Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Avoid Stepping on Thai Toes - Cultural Dos & Don'ts

If you do manage to wade through all the paperwork and travel details required for you to travel abroad for an extended length of time, (good for you by the way), be prepared because the hard part is not yet over.  North American’s like to believe that Western culture is predominant everywhere we go and therefore expect other to understand that being loud, boisterous and prone to colourful language are just some of the innocent ways in which we express ourselves.  And while the locals might to a certain extend understand that yes, that is just the way foreigners are, remember that you are a guest in their country and are obligated to adhere to their way of life and not the other way around.

Therefore here are some cultural dos and don’ts for visiting Thailand.  Get them wrong and in many cases you risk offending someone.  Worst case scenario, you go to jail.  Consider yourself warned.  (dun, dun, dun.)

The Dos of Thailand
  • Smile.  It’s that simple.  Thai culture teaches that any issue can be resolved with a smile so even if you are having trouble with negotiating a price with a vendor, just smile and remember that being polite will often get you much better results.
  • Leave your shoes outside. There are some exceptions to this rule such as large shopping centres but traditional Thais will always remove their shoes before entering a room.  This is especially enforced when you are entering someone’s home or a temple/religious place.
  • Eat with a spoon.  This may sound a little odd but Thai people will use the fork to push food onto the spoon and then eat from the spoon.  Asking for chopsticks will just get you a funny look.
  • “Wai” when greeting people instead of a handshake.  The “wai” is a traditional Thai greeting done by giving a short bow from the waist with your fingertips pressed together near your chest or face. Traditionally, a person of lower rank will “wai” first with their hands closer to their face as a sign of respect.
  • Another sign of being polite in Thailand is to ask questions about age, salary or marital status.  These types of questions might sound too open or even rude to tourists but they are actually very common among the Thai people.  You don’t have to answer, just tell them that it is a secret or ‘mai bok’ (not telling).  And always remember to smile.
  • Buddhism is the dominant religion in Thailand and almost all Thai people practice this religion.  You must take extra care to avoid offending their religion.  Wear appropriate clothing when entering a temple – avoid sleeveless shirts, flip flops, short shorts or skirts or any clothing with crude statements.  Remove your shoes before entering.
  • Try to learn some of the local language.  Even learning a simple greeting will impress the Thai people with your openness and willingness to try to bridge the language barrier. It will earn you metaphorical brownie points.

I said “Nay, nay.”
  • Never shout, lose your temper or cause a scene in public.  This goes with the first point but mainly the gist of it is that Thais do not ever want to been seen “losing face” and doing so is seen as disgraceful.
  • Public displays of affection, even between married people, are frowned upon.  Avoid acts such as hugging, kissing or even hand holding when out and about.
  • The head and the feet of a person are considered to be sacred and taboo respectively.  Do not touch someone on the head and never display the soles of your feet to anyone so avoid crossing your legs.
  • It is illegal to take an image of Buddha out of the country unless special permission has been granted by authorities.  Shops will sell you items but they may not tell you about this restriction.
  • Never show disrespect to the King or the monarchy.  The Thai people have a great respect and affection for their King.  In fact, not only will even the friendliest jest be considered impolite, it is also against the law.  You must also remember to show respect to all things that bear the King’s image.  Local currency falls into this category so it must never be stepped on, crinkled or mishandled.
  • Engaging in prostitution, illegal drugs, trafficking or gambling will land you in prison.  It is as simple as that so don’t.

Of course, this list only scratches the surface so be prepared to do your own research before travelling to Thailand.  If you have any more Dos and Don’ts of your own to add to the list, I want to hear about them so leave a comment and tell me about your experience in Thailand.  Travelling is a great way to meet new people and expose yourself to new cultures and perspective which in a world that is becoming more and more globalized, is extremely important.


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