10 Things You Didn’t Know About Thai Culture

Thai culture can be a little strange to outsiders at times, and many Thai customs and traditions take some getting used to.

From men not washing women’s underwear to it being bad luck to nap at 6pm, I’ve heard some weird and wonderful things, not all of them understood by or even heard of by some of the Thais I know.

Like dialect in Thailand, customs differ from region to region, and on your travels up and down the country, you’re likely to come across many a different custom and tradition.

thai culture

Here’s a list of 10 you may or may not have heard before…

1. Unopened Gifts

Should you visit a Thai home and take a present for your host, you may find it is put on the side and left unopened. Don’t be offended by this, though. It’s actually considered rude to rip the present open there and then in front of the giver. A Thai person is more likely to wait until you have left to open the gift. This is part of  the “grengjai” custom (in consideration of).

2. Asking a Ghost’s Permission

Historically, overnight visitors to a Thai home were requested to ask permission from the phra phum (spirit ghost of the land) to stay in the house. The visitor would then be asked to thank the ghost when they left. This custom still exists in some rural areas of the country, but you probably won’t be asked to do this as a foreigner. However, some Thais will even perform this ritual before going to sleep in a hotel room.

3. Keeping Your Cool

Raising you voice is unacceptable in Thailand, and considered an act of losing control. Me and a couple of friends caused quite a stir once in Chiang Mai when debating current affairs at the table of a restaurant. Quiet and humble is always the best approach in the Kingdom; you certainly won’t achieve anything by becoming aggressive or loud. Jai yen yen (cool heart) instead of Jai rawn (hot heart)

4. Wearing a Bra

As a foreign women in Thailand, you will see women, particularly in Bangkok, dressed in short skirts, heels and backless tops, and often think, “that’s a bit dressy just to go to the mall”! This may appear as a green light to dress liberally, but in actual fact, as a foreign women, you should always exercise modesty if you want to be perceived in a good light.

The perception of western women is one of a highly sexed bunch who like to let it all hang out, a notion borne out of western movies and different cultural upbringing, and therefore, not wearing a bra underneath your vest top with your nipples poking through or cleavage hanging low, is likely to cause a fair few looks of judgement .

It may feel a little contradictory as you see a Thai lady walk past with shorts on shorter than your knickers, but that’s just one of those “Thainess” things you’re going to have to get past to enjoy your holiday.

5. Pregnancy Taboos

Pregnant women in Thailand will generally avoid visiting the sick, eating chilies and fishing. Chillies, I guess, are bad for the baby, visiting sick people might make you or your baby sick, and fishing…hmmm, no idea.

6. Take Off Your Shoes, Always!

Shoes must be taken off upon entering someone’s home. Even if you get a “mai pen rai” (no problem/it’s okay), still take them off! Shoes walk on the ground and pick up all manner of dirt. A no-brainer really.

7. Don’t Touch The Head

Don’t touch anyone on the head unless you want trouble. You may see Thais rubbing kids on the head, but I would refrain from this unless the child is in your extended family and a bond has been established. In contrast to feet, the head is considered the sacred part of the body and not to be touched without permission; certainly don’t put your feet near someone’s head!

8. Don’t Point!

Pointing is a no-no in Thailand. Your Thai friends won’t take offence if you point when joking around, as they will understand that as a foreigner you may point instinctively. However, don’t point at monks or pictures of any of the Royal Family, and as a general rule don’t point at people to make reference to them. If you need to point (indicate) someone out, instead of extending your finger, bend your hand downwards with your fingers leaning toward the floor and your palm facing upward.

9. Paying For Meals

If Thailand the inviter pays for the meal. In cases where it is unclear who the inviter was, the superior will usually pay. Remember, if you are going on a date with a Thai woman, don’t think going “Dutch” is an option. It isn’t, and you may well be seen as tight (kee-nee-ow) for expecting to split the bill. In this part of the world men pay the way on the dates, I’m afraid.

10. Ducking Down When Walking Between Two People

You’ll see the majority of Thais duck down slightly when passing in front of two people engaged in conversation. It’s a polite gesture of respect to acknowledge the interruption. The same applies if you walk past a person and block out their vision for a split second.

This list is a fairly brief overview, and there’s  a ton of other customs and traditions out there. There’s also likely to be variations and completely different customs found as you travel between regions. Please feel free to share those you’ve come across in the comments section.

If you’re thinking of visiting the Land of Smiles, then be sure to pick up a copy of Amazing Thailand – 101 “Must Know” Facts, which contains serious, humorous, weird and wonderful facts on all things Thailand.

