This is a rough draft of a booklet I am working on to help travelers journey more gracefully through Thailand. It is a work in progress, that may still have some Thai words not quite right (but close).
This booklet is offered freely in an attempt to assist in relations between Thai people and foreigners and also to give travelers better insight into Thai culture. People traveling in a new land often cause offense or insult without even knowing they are doing so, and with no ill intention. It is our sincere hope that this little booklet will help to lesson this.
This book may be copied and distributed freely, with no further permission from those who created it. We ask only this: Please do not change the content, do not use it for profit, and please give credit to the creators (Produced by The Naga Center llc, School of Traditional Thai Medicine. Authored by: Nephyr Jacobsen Thai Etiquette advisor: Wit Sukhsamran).
• What is proper dress
• Proper behavior in temples
• Behavior when in the company of monks
• Behavior when in the company of elders
• Showing respect
• Anger and apologies
• Shows of friendship/affection
• And more….
Thai people eat all the time. There are no special time categories for particular foods. For instance, you can eat curry for breakfast, and pancakes for dinner. It makes no difference.
In Thailand most food is eaten with a spoon. Forks are only used as devices to get the food onto the spoon, much as western countries would use a dinner knife. Putting your fork in your mouth in Thailand, is considered incorrect. Chopsticks are really only used for eating noodles. You will be given chopsticks if you are eating a meal where they are appropriate, but do not expect them for dishes other than noodle dishes.
Eat with your right hand. If left handed, you can eat with your left hand, meaning spoon in left hand, fork in right, but it is more proper to eat with your right hand. If eating with your hands, as in, not using cutlery, always use your right hand, even if you are left handed. For example, if eating sticky rice or other hand held foods, never touch it with your left hand. Especially remember this when eating food from a communal plate.
Eating with your hands is more or less acceptable depending upon where you are. For example, in the north, people eat with their hands more, whereas in Bangkok, it’s considered more lower class to eat with your hands. It can depend also on who you are eating with, and in what context. The best bet is to watch what the Thai people around you are doing, and follow suit.
There is a friendly question, almost a greeting in Thailand that goes “gin khao laao reu yang”, or “gin khao yang” and translates as “have you eaten yet?”. It’s kind of like asking, “how are you?” and just like “fine” is the standard answer to “how are you”, the standard reply to “have you eaten yet”, is to say that yes you have “gin laao,” or that you are full or not hungry. The word for full in Thai is “Im”.
If you are sincerely being offered food that you do not want, or being invited to a meal that you do not wish to participate in, it is expected that you will make up an excuse. Essentially, lie – but it is a polite lie. Tell them you are not free, you have other plans, whether you do or not. It would not be considered polite to say that you are too tired, because they would think that if you really wanted to join them, you would come even if you are tired. In this case, the lie is actually a social nicety, while the truth of just not wanting to participate would be rude. This also applies to other invitations that you wish to decline, such as going to the movies, or dancing…
If you are offered food that you cannot eat due to allergies or say, spiritual/religious restrictions, it is best to just be honest. For example, if you are vegetarian and offered meat, just tell the person that you are vegetarian. In this example, you will most likely be greatly respected for this as being vegetarian is looked up to in Thailand.
A wai is the gesture of holding your hands, palms together, in prayer position as a form of greeting and respect. In fact, the word wai means respect. Wais are used throughout Asia, but vary slightly from country to country. A Thai wai is done by holding the hands at chest level, with your elbows close to your sides, then bringing your head down to meet the tops of your fingers, or your fingers up to meet your chin, nose, forehead.. . Which level of your head you bring your fingers to varies depending upon who you are waiing. Specifics of this are given a little further down.
Wais should be initiated by the younger person, or if there is an interaction between a monk and a lay person, the lay person initiates regardless of age. In an encounter that does not involve a monk, an older person will just start talking, without waiing. The younger person should initiate the wai. Some situations in which the wai may be initiated by the older person are situations of service – such as a waiter, flight attendant etc. In these cases the person in the service job, will initiate regardless of age. Sometimes Thai people will wai a westerner, just because you are a westerner – but it can also work in reverse; sometimes a Thai person will not wai a westerner because they may think that you do not know about wais.
