Thai culture is extremely interesting. I am by no means an expert (I’m an American, and I’ve been living here for all of three months), but most of what follows is not only based on my experience living and working here, but was also taught to us on Thai cultural day during our TEFL course.
Thailand is 95% Buddhist and there are over 300 Buddhist temples, or wats, in Chiang Mai alone. When visiting a Buddhist temple you should be sure to cover your thighs, chest, and shoulders–men wear long pants; and women wear pants, skirts, or shorts that go below the knees. Everyone should wear shirts or blouses with sleeves so that the shoulders and chest are covered. In some wats, visitors wear all white or a white top with black pants or long skirt, although in my experience this is rare.
Take off your shoes before entering the temple. You will see shoes lined up outside of the temple, so just follow the lead of everyone around you and leave your shoes outside.
When entering the temple you should step over the door threshold, rather than on it.
In a Buddhist temple, women kneel with the tops of their feet flat on the ground and sit on their heels. Men kneel with just the balls of their feet on the ground and the soles of their feet facing straight behind them, and sit on their heels.
Monks are highly respected in Buddhism and Thai culture. Women should never touch a monk.
The head and feet
In Thailand, the head is considered the most sacred part of the body. Therefore you should never touch another person’s head (there are obvious exceptions for hairdressers, doctors, masseuses, etc. as well as some exceptions for children).
You also should never point your feet at anyone, as the feet are considered to be the lowest and dirtiest part of the body. Accidentally pointing your feet at someone mostly occurs when westerners cross their legs while sitting, or while sitting in a chair with their legs outstretched.
Similarly, this is why you take your shoes off before entering some houses or buildings in Thailand, and always at a temple. You also should never raise shoes to unnecessary heights, or have shoes hanging loosely tied to a piece of luggage.
The wai (pronounced ‘why’) is both a greeting, and a sign of respect.
In any given social situation, the Phu Noi (little person) wais the Phu Yai (big person) first. This is usually based on age and status, but a number of different factors can come into play. I always wai first my employers, the director at a school I am visiting, or someone who is clearly older than me where we do not know each other’s status or position. When in doubt, it’s probably better to wai first. You do not need to wai someone you are paying for a service such as waiters or taxi drivers.
If someone wais you and you do not return the wai, it is considered very rude–similar to if someone goes to give you a handshake in the west and you leave them hanging. Obviously Thais are understanding of foreigners and that you may not understand their culture and traditions, so it’s unlikely you really will offend someone by not returning a wai as a visitor, but it’s much more respectful to understand how to wai appropriately.
There are three stages of the wai:
- A first stage wai is for someone of equal status to you, or when acknowledging and returning a wai from someone of lower status. To first stage wai you place your plams together and equally lower your head while raising your hands until your index fingers touch the tip of your nose.
- A second stage wai is for waiing someone of higher status. This includes elders, teachers, parents, or your boss. To second stage wai you place your palms together and lower your head while raising your hands until your thumb touches the tip of your nose and your index fingers touch the center of your forehead between your eyebrows. In a second stage wai you bow your head slightly more than you would in a first stage wai.
- A third stage wai is for the King, the Buddha, or monks. You third stage wai while kneeing (as described above). To third stage wai you start with a second stage wai (thumbs to nose and index fingers to forehead) and then follow that by bringing your hands to the ground in front of you and bringing your forehead to touch your fingers on the ground.
In a temple you third stage wai the Buddha three times–once to the Buddha, once to the Buddha’s teachings, and once to the monks.
Thais value “jai yen” or a “cool heart”. In general, Thais are very laid back and you will hear “mai pen rai” very often. “Mai pen rai” can not be directly translated to English, but it is often interpreted to mean “never mind”, “it’s ok”, or “no worries”. To relax and go with the flow is a very positive attribute in Thailand.
Thais are said to openly avoid confrontation (for anyone who knows me well, this is obviously something I kind of love). However it also means that if a Thai has a problem with you, you probably won’t know it. This goes back to an important concept of ‘losing face’. It is very important in Thai culture not to ‘lose face’ so Thais would rather avoid a potentially uncomfortable situation (or person they don’t like) than to have any form of confrontation or disagreement.
It is also considered a major faux pas to outwardly express extreme negative emotions, so expressing anger or loosing your temper in public is frowned upon and causes you to “lose face”.
Thais do love to have fun (“sanuk”) and therefore all activities should have an element of fun–including work and school. This is a very important cultural point for teachers. On our very first day of school, Jake and I were asked by our supervisor if we could “make activities for learning”. We need to include creative ways to keep the kids having fun and engaged in order to ‘trick’ them into learning. Traditional teaching methods of lectures and worksheets and sitting at their desks for the entire 50 minute period just doesn’t fly here.
Similarly, it is not uncommon to see Thais at work, in a variety of work settings, laughing and joking and having a wonderful time.
Other random cultural points
Appearance is very important. Sometimes how you look and dress will mean more than other qualifications to show signs of status, or even to get a job. It is important to be well dressed and clean.
Thais use their first names rather than last names. Teachers are called “Teacher” or “Kru” (which means ‘teacher’ in Thai) followed by their first name. For example, I am “Teacher Nicole” at school, not “Mrs. Geller” as I would be in the west. Outside of the classroom this still applies, and people are usually introduced with the title “Khun” followed by their first name; rather than Mr. or Miss/Mrs./Ms. last name as you would be introduced in the west.
Beckoning a songthaew, taxi, tuk tuk, or another person is done with the hand down. To a westerner the symbol almost looks like you are shooing someone away–but in Thailand this is how you call someone over. As a westerner it can be a little confusing the first time you see it.
In Thailand, you eat with a spoon and fork. You hold the spoon in your dominant hand, and use the fork to push food onto the spoon, and then bring the spoon to your mouth. The exception is when eating noodles or certain other dishes, which you eat with chopsticks.
Hope this helps! As always, contact me with any questions. I’d love to hear about any upcoming trips to Thailand!