Thai Etiquette Traditions

By Kevin Cain

As October the 26th looms towards us, the cremation ceremony of King Bhumibol Adulyadej poses certain questions of how we should all behave during this difficult time.

If you are thinking of visiting the Royal Palace and Wat Pra Kaew around this time then it is most likely all will be closed to the public. The day of the actual cremation will be a public holiday and it is widely accepted that many business will close for at least one day and perhaps more.Processions are also expected throughout the kingdom so be prepared for traffic problems and congestion if you are travelling.

During the rest of October if you intend to visit the Royal Palace and the surrounding attractions you must wear sombre clothing, be mindful to show respect to the Royal Family at all times. Showing respect to the King is law in Thailand (lese majeste) and everybody must adhere to this including visitors.

Apart from maintaining proper etiquette during the cremation period there are many traditions that you must be aware of not to fall foul of in everyday life in Thailand.

General Taboos In Thailand

You must never sit with your feet pointing towards people, do not touch the top of somebody’s head as this is the most sacred part of the body, never use threatening gestures or brash tone of voice, do not give black gifts.

Visiting A Thai Home

When visiting a Thai home make sure to take your shoes off before entering the home, wear the dress code as applicable- in Thailand this is often casual and when entering the home remember to step over the threshold never on it.

Eating & Drinking

Most Thai meals are eaten with a fork and spoon although chopsticks are used for noodle type dishes. The fork is used to guide food onto the spoon but if you are eating sticky rice you may use your right hand. When the food arrives at the table it is usually for everybody, wait till somebody takes some and then you can begin. Never leave rice on your plate, and never take the last bit of food from the serving bowl. Licking your fingers is not considered polite.

Giving A Gift

It is always a nice touch to take a small gift to the host’s house, if you do take a gift then wrap it up attractively but avoid wrapping paper of green, blue or black. Fruit is a perfectly acceptable and would be welcomed as a gift but carnations and marigolds are considered to be flowers used for funerals .

Meeting & Greeting

The first thing you notice in Thailand is “The Wai” it is the traditional way of greeting and has strict rules of protocol how to use it. It is performed by raising both hands with the palms pressed together and the fingers facing towards the sky. Normally the Wai is relaxed and gently touches the body. The Wai does not just mean Hello, it is also a sign of respect and is often given by someone of lower status to that of somebody of higher status. The Wai shows its respect by its height and how low the head is bowed to come down and meet the thumbs.

Wai can be performed, standing, sitting or even whilst moving. It is protocol that the youngest and most junior in status offers the Wai first. However, if there is a vast difference in social status do not expect your Wai to be returned.

When visiting another person’s home, let the host introduce you to the other guests. This then lets them know your status and how they should respond to you. Often if you are ushered to the head of the table then you are most respected.

Getting Along With Others

Thai’s do not behave like Westerners when they are together, for instance it is quite acceptable for close friends to be quite tactile and hold hands no matter what sex.

However when Westerners are with Thais it is important to remember that hand gestures can be used but must never be aggressive and this also goes for mannerisms and general deportment.

It is of high significance that you never say or do something that may lead to a Thai losing face. If you have a problem or wish to communicate something critical you must do so in private, and even then tread carefully.By the same token, Thais will rarely say anything derogatory or anything that will offend you. They will tend to use indirect communication or change the subject if they feel uncomfortable, this is often frustrating but try to understand there is a purpose why they are acting indifferent and vague.

When communicating with people they do not know, Thais generally leave at least one yard between you and them for personal space. This space reduces as your friendship blossoms.As with Western countries it is important to keep eye contact, but those of lesser status will tend to keep their heads bowed.

Names and Such

One of the most confusing things to foreigners about Thais is trying to remember and understand their names. Nearly every Thai has two nicknames, one for their close friends and one for casual acquaintances. Their real first name is generally preceded by Khun no matter what sex, it is a type of overall term for Mr, Mrs or Miss. Surnames are rarely used, only in legall documentation or very formal occasions.

If the person is a professional or of a high status their name might be preceded with Ajarn. If you have any doubt seek clarification so as not to cause any offense.

Trying to digest all this Thai etiquette can be a trifle overwhelming. However, it is important that you persevere if you intend to stay in the kingdom and want to be accepted. Even if you don’t quite get it all right all of the time, the very fact that you are trying will go a long way to endear yourself to your Thai friends and acquaintances.