Thai Etiquette in the Land of Smiles - Thai Greeting, Do & Don't in Thailand...

You should be aware of some Thai etiquette when travelling to Thailand, out of respect for the Thai people and culture. Thai's are generally very easy-going and accommodating, and will rarely take offence to a foreigner failing to follow Thai etiquette, however they will appreciate it if you acknowledge an understanding of some of their customs.

Thai people are very relaxed about life, so compared to western standards this could be a little frustrating to a foreigner (especially when it comes to punctuality), until you get used to the 'no rush' way of life.

Thai Greeting in the Land of Smiles

The traditional Thai greeting is the Wai.  You will see the Wai copiously used in Thai etiquette to express hello, thank you or goodbye; it denotes respect, with the younger or 'lower' person in the social class performing the Wai first, and the level of the hands/depth of the head bowed, indicating the degree of respect.

The Wai is performed by pressing your palms together at the chest or nose level and bowing your head slightly. The higher the hands, the higher the level of respect. As a foreigner, the Thai people will understand you may get the Wai wrong, however you should never Wai first as this may cause embarrassment if you are performing the Wai to a person of a lower social class, or a younger person. Wait for the Thai person to Wai first, then it can be returned, and if in doubt about how to do this properly you should just smile and bow your head briefly (to not acknowledge a Wai is considered rude).

Do and Don't in Thailand

Here are a few things to do and don't in Thailand to help you to avoid accidentally offending someone and have an enjoyable stay: 

  • A smile in Thailand is essential to etiquette, and as such Thailand is known as the 'Land of Smiles'. You should always return a smile. Smiles can be used anytime, including as apologies, during negotiations and when things do not go as planned.
  • The head is considered sacred in Thai Buddhism, therefore passing an item over someone's head can cause great offence, as can touching someone's head (including a child's). Do not raise your feet above someone's head and avoid stepping over people who are sitting/lying on the ground.
  • Feet (especially the bottoms) are considered dirty, therefore should not be used to point to things (especially images of Buddha), and should not be placed near objects that are associated with the head. Feet should be kept tucked away on the floor, do not put your feet up on a table or on anything that is not meant for lying down on (i.e. a sun lounger is fine to put your feet up on). When sitting on the ground try to sit so that the bottoms of your feet are not on show to others.
  • Remove your shoes before entering a Thai persons home, a temple, some businesses, family owned shops, massage parlors and some establishments, even in the larger cities. You may even be expected to take your shoes off before entering your hotel room. If in doubt, and there is no sign indicating if shoes area allowed, before entering an establishment check outside, if you are expected to remove your shoes there will be a shoe rack or you will see lots of pairs of shoes outside. If you are still unsure then stick your head around the door and ask, the acknowledgement of this custom will be appreciated. The reason for having to take your shoes off is that Thai's are very conscious about cleanliness and want the dirt to stay outside.
  • If you are invited to a Thai home and take a present for your host it is likely that the gift will not be opened at the time of giving - it is considered rude to open the present in front of the giver, therefore the gift will be opened once you have left, so do not take offence if this happens.
  • Do not pass anything with your left hand as it is considered dirty, instead always use your right hand, including when paying.
  • Never point at someone with one finger as this is considered rude; instead to indicate someone do so by lifting your chin in their direction. To indicate an object or animal you can point by using all of your fingers. Wave you hand with your fingers straight and your palm face down to motion someone to come over.
  • Throwing things is considered rude (even money), so pass things properly, face up, with your right hand, and unfold money when paying.
  • Displaying strong emotions is frowned upon, therefore keeping your cool, even when things are going wrong, will earn respect. Raising your voice or showing your anger will not get you anywhere in Thailand and is considered inappropriate, remember "mai pen rai".
  • Thai's eat with a spoon and fork, holding the spoon in their right hands and using the fork to push their food onto their spoon. If you want to follow this form of etiquette then eat with your spoon, never putting the fork into your mouth. However, all tourist restaurants will provide knives as standard so you do not necessarily need to master this one.

  • Monks should be treated with respect, and always receive a higher wai than ordinary people (which does not have to be returned). Women should not touch a monk, brush their robes or hand something to a monk, although it is acceptable to talk to them. Monks are very common in Thailand and you will often see them around.
  • It is a polite gesture to duck down slightly when passing in front of two people that are engaged in conversation, or if you walk past a person and block out their vision; this is out of respect to acknowledge the interruption.

  • Do not be insulted if you are asked many personal questions when meeting a Thai for the first time, this is their way of establishing where you fit into the hierarchy of Thai society, which is very important to them and evident at many levels.

  • You will be unlikely to come across the custom of asking permission from a spirit ghost of the land to stay in a Thai house overnight, although this custom still exists in some rural areas and the hosts would ask you to do so. The visitor is asked to then thank the ghost when they leave.
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