In Public, Thais Don’t Kiss on the Mouth They ‘Sniff Kiss’ Cheeks, Neck and Hair
If you love somebody in the West, what’s the first thing you want to do? Kiss them. A mouth open, tongue out, saliva churning whopper – and often in public. In Thailand, that’s something only reserved for the bedroom and never ever ever seen in public, even in open-minded Bangkok.
In its place, the Thais have the ‘sniff kiss’.
The sniff kiss is the most unbelievably knee weakening, brain emptying, word stumbling, erotic gesture when given by a lover. When given by an aunt, a mother, a father or a grandmother, it is the closest thing you’ll ever feel to being loved beyond all knowing.
A sniff kiss will also often be given at a Thai wedding (see video below), rather than the typical kiss most westerners are used to at their weddings.
What is the sniff kiss?
The sniff kiss (or haawm kaem in Thai – haawm meaning pleasant smell) is the act of putting your nose close to the cheek, the neck or the hair of the beloved and inhaling their scent.
You will see mothers doing it to sons when they pick them up from school, and boyfriends to girlfriends when they are ecstatic to be in their company. It is the way Thais show affection, not from tasting but from inhaling deeply the tantalizing smell and pheromones of the one who is loved.
But it can be a bit disorienting for Westerners.
I have a close friend in Bangkok, a Western woman, who went on an overnight trip to southern Thailand on a bus. The bus stopped at a gas station so everybody could buy snacks and use the restroom.
While in the corridor passing from lit shop area to darkly lit washroom facilities, she was suddenly held by a strange Thai guy and sniffed. Not knowing what it was, she thought it was some crazed drug user. Only later did she find out she had been ‘sniff kissed’.
The sniff kiss in Thai movies
On Thai movies and Thai TV, you will rarely see a Western kiss. In fact, in the 1990s when the first Western kiss was shown on Thai TV on a Thai soap opera, the whole country practically came to a standstill as everybody dashed home or to a local restaurant to watch.
To this day, it’s rare to see a Western-style kiss on Thai television, as it is often thought not only to damage the country’s morals, but also to damage the reputation of the actress participating in the on-screen kiss.
One of the most famous sniff kisses in recent Thai movie history was the sniff kiss between childhood sweethearts, Jeab and Noi-Naa, in the popular Thai movie ‘Fan Chan‘. The sweetness and innocence of first love, was captured perfectly in that one sniff kiss.
For all its publicized sex industry (which is actually much smaller per capita than the sex industry of the US), Thailand is still a conservative country.
It is also a country that highly prizes cleanliness, and especially the cleanliness of the body.
If you are a Westerner and a bit sweaty from all the heat, watch how quickly the Thais move away from you on the sky train or a bus. Thais, on average, take 3-4 showers every day, cover themselves from head to foot in lotion and baby powder (men and women), and always shower before going to bed.
Related: ‘Very Thai‘ is a superb book to help you learn about Thai culture — and beautiful to look at
The act of sniff kissing your partner or child is the act of literally breathing in the clean and perfect scent of the person who is loved.
So next time you come to Thailand and a pretty girl or gorgeous guy puts their nose up to your cheek and inhales, don’t assume they are crazy.
You have just been sniff kissed, and things will probably never be the same again.