Thailand, like many nations, is very much a product of their history. Previously referred to as Siam, the name was changed in 1939 to Muang Thai, which translates to “home of the free.” Although (or perhaps because) the population is largely Buddhist, there remains a firm belief in freedom of religion. Case in point, the country is ruled under a constitutional monarchy in which the King’s official titles include “Head of State”, “Head of the Armed Forces”, “Upholder of the Buddhist religion”, and “Defender of all Faiths”.
The Thai people are reverent and modest; they honor calm and self discipline while keeping an easy-going attitude at all times. However, while they would never intentionally call attention to a visitor’s cultural “faux pas”, sometimes culture-clash can lead to quite volatile situations. Follow these simple guidelines and you will certainly do well on your immersive journey into Thailand: “The Land of Smiles.”
Head/Feet:Thais view the body as a manifestation of the spiritual self. As such, the head is the highest and most sacred of body parts (the “temple” of the body) and the feet are the lowest, most vulgar of body parts. That being said, never touch an adult’s head; although you may intend the gesture to be affable, the Thai recipient will feel quite the opposite. It is not considered inappropriate to pat the heads of children under ten, but your safest bet is to avoid touching heads altogether. On the other hand, your feet should never be used to point, to hold open a door, or to get someone’s attention, and take extra care that the palms of your feet never point toward anyone-including sacred statues.
Smile: It is no accident that Thailand is also known as “The Land of Smiles”: Thais recognize 13 distinct types of smiles for a wide range of emotions-not all being joyful. Especially when you are caught in an uncomfortable or difficult situation, always remember that when in Thailand, your best plan of action is to just keep smiling!
Voice and Veneer: Being that over 90% of the population is Buddhist, the Thais take great care to remain “cool, calm, and collected” at all times. Anyone who is seen to lose their temper or even show signs of irritation is regarded as a fool. Thais are soft-spoken and do not appreciate loud shouting, so remember to monitor your vocal levels and to keep your emotions in check.
Beach:As previously mentioned the Thais are a modest people; they find it inappropriate to uncover your private parts, even on the beach, so please refrain from tanning in the nude. You may see others doing it, but know that just because the locals do not bring attention to something does not mean that they are not bothered by it.
Busy Centers: Although Thailand is situated in the tropics, it is not appropriate to remove your shirt in public centers (with the beach being the obvious exception). Everyone is hot, locals included, but removing your clothing is not the approved method for cooling down. Be sure to stay hydrated with bottled water and wear light colored, loose clothing to keep your body temperature down.
Temples: Remember the Golden Rule: respect Thai culture as you would like your native culture respected. Appropriate attire is a very important sign of reverence, so when entering sacred spaces be sure to avoid sleeveless shirts, shorts and skirts that expose your legs, open toed shoes, and anything that could be considered sloppy or scruffy. If you are not in compliance, larger temples will require you to rent sarongs or pieces of material to cover up. Smaller temples may not have such enforcement, making it even more important that you take care to dress respectfully. A good tip is to keep a sarong or other covering with you in your bag so that you are always prepared for wherever your travels may take you.
Shoes: Leave your shoes outside before entering a house, an office, and especially before entering a temple.
Affection: While holding hands is frequently seen among friends in Thailand, public displays of affection including cuddling and kissing should not be practiced.
Buddha: The image of Buddha is one of the most sacred in many parts of Asia. Refrain from climbing on statues, and when entering temples always ask if photos are allowed-sometimes it is forbidden, and not only will you be disrespecting the good-natured Thai people, you may be asked to leave. Moreover, remember the body part guidelines: never sit in front of a Buddha figure unless you can curl your legs in and avoid pointing your feet toward the sacred image.
Monks: Monks must be given the utmost respect. They must never be touched or directly given something by a woman. Either the woman may give the object to a man who may then give it to the monk, or the object may be placed on a cloth and the monk may then drag it close to himself to receive it. Furthermore, a monk must never shake a man’s hand. It is important to note that this reverence is not only practiced at temples but at all times. When a monk requires transportation, he will use the public bus or train systems that occasionally have seats allocated for such revered individuals. However, if you see a monk without a seat, it is right to give up your seat to them so that they may avoid any unwanted contact with other travelers.
Royalty: Ruled by a constitutional monarchy in a place where social hierarchy and seniority are deeply rooted in all aspects of life, the Thai people do not take even good humored disrespect of the Royal Family lightly. To give you some background, know that not only is King Bhumibol Adulyadej the world’s longest functioning head of state-reigning since 1946-he is also well known for his good works and service to all Thai people, rich and poor alike. The King and Queen are so revered that their birthdays call for national holidays, and to honor the weekday of the King’s birth, many people choose to wear yellow on Mondays. However, this admiration comes not without a dark twin: despite the King’s quotation that Kings “must also be criticized,” some Lèse majesté laws still exist in Thailand. Visitors are rarely punished for such crimes, but it is still advised to refrain from any actions or words that might be misconstrued as ill feelings towards Thai Royalty. For example, avoid stopping a spinning coin on the ground with your foot (the King’s face appears on coins and feet are considered unclean). You may feel overwhelmed by all of these new customs, but do not fret: should you make an unintentional slip, the easy-going Thais are quick to forgive after a quick apology.
Wai: The proper greeting in Thailand is called the wai. To perform this move, simply place the palms of your hands together near your chest or face and bow your head. Since seniority is an important aspect of Thai culture, a younger person should always wai to an elder first (you do not typically wai to a child), and you should never wai to a person of lower status than you. You may want to practice some before your journey, and you will learn much from observing this gesture in your travels. Do not worry too much about it; the locals usually appreciate even awkward attempts to respect their traditions.
The Thai Baht (THB) is the only currency used in Thailand. One Baht may be divided into 100 Satang. The available divisions of Baht are as follows:
25 or 50 Satang coin pieces; 1, 2, 5, and 10 Baht coin pieces; 20, 50, 100, 500, and 1000 Baht banknotes.
ATMs can be found throughout the country, and although major credit cards are usually accepted, there is often a service fee of 3-4% for this option.
Remember that when in Thailand:
Smoking or littering in the street is punishable by a 2,000 Bhat fine.
Purchasing wild animals is a punishable offense.
In the event that a Thai is forward enough to begin a conversation with you, be wary of purchasing souvenirs from them that they claim will sell for much more back home. Remember: this is atypical behavior for a reserved Thai citizen. Enjoy your holiday and leave business bartering for another time.
Thailand has strict drug laws that are enforced to the extreme. Drug use is harshly punished and drug trade is punishable by years in prison or even death. It hardly needs to be said, but please, keep your distance from illegal substances.