Comments

    • TheThailandLife says

      Hey Serife, I should have said, and maybe I will add it in when i get a moment: kids are completely fine making cultural faux pas. Thai people just adore children, and they get away with all sorts of naughtiness on the basis of being cute. No one would think twice if a child pointed at someone. Thanks for posting!

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  1. Overlander says

    Stopping a rolling coin with your foot is possibly the most offensive thing that you can ever do in Thailand so foreigners really need to be warned. I once saw a farang guy do this at a BTS ticket machine. Those who saw him were visibly horrified and his Thai female companion simply screamed and ran.

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    • TheThailandLife says

      Ah, yes, didn’t think of that. I really must remember not to stamp on a coin if it starts running away …but it’s such a natural panic reaction. You get all flustered as change starts bouncing everywhere and the instinct is to just stop the jangling and embarrassment straight away :) Keep them coming, i might do a 10 MORE things you didn’t know post :)

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    • Just another farang says

      The reason for this is the image of the king on Thai coins. Obviously touching the highest of all Thai with the lowest part of your body is by far the rudest gesture one can make in Thailand.

      I had the exact same reflex once and I was lucky enough to be amongst Thai and farang who understood I meant no harm.

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      • TheThailandLife says

        Indeed. I saw a thai stamp on a coin a few weeks back to stop it rolling >> no one battered an eyelid. I think Thais understand this is a genuine reaction and means no harm, even amongst themselves.

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  2. Katy Clift` says

    Generally don’t disrespect Thai people – especially the men. They will kill you and most know Thai boxing! I’ve seen and heard a few horror stories about foreigners getting beaten up quite badly particularly when being drunk and disorderly.

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    • TheThailandLife says

      Indeed Katy…Thai people are very loving and calm in general, until you over step the mark with agression. I have seen a couple of incidents with Taxi drivers and foreigners on the islands before.

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    • TheThailandLife says

      It really is a long learning curve, but a fun one in many ways….Being a teacher I am sure you’ve faced many cultural challenges. At times there are things I just can’t get my head around, but then I think why try….just be accepting and understanding :) Glad you are enjoying the blog.

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  3. ken says

    The foot is considered dirty. Don’t ever sit with your feet pointed toward a Buddha figure, don’t step over someone or food if they are sitting on the ground and don’t ever point at something w/your foot.

    It’s unlucky to get your haircut on Wednesday.

    Whistling at night might call a ghost to you.

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    • TheThailandLife says

      Those last two are great. Do hairdressers close on wednesday or do people generally avoid hairdressers on wednesday?
      Just asked my GF about the whistling…she said “yes” with a very scared look as I started whistling :)

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      • Venus says

        “Just asked my GF about the whistling…she said “yes” with a very scared look as I started whistling”.

        My Italian Boyfriend knows I scare of ghost, and he sometimes does that when I take a shower at night. So I can’t help but to run out of shower naked or scream angryly..Arghhh.. I’m Gonna KILL him! Bad falang!! lol

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  4. Les Hurn says

    Thai’s advise to only have haircut during the day.

    To greet with kissing or hugging at airport is not fully accepted by Thais, indeed any sort of physical touching between men & women in public, really is forbidden.

    On public transport, Thai women will move seats, rather than accidentally touch a male Farang.

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  5. SteveCM says

    The foot thing really does need to be emphasised. Feet and anything associated with them are “low” in more ways than one – to the extent that you shouldn’t even hang socks on a high-up washing line (because they’d be above someone’s head – considered “high”). I also got very promptly corrected one time when I lay down at a picnic with my head resting on my sandals – and that was from some very “with it” Thai.

    One other suggestion. You’ll see many Thai do a slight duck down when they pass in front of others deemed senior who are seated; it’s a polite (if token) gesture of respect – to say that they’re acknowledging the seniority. Same applies if you’re just taller than standing Thai (often the case for westerners).

    As with most of these customs, foreigners are generally expected to not know about them – but you gain great kudos when you show that you do. It’s also the case that many Thai view westerners as having high(er) status anyway – so you’ll be paying them a major compliment.

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    • TheThailandLife says

      Thanks for your input Steve. The ducking down thing is a custom I really admire, especially when walking in between two people who are talking.

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      • SteveCM says

        Slight correction – at least based on what I’ve seen. Just passing in front of someone often prompts the “ducking down” (and it’s usually only slight)….. i.e. not just when passing between two people who are talking. Maybe just my old-fashioned Brit/German upbringing, but back home I’ve always done the “duck” in the latter case.

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  6. stuart says

    New to this site. Stamping on a coin? The reason peolple were horrified is that, might I suggest, the King’s head is on each coin and the Thai people are very respectful to the Royal Family and hold them in high esteem. Such an act would be deemed to gross, and very insulting and disrespectful to the King and to all Thai people.

