Thailand Etiquette: How to Avoid Cultural Misunderstandings in the Land of Smiles

People travel from all corners of the world to visit Thailand, whether they stay in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Koh Samui or Phuket, the choice of attractions, entertainment, landscape and sights guarantee an unforgettable vacation.

With a rich history and culture, it’s a fascinating country for westerners. However, it’s traditions and beliefs are totally different to ours and if you are not familiar with them cultural slip-ups can happen.

Thai people are generally very friendly and easy-going and will forgive foreigners who are unintentionally impolite. Taking the time to understand some of these customs, being aware of what you should or should not do can save you from an uncomfortable situation.

Here are a few tips on how to avoid committing a social sin when on holiday in Thailand.

We Love the King

Thai people love their king and the monarchy. Arriving at the airport, you’ll notice the many ‘Long Live the King’ signs that decorate the airport terminal buildings. And it doesn’t stop there either, on the way to your hotel you’ll spot many more pictures of the King and other members of the royal family on display, hanging from lamp posts and adorning office buildings.
Please don’t disrespect Thai royalty, unlike countries like the UK where royalty is ridiculed daily, here it is simply not done. Thailand has strict lese majeste laws and it’s actually illegal to insult or criticize the royals, in jest, in private or on Facebook, so just don’t do it.

Respect Buddha

Thailand is a mainly Buddhist country and you’ll see lots of temples, monks and spirit houses everywhere.

It’s polite to show respect when visiting Buddhist temples. Everyone has to remove their shoes before entering a temple and you must be dressed appropriately. Knees and shoulders need to be covered, that means no tiny shorts, belly tops or singlets.

If you decide to go inside the temple to sit awhile and soak up the atmosphere, don’t let your feet point towards Buddha, any image of Buddha, or at the monks. Just tuck your feet under you or sit cross-legged.

The temples are the homes of Thailand’s monks who are deeply religious and highly respected, so please be respectful of them too. There are various rules on how to behave when you cross paths with a monk, don’t start asking them personal questions, and never pass anything directly to them – just put it down in front of them. It’s forbidden for monks to have physical contact with a woman, so keep your distance and don’t touch them.

Shoes Please!

Removing your shoes before entering a temple also apply to people’s homes, and even some shops and restaurants. If you see a pile of flip flops outside the door then do as everyone else does and leave yours there too. You can make life a lot easier by wearing some simple flip flops or slip-on sandals when out and about.

Don’t put your feet up on anything not meant for feet, like a coffee table. Feet are seen as dirty and should remain on the floor. It’s also very rude to point at people or things with your feet. Expect a withering look if you kick a door closed with your foot or even step over someone.

Be careful what you touch! In Thailand, the head is the most sacred and the cleanest part of the body, so if you pat someone on the head or ruffle their hair, not only will you make them feel uncomfortable you’re also disrespecting that person.

Don’t Lose Your Temper

A display of strong emotions is frowned upon in Thailand which is why you’ll seldom see Thais lose their temper or even shout, no matter what the problem may be. They regard showing anger as losing face and will try to avoid confrontation. Of course, that doesn’t mean that every Thai person you meet will be lovely and happy, it just won’t be something you will see much of as generally, they are welcoming, friendly and very open-minded.

If you do have a problem and feel yourself getting angry, count to 10 and keep your cool. Smiling a lot will get you results far quicker than losing your temper and shouting loudly.

Most Thai people, particularly in Bangkok and the tourist islands like Phuket, are used to our ways and appreciate that foreign visitors have their own customs and ways of doing things.

Don’t worry too much, Thai folks are very laid-back, accepting people. They love to smile, even if you do something, they consider impolite, they won’t be so rude as to mention it, they’ll just smile politely and say, ‘Mai pen rai’, which roughly means, “No problem – let it go”.


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