Thailand is a majority-Buddhist country with customs, norms and social etiquette that can seem totally foreign to non-Thais, especially those from Western cultures. While Thai people are generally very understanding of all but the most egregious flaunting of these norms, it’s still better to avoid committing them during your time in Thailand. Follow them and you’ll find it easier to make friends, get help from strangers, and resolve any conflicts. This guide covers the basics of Thailand etiquette plus some more advanced customs that are useful for anyone living or spending extended time in Thailand.
General good behavior in Thailand and not being a jerk
Thais are generally friendly and understanding about cultural differences, so innocent missteps by foreigners are easily forgiven. Rudeness, however, is not. Probably the single most important piece of advice for Thailand is to keep your cool and not show anger or shout at anyone. Thais call this trait being jai yen (ใจเย็น) – literally cool heart, while hotheaded people are jai rawn (ใจร้อน) – hot heart. There’s always a chance you’ll run into some minor confrontation while here, whether from a misunderstanding or an outright scam. Even if you are justifiably angry, if you show it outwardly, you will get nowhere. When you yell at someone, you cause not only them to lose face, but yourself and everyone else around you. If you are being obviously cheated, there’s a chance an onlooker (or, though unlikely, a cop) will come to your aid. If you start shouting first though, then forget about it. Keeping your cool is one of the most important aspects of Thailand etiquette.
Being considerate in Thailand
Try to be considerate. Too many people forget to pack their brain when they go on holiday. Don’t hold up a long queue trying to count your money or calculate an exchange rate. Once you’ve paid at the 7-11, move out of the way for the next customer before you start filing your money away in order in your wallet. If you don’t know how to drive that 100 kilogram motorbike, learn to do so somewhere safe before you endanger other people’s lives on the road. And just generally be aware of your surroundings. Be a nice person when you travel, and we guarantee you will have a much better experience.
The Wai – Should you bow to people in Thailand?
Thais traditionally greet each other with a gesture called a Wai (ไหว้), similar to an Indian Namaste. These days a wai is fairly formal and younger Thais usually don’t greet close friends this way, although some do. Where Wais are still used is with older family members, with work and business colleagues and superiors, and with monks and Buddha statues. Restaurant and hotel staff also often Wai to customers, especially in upscale places.
There is a lot of nuance involved with hand positioning, but even most Thais don’t really follow this if you watch closely. Still if you want to know, for people roughly the same age as you, with your palms pressed together you should slightly bow your head forward until the tips of your thumbs are at your chin. For people older than you or your bosses and superiors at work, the tips of your thumbs should be just under your nose. And for monks and Buddha statues they should be level with your eyes.
Probably more important than hand position is who initiates the Wai. It is always the person who owes more respect who initiates, so generally the younger person. Often the person who accepts the Wai just presses their hands together at chest level, but if the people are of similar status they should both Wai each other properly. Since the Wai is a greeting it is generally accompanied by the Thai hello – Sawadee kha if the speaker is a woman or Sawadee khap if it’s a man. You can also Wai to apologize, in which case you would say khaw tote kha/khap
So should you Wai the hotel receptionist?
Most tourists in Thailand will mainly get Wais in shops, hotels and restaurants. Technically speaking you aren’t supposed to return a Wai in these situations as you are the customer. This is usually awkward for most Westerners though, and they usually Wai back. There’s nothing wrong with this and some Thais do it as well. More typically, Thais will return the Wai if they had any sort of brief conversation with the person as that makes them more than just a waiter or receptionist. In general nobody will ever fault you for bowing, so our rule of thumb for Thailand is “when in doubt, Wai it out”. Also, smile. We can’t stress enough how far a smile will get you in Thailand.
Here’s a great post if you want more info on how and when to Wai
What you should know about heads and feet in Thai etiquette
For Thais, the feet are the lowest and dirtiest part of the body while the head is the highest, and the resting place of the soul. Much of what you need to know about Thailand etiquette involves the dos and donts of the head and feet.
Don’t touch anybody’s head.
You may see very close friends or couples do this playfully, but unless you’ve been here a long time and really understand when it’s okay, you should avoid doing it. It’s a bit more acceptable to give a child a pat on the head, but even this involves a lot of nuance and is probably best avoided.
Don’t point the soles of your feet at people or Buddha images.
This is one that appears on all of these lists, but is never explained very well. If you are sitting cross-legged on the floor, your soles inevitably point out in two directions, and if people are around, they will be in the path of them. This is okay. Crossing your legs is okay too, just don’t let your feet touch whoever is sitting next to you. What’s not okay is putting your feet up on tables or chairs (whether or not anyone is in front of you). You might see Thai people doing this, but it’s rude and you should not.
Don’t point or gesture with your feet.