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    • TheThailandLife says

      That’s correct Stuart, and I always keep that in my mind when dropping my change after fumbling in my pocket inside the train station. I tried to list some alternative ones here, but indeed coin stamping is a no-go area!

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  7. Stef261 says

    The King and entire Royal family are revered. Never say anything negative about them because it’s illegal and you could go to jail. You may even be arrested if someone overhears you speaking negatively of the king. Also be careful with banknotes. The notes contain the face of the king and therefore must be treated with respect.

    *Stef261 – I edited your comment but kept the core meaning. This was necessary to stay in line with site policy regarding using language that is appropriate and respectful when addressing a matter concerning the King and Royal family. Thank you.

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  8. venus says

    Hi it was nice reading your blog the Thai culture as well as comments added here. It amuses me as a neighbor in Asia I found out that they have many similarities with our culture – majority actually, with the exception of ghost thing, #9, #10 and as what I know so the sin sod, so far. Yeah and I started remembering it all, as one with the culture you may not be aware about the whole list because you’re just doing it and remembering it from your descendants.

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    • TheThailandLife says

      Hi Venus,

      Thailand has a huge number of customs; it’s a very interesting culture. What neighboring country are you from?

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  9. Sarah D says

    I have a Thai exchange student living with me. Any light you can shed on something having to do with them being sick and visited by a ghost or something along those lines?? She was home this morning and going into school late, and called me saying she was on her way to school (earlier than I expected) she was crying and said something about a ghost! I am so baffled!!!
    Let me know!
    Thanks!

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    • TheThailandLife says

      Hi Sarah,

      Thais are Buddhists but the culture is rooted in Brahmanism and animism. Many Thais believe in spirits, and if you visit Thailand you will see a spirit house outside most homes (Thais wai these to appease the spirit of the house as they walk past). Many Thais associate nightmares and sleep paralysis episodes with visits from spirits, in particular one they call Pee Am, a ghost that attempts to steal one’s good karma in order to pass over to paradise.

      Don’t worry too much, just sit down and be sympathetic. If she believes there to be a spirit in the house this can be resolved through a simple appeasement ritual.

      Let me know how you get on.

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  10. Marion says

    Your blog has been a great deal of interesting learning for myself. I really appreciate reading from you all and thank you for having this site up.

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  11. Max Beard says

    Great topics. Well covered.
    I have lived in Rural Thailand now for over 2 years and still getting used to their customs.
    One to add regarding ghosts.
    In a village where a recent death has occurred, you will often see most or all houses display a red shirt at the entrance to their property. This is to keep the ghost of the dead person from entering your house.

    One other thing that could be mentioned is that it is taboo for a lady to touch a monk and vice versa.

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  12. Max Beard says

    Just an update on my previous post about the Red Shirts.

    Having talked at length to my wife on this subject I know understand it a little better.

    If a male dies, not through illness, suicide or accident, but just goes to bed and dies in his sleep then here lies the problem. The ‘Red Shirt’ is to ward off the FEMALE ghost which they believe will come and take the MEN from the household. If there is no men living in the house then no red shirt is displayed on the entrance to the property.
    Bizzare? Yes, but it is what they believe.
    Travelled around a bit today and seen the ‘red shirt’ displayed in a number of villages.

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    • TheThailandLife says

      Hi Kayla,

      It would be great to read your report when it’s done; perhaps you could post a link here in the comments section?

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  13. Margarita Lerma says

    This is very interesting stuff right here. I greatly enjoyed it, the various Asian cultures fascinate me, the Korean one to be more precise, but im slowly starting to catch interests in other ones as well. I ran into this website and find it absolutely informative and I greatly enjoyed learning about different things in this Country! Great Job! :)

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  14. Anastasia says

    Women have to wear a bra? I’m not really sold on that idea. While on vacation, in August heat? I also don’t see why I’m to be held responsible for others’ notions of Western women, and how wearing or not wearing a bra would change that.

    And now a hypocritical seque – contact between men and women is inappropriate in public? Can you please elaborate on that? I will be going to Thailand with my boyfriend, and want to be aware so I can respect the local customs are. (To a degree though…. Curtailing PDA out of respect I understand, covering up In places of worship, sure, wearing a bra when it’s going to make me hot and uncomfortable, no.)

