Thai culture can be a little strange to outsiders at times, and many Thai customs 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, and not all of them understood by or even heard of by my Thai friends.
Like dialect in Thailand, customs differ from region to region, and on your travels up and down the country you are likely to come across many different customs, beliefs and superstitions.
Thai Culture – 12 Things You May Not Know
1. Opening Gifts
If you visit a Thai person's home and take a present for the host, you may find it is well received but immediately put to one side and left unopened. Don't be offended by this.
It is actually considered rude to open the present 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 someone else's kindness).
If you really want the person to open the present while you are there, it's fine to ask. But expect some shyness about it.
2. Asking a Ghost's Permission
There are ghosts everywhere in Thailand: some good, some bad, some just mischievous.
One tradition that isn't so widely practiced anymore is to ask permission from the phra phum (spirit ghost of the land) for a visitor to stay in the house.
The visitor is also asked to thank the ghost when they leave
This custom still exists, mainly in rural areas of the country but also among the very superstitious.
Some Thais will perform this ritual before going to sleep in a hotel room, because it isn't their home and they want to ensure the spirit doesn't cause them any trouble.
3. Keeping Your Cool
Raising your voice is unacceptable in Thailand and considered an act of losing control.
Quiet and humble is always the best approach and you certainly won't achieve anything by becoming aggressive or loud.
Jai yen yen (cool heart) instead of Jai rawn (hot heart) is the way of the Thai – at least until someone really boils over that is.
This is noticeable in that people tend not to complain of bad customer service of over pricing, but rather just move on and let it go.
It generally makes for a nicer society, but there is a downside. If people don't complain and voice their opinion, lower standards often prevail.
4. Wearing a Bra
As a foreign woman in Thailand, you will see women – particularly in Bangkok – dressed in short skirts, heels and backless tops, and think, “That's a bit dressy just to go to the mall”!
This may appear to you as a green light to dress liberally, but in actual fact, as a foreign woman, you are expected to exercise modesty – if you want to be perceived in a good light.
It's a real double standard.
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 norms, I assume.
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 judgmental looks.
It may feel hypocritical when you see a Thai woman walk past with shorts on barely shorter than your knickers, but that's just one of those “Thainess” things you're going to have to get past I'm afraid.
5. Pregnancy Superstition
There are quite a few superstitions surrounding childbirth.
Here's a few of the more popular ones:
- A woman should avoid buying clothes or making preparations for the baby because it may result in miscarriage.
- A pregnant woman should not sit on the stairs because this may cause a difficult or obstructed birth.
- For the same reason, a pregnant woman should not bury anything in the soul.
- It is unlucky for a pregnant woman to attend a funeral, although certain blessings can help a woman avoid this if she really needs to attend.
Post birth, some women go through a ritual called Yu Fai, which translates as “lying by fire/being with the fire”. This occurs for 3-7 days and for 5 hours per session.
The ritual is conducted wearing warm clothes or being wrapped in blankets and lying down on a wooden bed over a warm fire.
The aim of this ritual is to shrink the uterus back to normal size, flatten the stomach, and remove stretch marks and perineal tears, and of course to ward off evil spirits.
6. Always Take Off Your Shoes
Shoes must be taken off upon entering someone’s home. No matter how lowly or grand the home is, take them off.
Shoes walk outside and pick up all manner of dirt, which people don't want in the home – especially considering that Thais often eat sitting on the floor.
Even if you get a “mai pen rai” (no problem/it’s okay), still take them off – the person is just being polite and still expects you to take them off.
7. Don't Touch a Person's Head
Don't touch anyone on the head unless you want to really upset someone.
In contrast to the 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!
You may see an adult give a child a rub on the head, but I would refrain from this unless the child is in your extended family and a bond has already been established.
8. Don't Point!
Pointing is a no-no in Thailand.
Your Thai friends won't take offense 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 when making reference to them.
If you need to point 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
In 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 dates, I'm afraid.
10. Ducking Down When Walking Between People
This is a common interaction you'll see on a daily basis in the workplace and at shopping centers.
When a person walks between two others (or a group) the person will duck down slightly to acknowledge the interruption and subtly apologize without speaking.
Sometimes this will be accompanied by a vocal “excuse me” or “sorry”.
The same applies if you walk past a person and block out their vision for a split second.
11. Stepping Over a Threshold
If you visit a building or home with a threshold (the strip or wood or metal that runs across the bottom of an entry door frame) it is polite to step over it and not on it.
This superstition relates to the spirits that inhabit a home. One of the spirits is said to live in the door threshold. If you step on the threshold you may anger the spirit and bring bad luck to the family.
An old belief hailing from central Thailand states that conception occurs when a khwan (soul) flies into the uterus during sexual intercourse.
There are many regional customs and beliefs that make up Thai culture, some of which have been confined to the history books and others still in practice today.
Some of the more weird and wacky ones are likely to be found in very rural areas where life is still very much rooted in old traditions, and others will be specific certain regions.
As I said at the start, in may be the case that your Thai partner or friend hasn't even heard of all these, but also likely they can tell a few which they know of that I haven't mentioned here.
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