Thai Cultural Notes
The Thais are a warm and friendly people, usually too polite to show offence. Yet, as with any nation, there are borders of behaviour that should and should not be crossed.
Thais are proud of their monarchy. It is an essential part of Thai life, deeply admired throughout the country. Visitors are well-advised to respect the reverence in which Thais hold their royal family if they wish to avoid causing offence or worse.
Buddhism is another essential part of Thai life. Monks, temples and Buddha images are everywhere and most Thais treat them with great respect. Appropriate clothing should be worn in temples, and shoes removed when entering certain areas.
Thai monks are not allowed to have any physical contact with women. On a bus, for example, women will go to great lengths to avoid touching a monk. By touching a monk they commit a sin. And worse still, they commit a double sin because they cause the monk to sin too!
For Thais, the maintenance of surface calm and harmony is crucial. Loss of temper, arguing or direct criticism are best avoided. They serve little purpose in any case, since most Thai people will simply walk away from such behaviour.
The famous "wai" is a gesture of both greeting and respect. Thais usually wai one another rather than shake hands. To wai, hold your hands together, as if praying, in front of the face. When waiing people of equal or superior status, the finfertips should be closer to the forehead. When waiing children or those of lower status, the fingertips should be closer to the chin.
In general, it is a mark of respect to try to keep the head at a lower level than that of a senior or older person when talking to or passing them.
On entering a house, it is usual to remove your shoes. If you are likely frequently to enter private homes, it may for this reason be more practical to wear slip-on rather than lace-up shoes.
The polite form of address when talking to or about Thais of similar or older age is to use the title "Khun" and the person's first name. This applies equally to men and women. For example, for Mr Ananchai Visut use "Khun Ananchai" and for Mrs or Miss Panita Promlert use "Khun Panita".
In Thailand, the head is regarded as the highest part of the body, both physically and spiritually. Conversely, the foot is the lowest part of the body. The height of bad manners is to touch or pat a Thai on the head, to use one's foot to point at something, to sit with one's feet extended or to place one's feet on a table or desk. Many Thais will be too polite to comment on such behaviour, but you should be aware that it can and does cause offence.
The Thai words khrap (said by men) and kha (said by women) are a very common way of expressing politeness in Thai. They have no exact equivalent in English. These words are frequently placed at the end of both statements and questions in Thai. If you wish to display respect and politeness when talking in Thai, they should be sprinkled liberally in normal conversation.
Looks and appearances are important to Thai people. When meeting Thai people, dressing smartly, or at least appropriately, reflects the degree of respect you hold for them.