Thai Culture and Customs

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Thailand is famous for its unique culture and customs. Being aware of a few basic traditions practiced daily throughout the country will ensure your chances of learning why Thailand is also known as “The Land of Smiles.”

The Wai

Westerners wave or shake hands. Thais wai.

The wai is a unique Thai greeting given upon meeting someone or thanking someone. You will most likely receive at least one wai before stepping foot out of the airport.

The common wai is given by placing your two palms together at heart center and bowing slightly. You can perfect your wai before your arrival, but first, you must know the different kinds of wais and how to use them.

A deep-bowing wai is given as a sign of respect. This wai is saved for monks, government officials and royal officials. You won’t be arrested for giving a deep wai to a regular citizen, but you might get a few weird stares.

It is never appropriate to wai first to someone younger than you. However, if a younger person wais to you, it is appropriate to return the gesture.

It is customary for service workers, such as cashiers and waitresses, to wai as a “thank you” when you leave. You are not expected to return the gesture, but you can say “khap khun khrap” if you are a man and “khap khun kha” if you are a woman. You can also wai back if you want.

Buddhist Monks

Seeing a line of Buddhist monks swaddled in their orange robes and walking barefoot single file down a busy sidewalk can be one of the most memorable sights you take away from Thailand.

While many monks are super friendly and always eager to practice their English speaking skills with the “farang,” monks also are protected by rules in Thailand, and certain etiquette is expected when approaching them.

Women should never approach a monk. Monks are free to talk to women and often do in group settings, but touching a woman or being touched by a woman is strictly forbidden. This applies to women handing monks offerings or even something they have dropped.

When monks see women approaching on the sidewalk, they often swerve to the opposite side to avoid contact. Don’t be offended. This is part of their belief system, and if you get an opportunity, they will love to tell you why!

End seats on public transportation systems are reserved for monks. You can sit in one of these seats if it is available, but if a monk boards the subway or bus, you must relinquish your comfort.


Shoes, Heads and Feet

Taking your shoes off before entering a home in Thailand is customary. Certain shops also require you to remove your shoes before entering, but most larger stores and markets welcome you – and your shoes.

Always remove your shoes before entering a temple.

Removing your shoes ensures no bad spirits, trapped in the dirt on your shoes, enters the establishment.

Never use your foot to point to an object. This sounds weird, yes, but wait until you catch yourself doing it. If you do, put your foot down, and walk away.

Likewise, if you sit on the floor, always sit with your legs crossed. Sitting with your legs out with your feet toward a person is considered rude.

Never touch a Thai person on the head. This is a gesture of anger and disrespect. And if a Thai person ever touches you on the head, you probably want to wai deeply … and run. You have offended him at his deepest level.

Jai Yen

Don’t confuse “jai yen,” cool heart, with “chai yen,” cold tea.

Jai yen is a cultural reaction to conflict in Thailand. It is often perceived by Westerners as turning a blind eye, but in Thai culture, having a cool heart is more akin to keeping your nose out of other people’s business. 

“Jai raan,” hot heart, on the other hand, is considered an angry reaction. You will rarely see this from a Thai citizen, as getting angry in public is a sure way for a person to lose “face.” Keeping face is an important characteristic for people in Eastern societies, and it is possibly why Thailand is known as The Land of Smiles, because you never know exactly what one of those smiles means.

PDA (Public Display of Anything)

While Bangkok is not known for its modesty, the remainder of the Thai population is.

You will not often see Thai couples holding hands, touching or kissing in public. You will see, however, friends of the same sex, as well as fathers and teenage sons, walking down streets hand in hand. This is a form of affection and shows close relationship between friends and family members.

Also, clothing in Thailand is fairly modest. Bangkok is the exception, but if you travel to more rural areas, it is considered more respectable for women to wear shirts with sleeves and longer trousers or skirts. Likewise, men should not wear tank tops or walk around topless. Of course, you are free to dress how you like.
Familiarizing yourself with the above tips will ensure a more delightful stay in Bangkok, but if you like learning as you go, we totally get it! Either way, enjoy!
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