What is Living in Thailand REALLY Like?

Thai Culture: Do’s and Don’ts

Wrought iron Buddha gate in Thailand at a Buddhist temple.

Thai culture is very unique. It is important to understand some of the basic differences between Thailand and your home country before arriving like how to act properly and politely. Knowing these things will increase the chances that your trip to Thailand will be as enjoyable and safe as it possibly can be.

The Major Thai Culture Tips

  • His Majesty the King, and all the Royal Family – Do take care not to mention anything negative about any member of the Thai Royal Family as Thai people love and adore them. There are harsh penalties for Les Majeste and there are foreigners in Thai jails at this moment because they did something considered disrespectful in this regard. Be very careful about your speech and other behavior toward this most important subject.
  • Standing during Thai national anthem – Do stand still and quiet like everybody else during the playing of the Thai national anthem. They play it before all movies in the cinema and at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. daily in various places. Rule of thumb, if everyone is standing quietly – you should too.
  • Politics – The country is split considerably about what group is best to rule their nation. Currently there are demonstrations, sometimes violent, in protest to the current ruling party. Stay away from discussions of political nature and don’t give your opinion if asked about it. Let Thais work the issue out for themselves, don’t be vocal about your opinion on how corrupt government, police, military and anyone else seems to be.
  • Face – Losing face, gaining face. This is a topic that deserves a separate post, and indeed I will create it in the near future. Face is the underlying guide for Thai behavior. Thais are very concerned about losing face which is akin to losing respect among their friends or strangers. It’s similar to embarrassment. If a Thai loses respect in front of his friends especially he may resort to violence in a few seconds. Thais explode when face is lost. It’s too much to handle in a society in which face means everything. A person with a lot of face is someone well respected in society and someone that others like a lot.A Thai gains face by doing things that help the flow of social interaction go smoothly. If one overlooks small or large transgressions one gains large amounts of face. If one insults people then face is easily lost and hard to regain. During your stay try hard not to cause anyone to lose face. Try to build face with each social encounter and you’ll do well in Thailand.
  • Raising your voice – Thais go to exceptional lengths to keep smiling even when they’re boiling inside. Thailand is often referred to as the “land of smiles”. The reason for this is that Thais seem to be able to smile regardless of the situation. In Thai culture it is more polite and more gracious to smile and overlook offenses and differences of opinion with smiles instead of harsh words.In fact, the only time harsh words are spoken is during a physical fight or a verbal argument that will quickly lead to a physical fight. When Thais blow up emotionally it gets physical and sometimes deadly very quickly. Don’t raise your voice to anyone, regardless what the issue. If you’re going to lose some sum of money because of the issue take it up with the tourist police, don’t attempt to resolve it with words if it looks like you’re getting nowhere.
  • Physical altercations – Thais fight in groups. They will all join in to fight you if you choose to fight a Thai. You can’t win. You and three other guys cannot win against twenty or thirty Thai men. Be very careful not to provoke Thais to anger because your first hint that you might have gone over the edge is a bottle or stick to the back of your head. Very few people have problems of this nature in Thailand, but it’s worth saying something about.

Thai Business Practices

Little may be as frustrating as Thai business policies, especially for the long-term visitor. Often they make little sense to the western mind. Read on…

  • Return policy – There isn’t one. Thai business is fascinating in this regard. In the USA we have a return policy to help the buyer avoid being sold bad products by sellers. Thailand does not. If you buy a CD-ROM that doesn’t work you will likely not get your money back. If you buy a mobile phone that you don’t want to keep and you want to just exchange it – the store may not even have an exchange policy.Be absolutely sure what you’re buying works. Test it before you leave the store. This way you’ll cut down on problems later. Most places will show you an item is in working condition if you ask. If they won’t, don’t buy it there.
  • Try before you buy – usually there exists no such practice. You may not be able to try a bicycle, motorbike or automobile before you buy it. That’s Thai style. It’s frustrating, but you probably won’t get far if you push for it. Or you might – I’ve talked stores into letting me test a motorbike and bicycle, but some held fast to their policy of not letting me try before I bought.
  • Bartering – It’s a normal part of the Thai shopping experience to barter on price. Feel free to try to get the price you want. Try hard not to get upset if you fail. Keep in mind Thais usually want to receive as much money as possible today and they don’t value the long-term or repeat customer like we do in the west.

General Thailand Social Interactions

  • Touching others – In the northeast and other traditional areas, small towns especially it is not acceptable behavior to touch your significant other in public. If you do so you and your partner will be talked about as if you found each other in the prostitution districts of Pattaya. In Pattaya, Patong, and other areas known for catering to the sex-tourist touching your partner in public is rather OK. At least it’s done often and there’s not such a big issue about it. Please don’t force a Thai person to behave according to your western standards when in their home town. It will cause a real loss of face for them and their family as it will be the talk of the town.
  • Touching someone on the head – even a child, unless you are a good friend is something that shouldn’t be done. The head is the most respected part of the body and it’s disrespectful to touch anyone there.
  • Pointing feet – The feet are the dirtiest part of the body and even pointing your feet at someone while seated or laying down might be taken as a sign of disrespect similar to westerners showing the middle finger. Refrain from this!
  • Bare feet inside the home – Remove your shoes before entering anyone’s home and also before entering a business if you notice shoes outside the door.
  • Thai men staring – Thai men and women stare at foreigners a lot, especially in the smaller cities where they don’t see many tourists. Thais do not stare for malevolent reasons. As a male you may feel like someone is confronting you by staring at you. If you smile at the Thai person he or she will likely laugh embarrassed that you caught them staring. They stare out of sincere interest, not because they mean you harm. Unless you did something horrible, and then you’ll probably know why the person is staring!
  • The wai – Wai-ing someone older than you when you meet is very important in the northeast and you will gain a lot of face if you learn how to do it correctly and when to do it. Ask a Thai person to show you the correct way to wai as it will endear you to the Thai people you interact with during your stay.
  • Blowing your nose – Thais don’t blow their nose loudly. Usually they don’t blow at all. They wipe. Blowing your nose loudly is quite obnoxious to Thais and you’ll not gain any friends for it.
  • Using a toothpick – Cover your mouth with one hand and pick with the toothpick with your other hand. It’s rude in Thailand to pick your teeth without covering the process so others can’t see it.
  • Eating your food – Thais eat primarily with a spoon. They eat everything with a spoon, whether it makes sense or not. The fork is used only to help food onto the spoon. If you want to fit in you’ll ditch the fork and do your best with the spoon.
  • Speaking Thai – If you know a little bit of Thai you should always be adding “krup” if you’re a male, or “ka” if you’re a female to the end of everything you say. Thais love it when foreigners care enough to be polite when they speak Thai. You will likely get many compliments if you speak this way.
  • Accepting something from a Thai – If you are offered a drink from a Thai man, you probably should accept. It doesn’t matter if you don’t drink at all – you probably should accept because the person offering you the drink is probably trying to build face among his friends or those watching. If you turn him down, face is lost. Not a good thing! Especially during Songkran (Thai New Year) or other situations where the Thais are already drunk it’s a really good idea to accept a drink and if you don’t want to drink continuously with them – thank them profusely and move on.

These Thai cultural tips should be enough to help you get through your stay in Thailand without incident. If in doubt, defer to the Thais as you’re a guest in their country. Often times visitors think they are right in bringing their own cultural practices to Thailand and trying to insist Thais follow them. It’s a losing proposition and one that will continually frustrate you until you act as the Thais do during your Thailand stay.

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