Just like any country in the world, Thailand’s culture comes with its own set of customs and habits that can often be baffling to those encountering them for the first time. While those who live here or visit frequently quickly become accustomed to many of these behaviours, they can easily prove perplexing to the first-time tourist fresh off the plane.
To help you prepare yourself for your first visit to Thailand and fit in without a hitch, here’s our round-up of Thailand’s more outlandish customs.
Enter a Thai home or, especially in upcountry provinces, business premises, and you’ll notice a pile of shoes at the entrance. It’s common practice to remove your shoes on entering someone’s home, a religious structure, and sometimes in shops and other business premises (though this is far less common in most areas of Bangkok).
Of course, this is something that’s seen in many countries, not just Thailand. The thinking goes that your shoes have come into contact with the dirty ground outside, so they are best left at the door to keep the inside of the home clean. This makes even more sense when you consider that traditionally Thais have spent much of their time indoors sat on the floor rather than on chairs, especially at mealtimes – and a large proportion of the population still do so today.
Not sure whether to take off your shoes before entering a building? Just look for that tell-tale heap of shoes at the entrance, and follow everyone else’s lead!
Don’t be surprised, either, if Thais head to the bathroom immediately on arriving home in order to rinse off their feet either in the shower or using the bidet-style hosepipe beside the toilet – in this tropical heat, it’s easy for the feet to become sticky and smelly whether you’re wearing socks or not, and this foot-washing is just another habit that’s intended to keep the home clean and fresh, and is considered a courtesy to those around you.
The spirit houses in a shady area at the entrance to houses, condo blocks, office buildings and just about every other structure around Thailand can prove a bewildering concept for the first-time visitor. These small, elevated house-like structures, often made of wood but sometimes also of more expensive materials like stone, are believed by many times to be inhabited by spirits who guard the home or business from evil.
As such, the aim is to appease these good spirits and keep them happy as far as possible, in order that they will do their best to keep you safe. That’s why you’ll often see Thais leaving offerings at the foot of miniature ladders up to the spirit houses (the spirits need a way to climb back inside, after all!).
All sorts of food and drink are left, as well as jasmine flower garlands, but it’s widely agreed that small bottles of strawberry-flavour red-coloured Fanta are a spirit’s favourite carbonated drink, which is why you’ll see them in such abundance. Other, more elaborate offerings are also common, particularly on special occasions, and it’s not unusual for drivers passing especially large roadside spirit houses to honk their horns in acknowledgement.
Many of these superstitious beliefs stem from a form of animism that has long been prevalent in Thailand. Strictly speaking, they are distinct from the religious beliefs of the majority-Buddhist population – though these days many people consider them one and the same.
When climbing aboard a motorbike taxi in Bangkok or elsewhere around Thailand (and indeed in many other spots across Asia), your instinct is probably to straddle the bike in the same way as the driver with whom you’re riding pillion. But Thai women think nothing of sitting side-saddle as they whiz through the city traffic at goodness knows what speed, in spite of the pretty obvious safety implications.
It might seem that the most obvious reason for this is to allow a woman to preserve her modesty and avoid any embarrassing wardrobe malfunctions if she’s wearing a skirt or dress – but such a commonplace habit this has become that you’ll regularly see women in both skirts and jeans sitting in this manner. We’ll leave you to make your own mind up, but our recommendation would be to straddle the bike in the interests of safety, especially when riding for any considerable distance – sat side-saddle, it’s all too easy to be thrown off the bike if the driver has to make an unexpected brake or turn. And don’t forget to wear a helmet if you possibly can!
Buddhist beliefs lead many Thais to consider the head the most sacred part of the body, and the feet – both because of the dirt feature that we touched on above and, interestingly, because they symbolise attachment to the ground, and human suffering – are considered the ‘lowest’.
As a result, Thais commonly avoid having their feet (especially the soles, which clearly are literally as low on the body as you can go) protruding or overly on show. Thais will often apologise if for some reason in a particular situation they are forced to put the underside of their foot on particular show, or to otherwise draw attention to their feet.
Likewise, it’s common courtesy in Thai society to avoid pointing as a means of drawing attention to something or someone, and instead to find some other way of indicating what or who it is you’re talking about. Pointing is seen as an unnecessarily aggressive action in a culture that by and large (there are exceptions, of course, in that there are unfortunately violent and aggressive people in Thailand just as there are in any society) practices non-confrontation. Needless to say, using your feet to point at or indicate something – when you think about it, in the west more of a common gesture than you might have considered – is a double no-no!
(The humorous exception to the pointing rule seems to be in photos in the media of those at the scene of a crime or other incident, where it’s hilariously commonplace for photographers to encourage those in the shot to point at whatever has taken place, however unnecessary that might be – this web site has a good collection of such images).
The Thai habit of ducking down slightly when passing between other people, especially if they are seated, is in many ways an extension of the idea that the head is the highest part of the body. If you need to pass someone who is sitting down, and the only way to do so is to end up in a situation where you are physically in a higher position than them (and, specifically, than their head), then it is common place to dip your head and shoulders slightly as you pass through, as a way of acknowledging the situation and implying that your momentary elevated position doesn’t mean that you consider yourself better than or superior to them.