In just about every social interaction, someone initiates a wai.
Piers – To wai your friends, piers, “equals”, your thumbs should be at the level of your chin
Elders – To wai anyone older than you, your thumbs should be at the level of your nose
Monks and statues of the Buddha– To wai a monk or a statue of the Buddha, your thumbs should be at the level of your forehead
You will notice that the more respect a person commands, the lower your head comes, and the higher your fingers. This relates back to the concept of the head being the most sacred part of your body. In effect, you are saying “my most sacred part, I lower before you”. It is like an intentional and beautiful humbling.
Anger and Apologies
There is a term in Thailand, “jai yen”, which translates as “cool heart”. Maintaining jai yen, is very important. What this means is, don’t lose your temper. Being angry, as in yelling and such, is simply not acceptable in Thailand. When a person loses their temper they lose face (really, they cause everyone involved to lose face). And that person will be looked down upon. Basically, Thai people believe that there is no reason to lose ones temper.
Western travelers often lose their tempers and become angry, but often this is based on frustration, and it causes them to be looked down upon by the Thai people. Whenever possible, it is important to try to remain calm. You can say what you think, you can be honest and clear, but do so in a restrained calm manner.
In situations of error, it is fine to point out the error, but be nice about it. For example, if you have your laundry done and it does not come back clean, just bring it back and say it’s not clean. There is no need to be angry about it. Usually the problem will be fixed if you maintain a friendly demeanor.
I’m sorry in Thai is “khortot”. If you accidentally step on someone’s foot or knock something over, this is the word to use.
In Thailand, it is considered very impolite to point your feet at anyone. Feet are considered the most base and not sacred part of the body, as well as quite potentially the dirtiest part. For these reasons it is impolite to point your feet at anyone, and extremely impolite to point your feet at the Buddha. This dates back to olden times when people walked around barefoot and therefore the bottoms of your feet would be dirty. Also, it is believed that the spirit in the head is the highest and the spirit in the feet is the lowest. For this reason, if two people are laying down, they would lay head to head, never head to feet.
Shoes are not worn inside of most businesses and homes. Even if you are told that it is okay to wear your shoes, it is best to take them off. If your feet are dirty, say from wearing sweaty sandels, go straight into the bathroom and wash them before making yourself comfortable in someone’s home.
Thai Buddhist temples are called “wats”. Wat etiquette is probably one of the most important parts of this book, as wats are probably the places where tourists cause the most and deepest offenses. The main thing to remember is that all temples, even the high profile ones that are full of tourists, are truly places of worship. They need to be respected. It is common for tourists to enter a temple talking and being big and loud. This is not respectful to the people for whom the temple is a sacred space. Even if there is no-one else in the temple, make an effort to make yourself quiet and small. A sort of humbling out of respect. You can continue your conversation once you are outside of the temple.
How to Dress for the Temple
Wearing appropriate clothing in the temple is extremely important. Always wear shirts that have sleeves. Short sleeves are okay if you are going to a regular temple, but if you are going to say, The Grand Palace, you must wear long sleeves. Tank tops are never acceptable in any temple. There must be some sleeve. Women should never wear clothing that reveals their cleavage, and both men and women should wear shorts (shorts shouldn’t really be worn by men.) or skirts that cover the knees. While shoes are not worn at all inside the temple, when walking around the temple ground it is preferable to wear closed toed shoes, although sandals and flip flops may be worn at more rural temples. Women need to also make sure that the shirt they are wearing does not expose cleavage when they bow down. Even if no one is in front of you to see it, the Buddha image is in front of you.
Taking pictures in a temple is acceptable, but be respectful about it. Remember that you are in a place of worship, it’s not a museum. Do not stand posing by the Buddha, or climbing up on things to get the picture you want. Take your pictures from a kneeling position when in a temple.
