Once I’d decided I was going to live in Thailand, one of the things I made sure I learned first when I got here was how to have good table manners in Thailand. Just like in any country, some table etiquette is the same in Thailand as in the west and some things are different. Of course, Thais are the world’s most tolerant people so, even if you don’t have correct table manners, they’re unlikely to take offense. But why be rude if you don’t need to be?
Elbows on the Table – In most circumstances, good table manners in Thailand still includes elbows on the table. Thais are very relaxed about it. It’s acceptable. However, if you are dining with someone older (and this can be older by just a few weeks or months), because Thais treat anyone older with great respect, you should never rest your chin in your hand and elbow on the table while talking to them. It’s considered disrespectful in Thailand.
Using a Spoon and Fork – One of the main differences you’ll see in Thailand when eating is, rather than a knife and fork like we use in the west, Thais normally eat most dishes with a spoon and fork. The spoon is held in your right hand and the fork is used to scoop food onto the spoon and rearrange it so it doesn’t fall off on its way to your mouth.
Even in many top restaurants in Thailand, you’ll be given a spoon and fork. Knives aren’t used much while eating Thai food as the food is normally in bite sized pieces already, so there’s no need to cut anything.
Spoon and Fork at 5:25 When Finished – Unlike in the west, where we usually place knife and fork at 6:30 on the plate when we’re done, in Thailand the knife and fork should be placed at 5:25. Otherwise it’s looked at as not polite and the waiter isn’t sure if you’ve finished eating.
Using Chopsticks – Good Thai table manners include using the correct utensils for the right food. With so many Thais descended from Chinese immigrants, the use of chopsticks is also prevalent in Thai culture but they are saved for use with noodles and Chinese food. For everything else, see above.
Place Chopsticks on Top of Bowl When Finished – Unlike westerners, who usually leave chopsticks stuck in the bowl with ends point up when finished, that’s not polite in Thailand. When you’re sure you’re not going to eat anymore, place the chopsticks across the bowl so one end is lying on top of one side of the bowl, the other end lying on the top at the other side.
Wait For Someone to Invite You Before Eating – For perfect table etiquette in Thailand, usually the oldest or wealthiest person at the table will invite you to eat once all the food has arrived. Don’t begin to help yourself to food until invited to do so by someone either at a higher level than you or your host. Helping yourself before being invited is not polite in Thai culture.
Communal Eating – In most cases in Thailand, Thais will order several dishes then everyone shares, eating communal style. In this case, either wait for someone to serve you (one of the youngest people at your table usually will) or, if you help yourself, just take a small amount of rice followed by a small amount of toppings.
Thais don’t heap their plates full. Instead, they just take a small amount and keep going back for more. Normally you would serve yourself with the larger spoons that arrive with the food. In many restaurants though no other utensils arrive so it’s perfectly acceptable to use the fork and spoon you’re eating with to help yourself to more food from the communal plates.
Eat Slowly – Thai table etiquette dictates you eat slowly. Thais like to spend a lot of time over meals, hanging out with friends, talking and laughing, so don’t eat your food quickly. If you do, you’ll find you’re sitting there with an empty plate while everyone else has barely started. Savor the food, enjoy the many tantalizing tastes and you’ll enjoy the meal even more.
Don’t Talk With Food in Your Mouth – The one thing Thais find more distasteful than anything is people who eat and talk at the same time. No one wants to see the food churning around in your mouth so wait until you’ve swallowed before speaking.
Or, if you absolutely must speak, cover your mouth with your hand while doing so. Otherwise, people will think you are low-class indeed.
Who Pays? – In Thai culture, either the oldest member of the group or the wealthiest pays for everyone. Often, particularly if you eat with poorer Thais, then that’s usually you.
Take the check when it’s brought to the table and start to pay. If it’s absolutely not expected of you, someone will take it from you very quickly and insist you are their guest. But, if it’s left in your hands then “tag, you’re it”.
Don’t get upset though. It’s meant as a compliment as they think you are a higher level or richer than them and thus hold you in high respect. Plus, in Thailand, as a meal for four people is as cheap as $10, it doesn’t break the bank anyway.
Remember, Thais are relaxed people and don’t get upset about genuine mistakes or bad table manners if they’re obviously western ones. Just do your best and, if you make a mistake, you’ll often find your neighbor will quietly tell you how to do it the Thai way. Or, everyone at the table will laugh at you in a good -humored way – which is also great fun and makes the meal very entertaining.
Photo copyright – mimolag, Creative Commons License