Customs in Thailand
The Thai wai
The wai is a traditional greeting in which a person holds their hands together as if in prayer, accompanied by a bow of the head. Different aspects of the greeting hold certain significance; inferiors greet superiors and the higher you hold your hands, the greater the respect shown. As you visit many of Thailand’s spiritual sites you will see many using the wai. Although as a tourist you are not expected to partake, if someone does make the symbol at you, feel free to make a slight bow in reciprocation.
In Thailand, the head is seen as the most sacred part of the body, while the foot is the most unclean. You should never touch an adult or child on the head, apologize if you do so, even accidentally. Likewise, the same goes for touching people and pointing with your feet. If you come across a person sitting with their feet stretched out, don’t step directly across them.
Visiting temples and sacred sites
Something you will be expected to consider, especially in these spiritual places, though less so at the beach, is a more conservative style of dressing.
When visiting sacred sites you should dress appropriately. Here men will be required to wear long trousers, and although t-shirts are acceptable, it is better if you have a light weight shirt. In general, trousers are preferable to shorts; you won’t see many Thai men in shorts as they see them as the uniform of children. Women should cover shoulders and wear full length dresses or skirts as shorts are extremely inappropriate.
When going to a temple, or a private home, it is customary to remove your footwear. Wearing shoes that can be taken off easily, such as sandals, is a wise choice.
It is also a good idea to take care of the position you sit at in temples; sit in a “mermaid-style” with your legs underneath you, so your feet do not point at any person or statue, as mentioned above, this is disrespectful.
When taking photographs, don’t pose next to or climb on top of a Buddhist statue. Taking photos of a statue is fine but make sure your group is facing it.
Thresholds into temples, and into homes, are considered a sanctuary for spirits, so it’s important to step over a raised threshold and not onto it.
It may be easy to be offended but their religion dictates that Buddhist monks must avoid the temptation of women, which means that they will not touch women nor accept anything from a woman’s hands. It is therefore respectful for woman to keep their distance in the street and avoid giving anything to a monk directly. It is better to present donations in front of a monk or give them to a layman who will accept things on his behalf. If you wish to donate something then offer food, there will most likely be donation boxes at the temple.
The monarchy and Thai national pride
Thai people are extremely protective of their monarchy and it is illegal (lèse-majesté) to show any form of disrespect to royalty, anyone who does so may receive up to 15 years imprisonment. Therefore take care of your words and how they could be perceived if talking about the Royal Family. Lèse-majesté goes as far to include everyday objects which depict the King, such as disfiguring Thai baht. The story of The King and I evokes strong nationalistic feelings amongst Thai people, through the way it presents their monarchy as some-what of a farce. The film is illegal to possess in Thailand.
Lèse-majesté is not the only example of Thai national pride, the National Anthem is played out loud over speakers in public places, such as large markets and train stations, and the Royal Anthem is played in cinemas.
The treatment of animals
Elephants are an attractive part of Thailand’s tourist industry: elephant rides and painted are just two examples of their part in Thai tourism. The darker side of this animal exploitation, the mistreatment of these majestic creatures through smuggling, separation or use in elephant begging, however can be particularly cruel. If you mean to ride an elephant or buy a painting take their mistreatment into account and perhaps seek a more ethical way of interacting with them. Seek out tourism operators with strong animal ethical codes such as Elephant Nature Park and Maetang Elephant Park in Chiang Mai.
Elephants are not the only exotic animals used in the tourist industry; you may come across sedated lizards and birds on beaches, and encouraged to have a photo taken with them for a fee. In market places you will come across a lot of these animals being sold, as well as skin, feathers, talons and teeth. Avoid buying these products as they are the spoils of illegal poaching.