Probably the most common way foreigners cause offense with their feet is by using them to point. It’s quite common in markets here for merchants to sit on a mat or blanket on the ground with their wares displayed in front of them. When asking the price of a specific object, never use your foot to point at it. If you really want to be polite, crouch or squat down to ground level, and point at it. Pointing with one finger is also a bit rude, but much less so than using feet; the proper way to point is with an open hand, palm facing down.
This isn’t really one people will expect you to know as a tourist, but it will definitely earn you Thailand etiquette bonus points. If you live here, and especially if you work with Thais, you should know this. When you pass near somebody, if your head is higher than theirs, you are showing a sort of superiority over them. This doesn’t matter with people younger than you, and it really depends on the level of respect that you “owe” that person. At the top of this list is Buddha figures; when you pass near one in a temple, you should bend your neck and back to bring your head below the figures. There are often many of these around one big one; don’t worry, if there’s a small one near the floor you don’t need to crawl. Next come monks, you should definitely do this for monks (more on them below). Finally, your elders or your superiors at work. If you get up from the conference room table to go out while others are sitting, hunch down while you pass behind them. You don’t have to literally be below them, just make a deliberate effort to hunch.
Shoes (but not socks) must come off when you enter a temple. This is nearly universally mandatory when entering someone’s home as well. Conversely, in restaurants you will almost never have to do so. In shops, 80-90% of the time you don’t need to. Before you enter, first look for a sign, though this may only be in Thai and not have a picture. If there are other people inside, do what they do. Usually if you have to take your shoes off, there will be other pairs of shoes outside.
Respecting the Thai King and Monarchy
Thailand has a new King as of 2017 who is the tenth ruler (Rama X) in the Chakri Dynasty which stretches back uninterrupted to 1782. His father, Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) ruled for over 70 years before passing away late in 2016. Thais loved him as a father figure and revere him as almost god-like. The current King is yet to achieve this near-universal reverence yet, but Thais have deep respect for the institution of the monarchy and that obviously extends to the current King.
The country also has strict lèse-majesté laws covering the Royal Family, with long jail terms for offenders. In general it’s probably best to avoid conversations about the King and the Monarchy, at least until you have made some good friends and come to understand how serious the issue is. If you do get to that point and are really curious, a good way to approach the topic is by asking about the life of the late King Rama IX. He was a pretty interesting man who did some pretty great things for his country, especially the rural poor in the countryside. He was also an accomplished sailor, photographer, and jazz saxophonist and composer who once jammed with Benny Goodman in his New York apartment. There’s a lot more than that on his resume too, and while you may not want to bring it up immediately with strangers, go ahead and ask a friend if you want to know. Most Thais are proud of him and are happy to tell you about him.
How to avoid causing offense toward the Thai Monarchy
- The King is on all money. Never stop a rolling coin or bill that’s blowing away with your foot.
- Don’t throw money, even playfully with friends.
- When leaving a tip at a restaurant, don’t use a beer bottle or ashtray to weigh it down.
- A song is played in tribute to the King before performances like sporting events and movies in the cinema. Stand while this plays.
Religion and monks in Thailand
Thailand is majority Buddhist with significant Muslim and Christian populations. The typical Thai temple you will see is a Theravada Buddhist temple, but it’s common to also see Chinese Mahayana Buddhist temples (the ones with the dragons on the roof) due to the many Thais with Chinese ancestry. The advice below for temples is mainly for the first variety, but should apply to any temple, church or mosque:
Thailand Etiquette for visiting temples
- Be quiet and respectful when visiting a temple. Always take off your shoes.
- Some touristy temples charge admission, but at those that don’t, it’s nice to leave a donation in one of the many boxes.
- It’s best to dress smartly – trousers and button-down for men – but at a minimum no tank tops or short shorts. Women should wear nice trousers or long skirts, but must at least cover their shoulders, upper arms, and thighs.
- On transportation, give your seat up for a monk if none is available. Generally, monks won’t be comfortable sitting next to Western women so you may need to move even if a seat is available.
The most common cultural faux pas that nobody talks about
Caucasian foreigners in Thailand (as well as Indians, Middle-Easterners, and Africans) have a well-earned reputation for poor hygiene. Thais are sometimes leery to share a bus seat with foreigners partly out shyness, but more so out of fear of body odor. Thai people take their hygiene very seriously, and nearly everyone bathes at least twice a day. It’s hot here, and you may smell just fine in your home country with a daily shower, but you need to update your regimen while here. Also, nothing feels better after a long day of sightseeing than a cool shower so there’s really no reason not to at least do a quick rinse off a couple times a day.
Don’t worry too much about it
Thais are very forgiving and understanding about foreigners who don’t know all the nuances of Thai customs and etiquette. You don’t need to go through your trip in fear of causing offense at every turn. Still though, it’s best to avoid doing so wherever you can. Thai people are also very perceptive of these things, so even the subtlest little bow of the head in the right circumstance will go a long way towards earning respect, making friends, and generally being a conscientious traveler. We can tell you with 100% certainty that being aware of these things will make for a better travel experience not only for you, but for all who come after you as well.