I’ve lived in Thailand for a decade now and am quite comfortable with what you can and cannot do here. For a tourist, coming to the country for the first time though, Thailand’s cultural dos and don’ts can be confusing. So, before you pack your bags and head out to the Land of Smiles, make sure you know what you should and shouldn’t do when your plane lands in Thailand.
Don’t Ever Be Disrespectful To the King – Thai people hold the King of Thailand in the highest regard. There is also a law in Thailand, the lese majeste law, which means you can be arrested for saying or doing anything that is disrespectful to the King or another member of the royal family. It’s best therefore not to mention the King and certainly never to do anything that’s disrespectful. Quite a few westerners have been jailed recently for violating the lese majeste law as Thais take this seriously.
Don’t Touch Someone on the Head – One of the biggest don’ts in Thailand is touching someone on the head. Thai Buddhists think of the head as the most sacred place on the body, so touching it is extremely disrespectful. It’s fine to pat a kid on the head but don’t ever touch an adult there, unless you ask permission first. Even at some hairdressers in Thailand, they will still ask permission before touching your head.
Don’t Point Your Feet at Anyone – Another big don’t in Thailand is to point your feet at someone. Feet are looked at as being unclean, or the lowest part of the body, so pointing your foot at someone is extremely distasteful. Don’t close doors with your feet either, and never put your feet up on a desk or table. Having the sole of your foot facing anyone is the height of rudeness. So, to be safe, make sure your feet are flat on the ground at all times.
Don’t Point at Anyone With Your Index Finger – Thais don’t use their index finger to point at anyone, it’s considered rude. If you do need to point at something, hold out your hand with your palm facing upwards and point using your whole hand. This is especially polite if you’re trying to point at a person.
Don’t Leave Your Shoes On – Another common don’t in Thailand is to never walk into someone’s home, a temple, a school room or many small businesses without taking your shoes off first. It’s actually pretty easy to figure out where you should take your shoes off just by looking outside the door. If you get to a home or business and there’s a line of shoes outside the door that means you need to take yours off too.
Just remove your shoes, place them in the line with everyone else’s and go on into the room as normal. Retrieve them on your way out and you’ve been just another polite guest in Thailand.
Don’t Shake Hands in Thailand – Some Thais in Bangkok will shake hands if they’re used to Westerners but, overall, Thais do not shake hands. Instead, they place their palms together like in prayer. This gesture is called a ‘wai’. Usually, younger people wai older people and people of lower social status wai those of higher social status. But young people wai their friends. Business people wai other business people and on and on.
If in doubt about the wai, because there are many rules, don’t use it until somebody wais you. If they’re obviously younger than you, you don’t need to wai them back, although you can. If they’re a lower social status or someone like a shop clerk, you never wai them. Just smile instead.
Don’t Kiss in Public – It used to be up until recently, Thais didn’t even hold hands in public. In Bangkok, now, you ‘ll see this but you will never see a Thai couple kissing in public. That’s saved for in private. Thais find it quite shocking that westerners will kiss each other in public so, if you want to be though of as polite and respectable, don’t do it. To the Thais, it just makes you look low class.
Don’t Touch a Monk If You’re a Woman – Thai Buddhist monks are not supposed to be touched by women. Make sure, if you’re at a temple, you don’t accidentally brush against a monk. Move aside to give the monk plenty of room to pass. Also, if you are giving the monk something, don’t place it directly in his hands if you’re female. Instead, place it on a cloth that is specially provided for this purpose, and the monk can pull the item towards himself without having to touch you.
Finally, if you get on a bus or a boat and there’s an empty seat next to a monk, if you’re a woman, don’t sit there unless you want the whole bus looking at you aghast, that is.
Do Smile a Lot – Thais smile all the time. Even when they’re embarrassed or ‘losing face’, they smile. They smile when they’re happy, they smile when they’re not. They smile when they’ve done something right, they smile when they’ve done something wrong. In Thailand, just smile, no matter what and Thai people will love you.
Do Bathe a Lot – Thailand is a very hot country so Thais bathe or shower a lot. They also think a lot of westerners smell, because they don’t bathe as much and they sweat a lot. When in Thailand, it’s best to take at least two showers a day (I take 3-4 showers a day, every day) so people won’t give you a wide berth.
Do Dress Respectfully and Conservatively – Thailand is still a conservative country so many Thais expect people to dress conservatively. Not in Bangkok so much, where modern fashion has taken over, but outside Bangkok conservative dress is expected. And, if you’re visiting a local temple, make sure you are wearing conservative dress, sandals with a strap at the back (no flip flops allowed) and no shorts either.
If you’re planning on being on a Thai beach, please don’t be one of those tourists that go topless. Thais think it’s incredibly disrespectful and truly don’t understand why so many westerners do this.
Do Step Around People – If anyone is sitting on the floor near you and you need to get by. Don’t ever step over that person or step over any part of their body. Instead, walk around.
Do Treat Books With Respect – A big do in Thailand is to treat books with respect. Never place a book on the floor (always put it on a table or chair), and never throw a book, even if it’s just so your friend can grab it. Make sure books are placed gently on surfaces as they are deemed to be the place where people get education, and this is treated with the utmost respect.
These are just a few of the most common dos and don’ts in Thailand. There are many more. Overall, if you were to do the wrong thing in Thailand for most circumstances, Thais will forgive it. But, it’s best not to make the mistake in the first place, right? Commit these quick tips to memory and you’ll have no problem being welcomed and thought of as ‘polite’ on your next trip to Thailand.
Finally, if you’re planning on going to a Thai beach while on your holidays here, don’t forget to read about the dos and don’ts at a Thai beach as well. It will make your trip even more pleasant.