers, Bangkok is the first stop on travels in Thailand and throughout Southeast Asia.

WITH ITS CHAOTIC VENEER, Thai customs are easily overlooked in Bangkok. Respect the local people by knowing these ten cultural points before you embark on travels in Thailand.

Photo by specialkrb

Versatile Greeting

The wai, or pressing your palms together at chest or nose level and bowing your head slightly, is a gesture that you will encounter almost immediately upon arrival in Thailand.

An integral part of Thai etiquette, it denotes respect (or reverence when performed in front of a Buddha image), and can be used to express a hello, thank you, or goodbye.

Absolute Reverence

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, and the royal family is revered throughout the country. The King is especially beloved for his six decades of public service and humble demeanor.

His image is everywhere, from posters plastered on the exterior of buildings to photos displayed on taxi dashboards.

Always stand when the King’s anthem is played before movies, concerts and sporting events. Travelers should also refrain from making disparaging remarks about the royals.

Strict lèse majesté laws apply, and offenses are punishable by imprisonment.

National Pride

Over the past several decades, the government has introduced various practices to encourage nationalism.

Photo by Swami Stream

One example of this institutionalized patriotism is twice daily broadcasts of the national anthem.

Pedestrians, commuters, and students are required to stop or stand whenever this song is played.

In recent efforts to boost patriotism, a group of generals proposed that traffic also come to a standstill, arguing that motorists “already spend more time in traffic jams anyway.”

Colorful Days

Based on pre-Buddhist Hindu legends, a particular auspicious color is associated with each day of the week. This is most noticeable on Mondays, when many people wear yellow shirts, acknowledging and honouring the day on which the King was born. Other popular colors include pink (Tuesday) and light blue (Friday, the Queen’s day of birth).

Given recent political protests, the colors red and yellow are also of significance, representing opposing movements.

Never mind!

The phrase Mai pen rai (never mind) describes the country’s unofficial philosophy, capturing locals’ knack for keeping cool in taxing or annoying situations. In the grand scheme of things, why stress about trifling matters? Mai pen rai!

This laidback mindset goes hand-in-hand with an inherent sense of light-heartedness. Nothing is taken too seriously, and anything worth doing should contain some element of sanuk (fun)!

Sexual Tolerance

Thailand has long enjoyed a reputation for sexual tolerance, based more on non-confrontational (as opposed to progressive) attitudes. The country is very safe for GLBT travelers.

Transsexuals, also known as krathoeys or ladyboys, are highly visible in mainstream society, from scantily clad teens to high-profile celebrities.

Religious Objects

About 95% of Thailand’s population is comprised of Buddhists from the Theravada school.

Photo by jurvetson

Despite teachings against material attachment, many Thais worship Buddha images and don amulets for protection.

Various animist practices have also been integrated into Thai religious life.

Most buildings boast spirit houses or altars, where offerings of food and garlands are made to appease the spirits inhabiting the land.

Avoid touching such displays as some Thais can be highly superstitious, fearing disruption of harmonious balance.

Bodily Conduct

Based on Buddhist beliefs, the head is the most valued part of the body while the feet are the lowest, symbolizing attachment to the ground, a cause of human suffering.

Photo by irene2005

Touching someone’s head is highly offensive, as is raising your feet or pointing them at people or religious objects.

Shoes are to be removed before entering homes and religious structures.

Most types of attire are tolerated in areas frequented by tourists. It is a good idea, however, to cover up when visiting temples and shrines. Those wearing sleeveless tops, short skirts, shorts, and flip flops may be denied entrance.

It is not unusual to encounter signs prohibiting women from entering highly sacred places, such as temple libraries. Women who wish to worship do so outside the buildings.

Also, while it is taboo for a woman to touch a monk or pass things to him directly, polite conversation is fine.

Nicknames

Thais are generally addressed by their first names, preceded by the honorific title Khun, appropriate for both men and women. In more casual settings, mono-syllabic nicknames are used.

