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, not 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.