10 Things You Didn’t Know About Thai Culture and Customs

April 10, 2011

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 sleep at around 6pm, I have heard some weird and wonderful things, thai culturenot all of them understood by or even heard of by some of the Thais I have spoken with. Like dialect in Thailand customs can 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. Here is a list of 10 you may or may not have heard about:

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 is 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 “grengjai” (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 more rural areas, but you probably won’t be asked to do this as a foreigner. However, many Thais will do this 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. I myself have caused quite a few stares in the past when debating current affairs with foreign visitors at the table of a restaurant. Quiet and humble is always the best approach when speaking with Thai people. You won’t achieve anything by becoming aggressive or loud. Jai yen yen (cool heart) instead of Jai lawn (hot heart)

4. Wearing a Bra (Women)

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 can  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 .

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  bend your hand downwards with your fingers leaning toward the floor and your palm facing upward.

9. Paying For Meals

If you invite someone out for a meal in Thailand the rule is that the inviter pays. In cases where it is unclear who the inviter was the superior will 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). In this part of the world men pay the way on the dates.

10. Ducking Down When Walking Between Two People

You’ll see many Thais perform a slight duck down when they pass in front of two people engaged in conversation. It’s a polite (if token) gesture of respect – to say that they’re acknowledging the interruption. The same applies if you walk past a person and block out their vision for a split second.

This is a fairly brief overview, and there is a pletora of other customs and traditions out there. There are also likely to be slightly different versions of the things I have mentioned. So please feel free to share your knowledge 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.

{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

serife April 10, 2011 at 2:14 am

Guess I won’t be taking the kids to Thailand for a while- pointing has become so habitual- part of their learning! lol

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TheThailandLife April 10, 2011 at 10:09 am

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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Overlander April 10, 2011 at 3:56 pm

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 April 10, 2011 at 5:42 pm

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 August 18, 2012 at 7:57 pm

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 August 18, 2012 at 9:04 pm

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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Katy Clift` April 11, 2011 at 4:06 pm

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 April 11, 2011 at 10:47 pm

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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Ajarn Steve April 11, 2011 at 8:34 pm

I’ve been here almost four years and I’m still learning about Thai culture. It’s very different from American culture.

I enjoy your blog.

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TheThailandLife April 11, 2011 at 10:45 pm

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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ken April 13, 2011 at 1:45 pm

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 April 13, 2011 at 11:14 pm

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 April 17, 2012 at 2:48 pm

“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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TheThailandLife April 17, 2012 at 3:21 pm

lol….yep, I enjoy a whistle walking down a dark soi in the evening to spook my girlfriend :)

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Colin June 17, 2011 at 8:57 pm

What a great list, many of which i was unaware of. I feel a little more prepared for my journey now!

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Les Hurn November 18, 2011 at 7:32 pm

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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SteveCM November 27, 2011 at 11:31 am

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 November 27, 2011 at 7:28 pm

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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Jenna November 29, 2011 at 9:41 am

There’s only nine items, you’re missing #4, unless I didn’t see it!

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TheThailandLife November 29, 2011 at 6:41 pm

Thank you Jenna! I have corrected this and used Steve’s addition to make up for the missing number. :)

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SteveCM November 29, 2011 at 7:22 pm

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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stuart December 6, 2011 at 5:11 am

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 December 6, 2011 at 6:28 am

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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Stef261 June 17, 2012 at 3:54 am

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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venus August 31, 2012 at 12:45 pm

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 August 31, 2012 at 3:53 pm

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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Sarah D September 25, 2012 at 7:27 pm

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 September 25, 2012 at 7:47 pm

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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Marion January 16, 2013 at 4:23 am

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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Max Beard February 24, 2013 at 3:55 pm

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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TheThailandLife February 24, 2013 at 7:05 pm

That’s an interesting one (the red shirt thing). Thanks for your contribution!

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Max Beard February 26, 2013 at 7:54 pm

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 February 26, 2013 at 8:27 pm

Thanks for clarifying Max. Very interesting stuff.

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Kayla Suchar April 30, 2013 at 5:16 am

I’m doing a report on Thailand’s culture
it is very interesting and different from America’s culture

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TheThailandLife April 30, 2013 at 10:48 am

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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Margarita Lerma May 11, 2013 at 1:52 am

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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TheThailandLife May 11, 2013 at 10:46 am

Thanks Margarita. I hope to see you back here soon!

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Anastasia May 31, 2013 at 2:07 am

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 May 31, 2013 at 10:07 am

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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Max Beard May 31, 2013 at 6:18 pm

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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Boom July 22, 2013 at 1:03 pm

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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