More traditional monikers cover categories such as colors, animals, and fruit, including Daeng (red), Lek (small), and Moo (pig); these days, you will encounter nicknames such as Good, Money, and Benz (as in the luxury auto).

Bathroom Basics

Outside of large cities, squat toilets rule. These are flushed by pouring water from an adjacent bucket into the hole. Also, used toilet paper is to be discarded in the bin provided; never try to flush it down as it most plumbing isn’t designed to handle paper.

Traditional washrooms include a trough filled with water where a ladle or bowl is used to sluice water over the body. In areas where outdoor bathing is the norm, women will don a cotton sarong or wraparound, and men will bathe in their underwear.

Photo by jurvetson

Matador loves Thailand.

For a good laugh, read Matador Nights editor Tom Gates’ diary of an eating binge in Bangkok food-courts. Tom also has reviews of authentic Italian food in Bangkok and the coolest hostel in Bangkok.

Nomadic Matt lives in Bangkok. Matt is an expert on Bangkok nightlife but also knows how to get off the tourist trail in Southeast Asia.

Your very own Matador Abroad editor Tim Patterson thinks You Sabai is the best organic cooking school in Thailand.

Matador Trips editor Hal Amen shares a jungle adventure in his guide to Khao Sok National Park.

For up to date and comprehensive information about travel in Thailand, you can’t do better than the online Thailand travel guide on Travelfish.

Not a Matador member yet? Join our travel community.

Culture + Religion


 

About The Author

Voralak Suwanvanichkij

Voralak Suwanvanichkij is a Bangkok based writer who says she travels: "To gain new perspectives on the world. And in the process, to learn something about myself."

  • http://www.keepingpaceinjapan.com Turner

    Nice roundup, Voralak. Khawp khun khrap!

  • http://www.mikesryukyugallery.com Ryukyu Mike

    Excellent presentation !

  • Dave

    The ladyboy in the middle is pretty fit!

  • Tom Gates

    This is a really comprehensive primer. Good one! It can be particularly confusing if you don’t know what is going on before a movie. Even moreso if you aren’t aware that Sheila is really George.

    • http://wayworded.blogspot.com/ Hal

      Definitely had my own dumbfounded moment at the movies in Bangkok. Damn nice theater, though.

  • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/rsw Tim Patterson

    Thailand is a beautiful country and the Thais really appreciate it if you take a little time to learn about their culture and language.

    Too many travelers treat all of Thailand like a discount vice playground.

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  • arthas

    great summary! i was able to observe all of those during my visit, accurate!

  • smily

    Thanx for the information it helped me a lot on the trip to thailand

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  • peterknight

    Know whom to wai. It is reserved for people equal or greater to you in the social ladder. If you go to a reastaurant,  you don’t wai the waiter or waitress at a restaurant. A slight nod of your head is more than enough to acknowledge the wai.

  • http://www.Eyetravelsolo.com/ Kevin

    This is a great article and revealed Cultural info. I was unaware  of.  Regarding sleeveless shirts & shorts inside temples and shrines, I read in another Blog that this extended outside into the street and acommandation areas.  Since that tends to be my usual attire in that type of climate, does anyone know if this is a fact?  So far I’ve had no reply on this question wherever I post it.

    thanks, 

  • Edward Watters

    ;)

  • Toy Nicholson

    10 Thai customs to know before visiting Thailand.

  • Danielle Kaniela Ev

    Knowing how to respect one’s culture before visiting is the key to good karma travels :)

  • Tola Ven

    I happy that have time knowing the Thailand , I will visit there with you……soon.

  • Toy Nicholson

    ํYou will enjoy Thailand if you really know about Thailand…..:)

  • elzach

    This article is of course a little old, but nevertheless I have to point out what might be a confusing custom #1. The wai. Foreigners/Westerners are NOT expected to wai, under any circumstances. In fact, it might be considered by Thais “stupid” when they do. Surprised? Think of it almost as non-Christian Asians “crossing” themselves! Yep, that’s how it looks.

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