Never ever, no matter what, climb on a statue of the Buddha. This would be the height of disrespect and offense. And of course, do not point your feet at the Buddha. When sitting in a Thai temple, or in front of any Buddha image, sit such that your feet point behind you, like when you sit with your legs folded, knees forward, feet back.
When entering a temple, be careful not to step on the threshold. Step over it. To step on the threshold is considered to be offensive to the Spirit of the Building/Resident Spirit. This is an extremely important and benevolent spirit.
When inside the temple, if you need to move past others who are kneeling, do not just walk tall past them. Bow your head down as you pass. This applies outside of the temple as well, but is especially important within the temple. Always go behind people if possible rather than walk in front to get around them. It is also especially important to lower yourself when passing a monk or elders. You do not have to always actually bring your head down lower than theirs, but by ducking or bowing it down, you symbolically do.
Worship and Offerings in the Temple
If you wish to worship and make an offering in a Thai temple, here is a basic way to do it.
Generally you can acquire offerings outside the temple. Standard is three sticks of incense, one flower (generally a lotus stem) and perhaps some gold leaf. Once inside the temple you can hold your offerings while kneeling before the altar and bowing your head to the ground three times (Bow before or after you make the donations but while you’re holding them is a little awkward). Then light your incense and candle in the proper receptacles and place your flower there as well. After doing this, return to pray and bow again. All activity by the altar should be done from a kneeling position. When you are done, back up until you are away from the altar, and past other worshipers before you stand up and walk away. This is usually done in a sort of kneeling shuffle.
Donations to the Temple
All temples have a donation box. Donating is completely voluntary. There is no pressure to donate, and if you choose to donate, the amount is entirely up to you. While some people will hand their donations to a monk, monks are not really supposed to handle money. It is better to put the donation into the donation box. It is best, if possible, to put the money in an envelope. If for some reason you have to give the money to a monk, be certain it is in an envelope.
Monks in the Temple
Often times there will be a monk sitting somewhere inside the temple. He is there for the people coming to the temple. You may approach him, and even ask him questions (although he may not speak English). It is proper to approach him kneeling, and to have your hands in a wai position while talking to him. Sometimes the monks in the temple will wrap a white string around your wrist. This is called a khwan string, and it is for the purpose of holding your spirit to you. Women must be careful not to touch the monks.
Monks Out and About
Women must be careful not to touch monks, or to engage with monks in private settings for both personal and societal reasons. Since monks lead a celibate life, contact with women may be difficult. Not touching monks can be seen as a way to help them in their struggle to follow the Buddhist precepts. For some monks this is more of a struggle than others, hence some monks are more comfortable around women than others – but regardless of the individual monks seeming comfort, do not touch them, and avoid being alone with a monk. The other, more societal reason is public perception. A monk who is seen spending time with women will, essentially, look bad. Especially foreign women because people know that foreign women may not know or understand the rules and may do something like try to shake the monks hand, or give him a hug. It is fine though, in a public setting such as a temple, to talk to the monk regardless of your gender.
If you are on a crowded bus or other form of public transportation and a monk gets on, you will be expected to give him your seat if you are close at hand.
Alms and other Donations to Monks
When monks go out with their alms bowls in the morning, this is a time when people give them food. Monks do not own money, and do not purchase their own food. They are dependent upon others to give them food. While to some in the west this may look like begging, looking for a handout, the energy behind it is very different. Monks have made a decision to spend their lives in pursuit of things more important than money and ownership. In a way, by keeping the more spiritual path, they do a service to the whole community, and the community gives back in gratitude and support of this.
You can give the monks food, flowers, or even money if it is in an envelope. When giving money, you are not giving it to the monk, but to the monastery the monk belongs to. If you are a woman, you may put these things directly into the alms bowl, being careful not to touch the monk. If there is no alms bowl and you wish to give something to a monk, indicate that you are wishing to give him something and he will most likely provide a cloth for you to put it on.
