If you travel to Thailand or spend a longer period of time there, you’ll soon discover Thais to be extraordinarily friendly, helpful, happy, and patient. Perhaps an effect of Buddhism, or the extremely hot and humid, tropical air, or both, you’ll encounter a generally slower, more relaxed, and tranquil yet natural rhythm to daily life.
The busiest Thai person, even on their most hectic day, will somehow be able to pause in their routine, patiently, and melt away any and all obstacles or rough patches that arise with a warm-hearted smile. This is also part and parcel of the renowned “Mai pen rai” perspective, which can have so many different meanings or intentions in Thai language and culture and is roughly translatable along the lines of “It’s okay,” “Don’t worry about it,” “No big deal,” etc.
In this context, you’ll be well-served to study a bit about the country and culture before your travels. Here are 10 pointers regarding etiquette or daily life that you’ll perhaps run into and may find useful to research further:
- It is essential that you be especially respectful of and show the utmost reverence to anything related to royalty, Buddhism, and religious artifacts—in words and deeds. This includes not mishandling currency notes or coins, anything related to Buddhism or the Thai “wat” (temple), and being respectful of monks.
- Do not touch or tap anyone on the head, even if meant or intended as a friendly or warm gesture. The head is usually considered a most sacred part of the body.
- Do not show anger or impatience by raising your voice, yelling, or being overly aggressive or confrontational. This is generally frowned upon and could be taken the wrong way.
- Do not use your feet to tap someone, point at something or someone, to get someone’s attention, or to open or close something. The feet are typically considered the least sacred and most unclean part of the body. That is one reason shoes are left behind at the doorway.
- Learn to evaluate the famous Thai smile. Similar to the wai, it can serve multiple purposes—everything from embarrassment to happiness to appreciation and thanking to greeting to discomfort with a situation.
- Do not step directly over another person or thing, but rather walk around them or it, if possible. This is because the feet are considered the lowest part of the body, and preferably should not pass above someone or something.
- When eating a meal out, do not use a knife to cut food or to push food onto a fork. You will notice that the table setting typically consists of a plate, spoon, and fork (no knife). It’s not a problem, because most foods will be well-suited to a fork and spoon by having already been formed into small, manageable pieces. The fork should go in your left hand and the spoon in your right, used as the main eating utensil. If you need to break something up even more, use the fork to hold it down and the spoon to serve as the cutting utensil.
- Become familiar with bidet toilet sprayers, or as Westerners fondly refer to them, “bum guns.” This is actually rather hygienic and a learning experience unto itself. That’s right—that’s why there’s no toilet paper to be seen far and wide.
- Don’t be overly surprised if a much younger person kind of lowers their head and body as they pass by you exiting an elevator. A person’s position or status is one of the crucial elements in determining respect levels, and if you’re aged, that merits a high degree of respect in Thailand.
- Use the famous Thai “wai” gesture at the appropriate times. A wai can mean many things, from “thank you” to “hello” to an important show of respect or appreciation. It’s best utilized in the right, fitting circumstances—not something you would ordinarily use constantly, say as a customer to thank a store clerk for ringing up your groceries. A routine kind of thank you can be expressed verbally as “khorbkhunkhrap (kha),” with a simple and pleasant nod of the head or a Thai smile.
These comprise just a small sampling of the idiosyncrasies you might encounter. You will find that, despite some of these perhaps seeming to you like cultural quirks, Thailand becomes most endearing and starts to grow on you.
Really, it does.