Just like most westerners, when I moved to Bangkok, Thailand I was confused about where I should and shouldn’t take off my shoes. Thais think wearing shoes into many buildings is disgusting as, not only is it disrespectful in some places, if you wear shoes inside that you’ve just worn outside, stepping on pavements with dog poo, urine and lots of other nasty gunk – yuk. So, if, like many people, you don’t want to embarrass yourself on a trip to Thailand by forgetting to remove your shoes, here’s what you need to know.
Shoes Are Always Removed in Temples – It doesn’t matter if you’re going into a temple on the opulent Wat Phra Kaew/Grand Palace complex or in a tiny rustic temple in the jungles of northern Thailand, you should always remove your shoes before entering. You’ll see shoe racks outside almost every temple, so just stack yours up with the rest and, if there isn’t a shoe rack, just leave them neatly outside the temple door. Just make a note, at some temples including Wat Phra Kaew, there are separate shoe racks for Thais and Foreigners.
Correct protocol for entering a temple in Thailand too is, once barefoot, you should step over the threshold and not stand on it. Spirits that protect the temple live inside the threshold step, so stepping on it is bad luck.
Remove Your Shoes at Bang Pa-In Royal Palace – A popular tourist attraction outside Bangkok is the Bang Pa-In Royal Palace and shoes must be taken off here too. Interestingly though, you’re not allowed to walk around the palace barefoot. Instead, after you remove your shoes, you’ll be expected to wear a pair of provided flip flops. If you’re a bit squeamish, you may want to avoid the Bang Pa-In tour, as it’s likely a couple of other people have worn the flip flops throughout the day. The shoes are washed daily and disinfected but some people still find it too unsettling.
Remove Shoes in Schools – If you go to a Thai school you’ll notice row upon row of shoes sitting outside each classroom. Shoes are always taken off in classrooms in Thailand and in most other school rooms and offices too. Teachers will often wear slippers around school and kids will go around in socks in the classrooms.
Shoes Are Taken Off To Enter Small Stores – While you’re not likely to see this often in Bangkok, except in the completely Thai areas, you will see independent shops in towns all over Thailand with shoes lined up outside the door. The rule of thumb is usually, if you see other people’s shoes at the door, take yours off too. If in doubt, and there are no shoes outside the door, I usually peak inside the shop first to see what the shop assistants are wearing. If they’re either barefoot or wearing slippers, you should remove your shoes before entering.
I only have to do this in Bangkok at my local fish spa, a hairdresser I go to in a Thai neighborhood and at an internet cafe near my house. Most stores in Bangkok, including of course the large shopping malls, don’t require you to remove your shoes. In fact, if you did, people would look strangely at you and a security guard would come over and make you put them back on.
Take Your Shoes Off To Enter A Thai Home – You are expected to take your shoes off at the entrance to every Thai home, and it’s disrespectful not to. Growing up in the west, I didn’t give a second thought to why westerners wear shoes outside all day and step in the nastiest things then track this stuff into their houses, and often onto carpets.
My Thai friends don’t understand why westerners do this and, honestly, now neither do I. I would no more think of entering anyone else’s home (or my home for that matter) wearing shoes than I would of going to sleep in their bed.
Thai homes are very clean, with floors often cleaned several times a day. There’s no danger whatsoever of entering a Thai home barefoot. In fact, you’ll probably soon wonder why you don’t do it in your own house.
Foot Hygiene – Just remember, as you’re likely to be taking your shoes on and off all day in many places in Thailand, wear flip flops or sandals if possible as they’re easier to remove, keep your feet clean (a liberal sprinkling of baby powder helps), cut your toe nails often and, if you have a condition like Athlete’s Foot, get it taken care of immediately. Your feet will often be on display in Thailand. Make sure they look pretty.