All Thai money, has images of the king on it. For this reason, if you drop a coin on the ground, you must not step on it with your foot, for you would be symbolically stepping on the king. Same goes for stamps. Do not crumple money up and toss it, and do not put money in your back pocket and sit on it.
When two or more people share, say, a meal or a taxi, the older person pays. If you are younger, you can offer to pay, but you will not be allowed to. Don’t insist, just offer once and let it go. If you are about the same age, you can try a little harder to pay, but in most cases if you are a westerner with a Thai person, the Thai person will want to pay. You can offer more than once in this case, but again, trying hard, but don’t insist in such a way that it looks like you are saying that Thai money is worthless to you. If you are older, you should just pay.
Haggling is a bit of national pastime in Thailand. Generally the price you are given for something on the street is going to be on the high side and a little haggeling will be required to bring it down closer to its true price. This should all be done in a friendly manner. Just ask if the seller can give you a better price. There is a tendency with visitors to Thailand to get really into the haggling aspect of shopping, to the point where it can become rude and non-productive. Don’t haggle over tiny amounts of money. If something is five baht more than you think it should be, just buy it or don’t buy it. It’s not worth haggling over. But if it’s fifty baht more than you want to pay, ask if they can give you a better price. If they say no, don’t be angry or rude, just say you cannot afford it and walk away. Often when you walk away you will find a better offer follows.
Prices in high end stores, as well as places like pharmacies, 7-11s and such, are set and cannot be haggled down.
If you are traveling with children, be aware that Thai people love children, and love to touch them. Especially little round eyed western kids. Western children are rare in Thailand, so they stand out as extra cute and irresistible. In a quiet setting this is fine, but when walking down the streets of Bangkok with a small child that everyone wants to touch, it can be a bit intense. If you tell people not to touch your child, this will seem rude. The best way to deal with the random stranger touch overload is just to tell people that your child is not well. “Mai Sa Bai” is the phrase to say as you shield your child from touches. This will be understood without it seeming that you don’t approve of their kind touching. Of course, if your child doesn't mind all the touching, then this is not necessary.
Physical displays of affection, such as touching and hugging are not acceptable with members of the opposite sex. Women will touch women, and men will touch men, but different genders generally do not touch one another in shows of affection. Hugging is not a common show of affection even with same gender friends. More likely, Thai people will give each other a squeeze on the arm (provided they are the same gender). It is common to see same gender friends walking down the street holding hands, or arms linked, or even arms around each other. This goes for men too, and is not an indication of sexual orientation.
Thai people dress very conservatively. Sleeveless tank tops, shorts and skirts above the knees, low cut shirts on women, all these things are not really acceptable attire in Thailand. Especially in polite situations. While it is becoming more common to see younger generation Thais wearing more revealing clothing, the transition to this being truly acceptable has not been made, so if you are attempting to be polite, dress conservatively.
It is never appropriate in Thailand to wear a bikini. Even in heavily touristed places, where you see many people wearing bathing suits, it is actually quite indecent to do so, especially if the bathing suit is a two piece suit. Thai people swim fully clothed, or at best, in a t-shirt and long shorts. This would be the skimpiest Thai swimming attire. At a more western resort, you may be able to get away with wearing a one piece bathing suit with shorts.
Thai fisherman pants and sarongs are used by Thai people mostly in the privacy of their own homes. Wearing them out and about is more of a western phenomonen.
In Thai massage classes, it is best to wear sports pants. Something long that you can move around in, like sweat pants. And don’t wear revealing shirts, as you will be bending over people.
If you decide that you are going to dress however you please, and disregard the clothing etiquette stated here, please at least take care to dress appropriately when visiting temples, or when dealing with government officials such as immigration and such.
Books should never be set on the ground because books contain knowledge, and knowledge is sacred.
Never sit on a pillow that is for your head.
Never step over things, always walk around them, especially living things such as people and animals
Do not walk under laundry, go around.
Do not touch a Thai person on the head unless you have reason to such as medical treatments, haircuts, massage etc.