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    • TheThailandLife says

      Hi Anastasia, don’t worry too much about the bra thing. I should have made the point clearer in that it’s more about not having nipples poking through a vest top while on the train, or having your cleavage swinging too low for all to gorp at. On the islands this is far less of an issue because it’s more touristy with a beach-dress atmosphere. Thais generally women think western women aren’t “shy” when it comes to dressing and public displays of affection, speaking about sex etc. It’s not a finger pointing “we are better than them” thing – just something borne out of cultural differences and seeing western movies. In reality, the majority of Thais wouldn’t care if a foreigner made a minor cultural faux pas because they realise you are on holiday having fun. Moreover, they want you to enjoy their country. You’ll love it here :)

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  15. Max Beard says

    Hi Anastasia.

    Like as has been said before the wearing of a bra or not is not a big problem. Yes, Thais are far more conservative than we westerners and in the touristy areas they accept we have a different approach to life. Just be a little sensitive to thier cultural beliefs and if you don’t want to wear a bra then don’t wear a flimsy see through top.

    Now as regards showing affection to your patner/spouse the Thais just don’t do this. You will rarely see a Thai couple holding hands let alone hugging and kissing. This is not just adult to adult but I have noticed a lack of affection shown to children over the age of about 7 from their parents or family members. This lack of showing affection can be seen as soon as you fly into Bangkok. Thai people do not greet family members or friends they have not seen for some time with a hug anda kiss on the cheek as we westerners tend to do. There is no physical contact, just a smile and a wai. Now again in the tourist areas and Islands, holding hands/hugging and quick kisses in public are regarded as the westerners normal way of doing things and accepted. Not so much in the more rural parts of Thailand but they are getting used to seeing it slowly with more westerners living in their midst.

    Maybe this way of theirs not showing affection in public stems to when the family chose your spouse for you. Nothing to do about love. Then when you are married you lived in the same house as your parents and siblings and all of you go to sleep together on the floor in the same room. Can’t really get romantic like this. This still happens in some more rural villages but much less so.

    Thailand is a lovely country. I am married to a Thai National and have lived in a small village in Isaan for three years. I still learn all the time about their customs and cultures. Some extraodinary, unbelievable, quaint and some riduculous. But as is often heard said here by westerners TOT (This Is Thailand)

    This article and it’s posts are very informative and if you can remember most of what has been written I am sure your boyfriendand yourself will have an even better time here on holiday.

    Just remember Thailand is still light years behind most Western countries.

    Other things I suggest you be aware off is the corrupt police here. Not the odd policeman but the majority. Just be careful definetely no drugs of any kind, very severe penalties if caught.

    Next advice. Thailand is a cheap place to buy things but there is a reason for this. Generally the quality is poor especially in regards to clothes and shoes. You can buy a copy opf just about anything here in Thailand, but!!!!!!!

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  16. Boom says

    As a New Zealander having lived in Thailand for the past few years, I have noticed a few similarities in culture. I should know quite a bit about the Thai culture having a mother who is Thai. As a half-cast then, most of the ’10 Cultural and Customs’ made above are actual not completely, well, foreign. In New Zealand people too take off their shoes and duck if it is necessary to pass between elders having a conversation. Additionally, most females do not wear short skirts, or tank tops or anything like that at all, sure, Thai’s may look at foreign ladies dressed like that as a bit ‘trashy'; however, there is good reason for the foreign lady to do that. For the Thai lady to wear it, however, is very ‘loso’ and gives the impression of putting oneself into business (hooker). Since Thai ladies are accustomed to the hot weather, there is no reason apart from wanting glaring looks from men, to dressed like a that. With regards to paying for meals, in Thailand, people will usually pay for themselves. In NZ, the elder person always pays for the meals. I sometimes wonder what is Thai culture, since, it often is quite literally all ‘fake’ here, although, there are many Thai people who have a good ‘cultured’ background.

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  17. Rick says

    Things are changing a lot in Thailand in last 10 from food to culture you will see Thais holding hands now but still never kiss
    If your ever on sleeper train a lady should never sleep on top bunk above a man

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    • TheThailandLife says

      I didn’t know that one about the sleeper train, Rick. One thing I heard recently is that some Thai men won’t allow their wife’s underwear to be washed with their clothes – it must be washed separately.

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  18. Max Beard says

    Do you know that Monks are not allowed by law to drive a car or motorcycle/scooter even if they do hold a driving licence which was obtained before they became a monk.

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  19. Keith says

    Regarding haircuts on Wednesday.
    I heard in history that giving haircuts on Wednesdays was reserved for royalty. That’s why now some Barbour shops close because of tradition.

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    • TheThailandLife says

      You are absolutely right, Keith! I just checked up on this and here’s what I found out:

      Historically, people believed that Wednesday was a day of growth and development. It was also considered an auspicious day when members of the Royal Family and noblemen preferred to get their hair cut. It was therefore prohibited to commoners to do that on the same day. Since then having your hair cut on a Wednesday was considered inappropriate, as if one is trying to compare one’s own prestige to that of the Royal Family’s.