This happens most frequently when the other person is sitting down, but it’s also a common display of courtesy when passing two other people who are standing, perhaps in conversation, and your movement briefly gets in their way and perhaps blocks their view or interrupts their flow (even if, in this scenario, you don’t actually end up towering over them).
Most visitors to Thailand quickly become accustomed to the wai, that traditionally polite greeting of pressed-together palms that’s something akin to the western handshake or more casual wave. What first-timers might not know is that there are numerous different variations to the wai, each one used to indicate a specific level of respect.
The kind of everyday wai you’re likely to encounter from staff in a hotel or restaurant will often see that person’s joined hands at around chest height, perhaps with a slight tip of the head to demonstrate respect. The simplest explanation of the varying degrees of the wai is that the higher the hands reach, the more polite and respectful the gesture.
Your fingertips might reach your nose, for example, if meeting someone for the first time, or if greeting a friend or acquaintance who is older or who might be considered significantly ‘superior’. A wai with the fingertips extending to eyebrow level might be used for older family members or others to whom you wish to pay particular respect, while the most extreme versions of the wai, with the hands raised right above the head (and indeed extending to prostrating on the floor) are usually reserved for addressing senior monks and members of the royal family.
It’s customary not to wai those who are considered ‘inferior’ to you – that means children, and the likes of hotel and restaurant staff who are providing a service. Of course, there is no real black and white here, and you’re much better off simply doing what feels right, and following the lead of others. Many travel guides have conventionally advised foreign visitors not to initiate a wai at all – our view is that there’s nothing wrong with it, and indeed it can be a welcome demonstration of politeness and respect, provided you have some idea of what you’re doing.
Influenced by Buddhist and, further back, Hindu beliefs, many Thais believe that individual colours are auspiciously connected to specific days of the week, and that – for example – wearing an item of clothing of the ‘correct’ colour for the day in question can bring good luck.
This leads people to believe that their ‘lucky colour’ is the one associated with the day of the week on which they are born – yellow for Monday, pink for Tuesday, green for Wednesday, orange for Thursday, pale blue for Friday, purple for Saturday, and red for Sunday. Likewise, the ‘opposite’ of each of these colours – so red on a Monday, and purple on a Thursday – is considered one that is likely to bring bad luck if worn on that day.
The most obvious manifestations of this in popular society is, on specific days, well-wishers wearing clothing of colours corresponding to the days of birth of members of the royal family, and the flags associated with those members of the royal family are done out in those colours – so yellow on a Monday for the late King Bhumibol and the current King Vajiralongkorn since they were both born on a Monday, pale blue for Queen Sirikit’s Friday birthday, and purple for Princess Sirindhorn’s Saturday birthday.
As the health of King Bhumibol deteriorated prior to his death in October 2016, many well-wishers wore yellow shirts no matter what the day was in the belief that it would bring him good luck and recovery. They also wore pink shirts, since royal astrologers had said some years before that this was a lucky colour that would promote the king’s wellbeing. And mixed yellow-and-blue Bike for Dad shirts, designed for the national bike ride that took place on the occasion of King Bhumibol’s 88th birthday in 2015, symbolised the birthdays of both King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit.
Remembering people’s names can be enough of a headache in any country, but newcomers to Thailand often have to contend not only with a person’s real name, but also a nickname. Just about all Thais are given nicknames by their parents at birth, in another extension of the superstitious animist beliefs around spirits and the supernatural that are prevalent especially among Buddhist Thais.
These nicknames don’t necessarily bear any relation to a person’s physical appearance or character – choices like ‘Pig’ (‘Moo’), ‘Fatty’ (‘Ouwan’) and ‘Noi’ or ‘Lek’ (‘Little’ or ‘Small’) might seem somewhat disparaging, but they’re not intended as a description of what a child looks like when born, or what he or she might grow up to be like.
Indeed, Thai parents’ approach to choosing nicknames has notably changed somewhat over the past few decades, and fads these days include opting for English-derived nicknames such as Pancake, Believe, Ball, Golf, Bank, Boat, and Bird, and even much more out-there choices of brand names like Benz (as in Mercedes), Pepsi (as in the type of cola), and Airbus (as in the plane).
Whatever the trends, the overriding belief behind these nicknames is that they ‘confuse’ those evil spirits we talked about earlier. The spirits are believed to only know children by the full, legal names given at birth (which, incidentally, are the ones to appear on passports and other official documents) – so when they seek to kidnap a child or wreak other ill or destruction on him or her, they are suddenly confounded because they were expecting a Thongchai and so have no idea who this kid called Wi-Fi is.
Of course, the downside is that finding someone on Facebook, or tracking down their correct work e-mail address (many companies, especially smaller ones, allow staff to use firstname.lastname@example.org rather than email@example.com) can become a real minefield.
At Expique, we’re experts at showing you the unique parts of Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand that most tours don’t take you to – and which you probably won’t discover on your own. Joining one of our tours or experiences (or having us create a custom tour for you) is a great way to make the most of your time in Thailand and ensure you leave with a memorable experience.
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Which Thai habits do you find most perplexing? Let us know in the comments!
Photos by nist6dh; VasenkaPhotography; Akinori YAMADA; ThaisPointingAtThings.com; theloneconspirator; Karl Baron; Mike Mozart
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