Thailand may be the land of smiles, but that’s not to say some Thai people won’t give you a frown if you’re truly disrespectful or fail to show you have a “cool heart.” While millions of tourists pass through the Southeast Asian country every year, there are certain behaviors — some less than intentional — that do not mesh well with locals trying to live their lives.
1. Drink at the worst possible places/times.
Two years ago when the King of Thailand died somewhat unexpectedly, the international media was flooded with stories of tourists considering canceling their trips or cutting them short, once it was discovered alcohol would not be served for several days and loud music and dancing would not be allowed. Though the country is certainly infamous for its Full Moon Parties on Koh Phangan, writing it off as a place not worth visiting without a Sang Som and Coke in your hand was pretty demeaning for Thais.
2. Insist on using English.
I once observed a tall British man walk into a 7-11 in Ao Nang and argue with the clerk over returning an open beer. Rather than paying attention to the line behind him, his complaints eventually devolved into yelling “It’s FLAT. It’s F-L-A-T!!!”, apparently having no idea that nothing he was saying was getting through to the Thai woman.
Though many Thai people can speak fluent English and it’s usually the best international language to fall back on when your Thai is nonexistent, assuming someone can understand every nuance to the language, e.g. a “flat” beverage, is the colonialist mentality at its worst (and besides: Thailand was never colonized).
3. Name the right price.
As in other countries in SE Asia, haggling over the price is all too common for markets, tuk-tuks, taxis, and even some hotels in Thailand. Though I never saw any vendors get genuinely upset when I suggested an absurdly low price to counter their absurdly high one, I did have one yell and push me away when I pointed out the price I had paid for a trinket to a random tourist he had not yet approached. Never mess with someone’s wallet.
4. Insult the King, even jokingly.
This practice may change as the King we think of — and many Thais still think of — as commanding respect was Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2016. His son, Maha Vajiralongkorn, is currently recognized as the King of Thailand, though to say he has the same level of respect from everyone would be reaching.
Nevertheless, despite the change in leadership, the image of the King is sacred. His face is on all money, government buildings, homes, and each and every place of business — go into a Thai restaurant in any country and you’ll probably see his picture. Making fun of him in any way is not only a huge insult and cultural faux pas, it’s also illegal and can earn you a few years in prison under Lèse-majesté laws.
5. Use the toilet incorrectly.
It shouldn’t come as a big surprise that toilets are different in Thailand. Many in airports and large shopping malls are automatic, but those in rural areas often have no paper and require “flushing” with a water pail. Western tourists visiting the land of smiles often make the mistake of leaving toilet paper in the bowl rather than using a trash bin, but a few years ago Chinese tourists were banned from a temple for “inappropriate toilet usage”… whatever that means. The incident was serious enough to make many travel agencies wary of accepting Chinese tour groups.