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  20. Michael says

    Excellent information, thank you! We will be retiring to LOS in the next few months and living some months in Chiang Rai and then other months at the beach or on the islands. So many cultural behaviors to be aware of. I am grateful for all this great information!!!!!!!!!!! Keep up the good work and keep living the dream…….

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    • TheThailandLife says

      Thanks Michael. I wish you all the best with your retirement. I’ve only been to Chiang Rai once but found it to be a charming place with lots of wonderful countryside. It’s not far from Chiang Mai and Pai either, two places I love.

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  21. indokiina says

    Sorry, didn’t read all comments, but what comes to mind:

    • handle cash carefully, notes wrinkle-free, offer king’s head upwards toward receiver

    • never throw anything, even a ball or keys..

    •never drop anything, not money, not keys, nothing, always offer things with open palms upwards for others to pick from there..

    • don’t try to force eye-contact, while Thais will make eye-contact, you are not to force eye-contact, especially toward same sex.. it is nothing to do with anything sexual, it is merely rude.

    • Thai’s will not appreciate your try of speaking Thai to monks, Thais speak a different language to monks and to royalty, rather let someone interpret if you are to be respectful of their beliefs.

    • Many Thais are unlikely to think in terms of disappointment with expectations as they culturally, if not religiously, think things as karma/kamma and as they are.. So they might not be cursing the missed train..

    •as unlikely as it is in a western country for someone unknown to smile, as likely it is in Thailand for someone to actually do so. If a tuk-tuk driver from Isaan is bullying you for a ride in BKK, he will not stop with words or anger, but if you smile at him, he will immediately realize that you won’t be going for his ride and smile back at you.

    •treat pictures of anyone as you would treat someone’s head..

    • Try not to insist on things expected in your culture. 99% of the case the Thai person has not visited your country of origin or thought it necessary to understand it’s customs. It is his/her country more than yours.

    • don’t be the tourist to load his water-gun with ice or piss during songkran. If you are not a clueless first timer to the festival you probably want to be visiting Cambodia at that week.

    •Having visited every island, Hua Hin and Pattaya, you have not yet managed to visit Thailand at all.

    • Thais are more likely to report your use of drugs than tolerate it. Prison is not a nice place there, and the guards are more likely to see your inprisonment as karma than with understanding.

    • If you don’t know what is wrong, smile, bow and look clueless. This will shut up anyone yelling at you.

    • You are most likely pronouncing every word of Thai in one of the other 4 possible wrong tones. It is as inconceivable for a Thai to try to guess the word you meant from the words /nāː/nàː/nâː/náː/nǎː/ in Thai as to guess the English word “presidency” if someone said “lollipop”.

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    • Max Beard says

      While some of the above comments are valid others are well over the top and make one tend think one is not dealing with another form of human life.

      I have lived in the real Thailand, not the tourist spots, for over 6 years now and married to a Thai lady, so have a good idea what it is all about.

      There are some things you should NOT do and others that it is preferred you don’t do. There is a difference. Thai’s in general I believe are becoming more tolerant and understanding of the foreigner’s ways. That is not to say you should force your ways or views on them.

      Your first comment is well over the top regarding the handling of money, yes you should never ever put your foot on the King’s head but other than that money is handled the same as it is in other countries.

      The next item again is over the top. Noone should throw something at anyone unless it is for them to catch.

      Regarding eye contact – never heard of or seen this as being something to offend the Thais,
      though could be relevant to the Monarchy and those who think they are so much better than others.

      Regarding your comment on drugs, and I don’t and have never used, there are more Thais using drugs than in many other countries and unless you are trying to sell or upset them because of your actions while being high, you will be left alone.

      Regarding speaking to monks this is true to a certain extent but it is the older generation that knows how to converse in the different way. Monks are not great conversationalist as a rule so is unlikely to wish to have a long conversation with you. The younger Thais can talk to them as they would to family but always with great respect. A lot of the more elderly/senior monks can speak limited English. My advice is not to try to speak to a monk unless they start up the conversation. MY wife’s brother is a monk so I do know a little about this.

      Regarding your comment on pictures, this is only the case if the picture is of a member of the Royal family or a monk.

      Yes it is wrong to expect the Thais to do things as you are used to/expect in your country and one has to be extremely tolerant and learn to adjust and this is really not that easy. The last part of this comment should have been ‘it is the Thais country NOT yours. Basically saying if you don’t like it then go back to where you come from or to another country where the ways of doing certain things are similar to what you are used to.

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