Traditional Customs and Celebrations
Thai customs are deeply influenced by religion and are an important and integral part of Thai lives. They vary from region to region and you are likely to come across several whilst visiting. There are huge cultural differences between Western countries and Thailand, which may seems strange to us (and them) and are very enjoyable to experience, however can result in confusion when communicating with Thai people, therefore it's a good idea to have an awareness of a few important customs before visiting.
It may seem like there are many rules for getting by in Thailand, but the Thai people are some of the friendlies and most welcoming in the world, and will be forgiving, accommodating and appreciative of your efforts to immerse yourself in their culture. Just remember to always be polite and courteous out of respect and good manners.
Here are some traditions and customs to be aware of:
You will see the Wai copiously used in Thai etiquette to express hello, thank you or goodbye; it denotes respect, with the younger or 'lower' person in the social class performing the Wai first, and the level of the hands/depth of the head bowed, indicating the degree of respect.
The Wai is performed by pressing your palms together at the chest or nose level and bowing your head slightly. The higher the hands, the higher the level of respect. As a foreigner, the Thai people will understand you may get the Wai wrong, however you should never Wai first as this may cause embarrassment if you are performing the Wai to a person of a lower social class, or a younger person. Wait for the Thai person to Wai first, then it can be returned, and if in doubt about how to do this properly you should just smile and bow your head briefly (to not acknowledge a Wai is considered rude).
Absolute reverence is practised in respect of the Thai Royal Family and Buddha. You will see images of the Royal Family and Buddha everywhere.
It is important to remember that strict laws apply in Thailand with regards to the Royal Family, in which it is illegal to disrespect them, or images of them, in any way, and is punishable by imprisonment, therefore you should treat all images of the Thai Royal Family with respect.
Images of Buddha should also be treated with extreme respect. Do not touch or deface any image or statue of a Buddha or a monk, as this is highly disrespectful, as is pointing the soles of your feet in their direction.
Many Thais will worship Buddha images, don amulets or hang amulets in their cars for protection and luck. Most buildings have an altar (or spirit house) where people will make offerings of food to appease the spirits; due to the Thai's highly superstitious nature such displays should not be touched out of fear of disrupting the harmonious balance.
Mai Pen Rai
You should definitely embrace this aspect of Thai culture - the saying Mai pen rai translates as "it's alright/never mind/no problem". This attitude will help you enjoy your time in Thailand even more, as being relaxed and not getting angry is integral in Thai culture; the Thai people have a very laid-back, relaxed attitude towards everything, with no urgency, so go with the flow and enjoy being so relaxed! This mindset compliments the Thai sense of light-heartedness, with nothing being taken too seriously and everything should contain and element of fun (sanuk).
Thailand is well-known for its sexual tolerance, which has been helped due to the country's non-confrontational attitude. Therefore, it is a very safe place to visit for all people, regardless of your sexual orientation.
Thai Food Culture
In general, the most senior person in the social class will pay the bill at a meal in a restaurant. Therefore, if you have invited a Thai out for a meal, or have just joined them for a meal in a restaurant, then you will be expected to pay the bill as you will be seen at the senior person as the foreigner. This also applies to dating a Thai lady, she will expect you to pay it is traditional for the man to pay in Thailand. Do not take offence at this, it is a sign of respect and part of the Thai culture.
Most meals are served in the middle of the table buffet style for people to help themselves. If you are dining with Thai's it is not impolite to start eating your food as soon as you are served, however wait to be asked to take a second helping, never take the last of the food from a serving bowl and do not lick your fingers. When you are finished leave a little food on your plate to show that you are full, otherwise it will be taken as an indication that you are still hungry (however be careful not to leave rice on your plate as this is considered wasteful).
In very touristy areas such as Pattaya or Bangkok, foreigners are accepted as they are (within reason), such as men walking around topless and open displays of affections, however in other areas that are not so exposed to tourism such things are not advisable, even holding hands. Thai culture should be respected when visiting 'non-touristy' areas, and both men and women should dress modestly and behave respectfully.
When visiting temples and shrines it is sensible to cover up - entrance may be denied to those wearing sleeveless tops or short skirts or shorts. Women may be prohibiting from entering highly sacred places altogether.
As a foreign woman, even in tourist areas, you should dress reasonably modestly if you wish to be perceived in a good light, as western films have done nothing to improve the image of a western woman. For instance, not wearing a bar underneath your top, a very low cut top or a very short skirt/shorts, may receive a few looks of judgement. This rule does not apply to Thai women, who are able to dress like this without being frowned upon.
Thai Business Culture
Although business in Thailand is becoming more westernised, Thai customs and traditions still remain. Personal relationships are often required before business can be discussed, therefore initial meetings will usually occur over lunch, drinks or entertainment as enjoyment is valued by Thai people. Decisions will often take a long time to be made as issues are discussed repeatedly and the laid-back nature of the country. However, it is important that you arrive on time for any meetings as it will be expected and it will show respect. Appointments should be made well in advance and re-confirmed close to the meeting date. If offering a business card ensure you offer it with your right hand, and when receiving it is polite to carefully look at the card and make a polite comment.
Thai's do judge on appearances so it is important to dress conservatively in smart business dress, men with dark coloured suits and women in smart suits or dresses.
Respect and politeness should always be conveyed, which is important to remember not only in verbal communication, but also in your body language. Laughter is a good tool to minimize errors or embarrassment as Thai people laugh easily, however can convey embarrassment if a Thai person starts laughing for no apparent reason, so changing the subject would be advised. Courtesy is very important, therefore you should avoid insulting or angering a Thai person, and they will take an open criticism or negative response as an insult, and therefore think disrespectfully of you, therefore it is best to indirectly give a negative response. To create positive feelings and build and maintain good relationships speak softly, smile warmly, and always be polite and respectful.
Do not be offended by a Thai person you have just met calling you by your first name, generally people are only addressed by their first names in Thailand and reserve surnames for very formal occasions or and written documentations; however, they may precede your name in a more formal environment by Khun (whether you are male or female), which is an honorific title. Nicknames are often used by Thai people in informal settings, which will be of one syllable.
If you are travelling outside of a large city then you should expect to find 'basic' facilities. Most plumbing outside of cities is not designed to handle paper, so should be discarded in the bin provided. Do not be surprised if toilets consist of a hole in the floor, or a 'squat' toilet, which needs to be flushed by pouring water from a bucket into the hole.
Colours in Thailand are associated with days on the week (based on Hindu mythology), which is based on the colour of the God who protects the day, and Thai people will often wear clothes corresponding to the colour of the day. Not only are these colours on certain days considered lucky, but there are also certain colours on certain days that are considered unlucky! The days colours are:
- Sunday - Red - Unlucky Colour Blue
- Monday - Yellow/Cream - Unlucky Colour Red
- Tuesda - Pink - Unlucky Colour Yellow/White
- Wednesday - Green - Unlucky Colour Pink
- Thursday - Orange/Brown - Unlucky Colour Purple
- Friday - Light Blue - Unlucky Colour Dark Blue
- Saturday - Purple/Black - Unlucky Colour Green
There are at least 16 public holidays a year, some on fixed dates, others based on the lunar calendar, and many celebrations. Some of these celebrations are:
New Year (31 December/1 January) - celebrated with friends and family, often starting with offerings and worship to Buddha.
National Children's Day (Wan Dek) (second Saturday of January) - children are much loved and cherished in Thailand, hence celebrating them with their very own day. Children will receive gifts or treated to a day out, with many attractions and public transport operators admitting children for free.
Chinese New Year (late January/mid-February) - some areas put on a special three-day celebration for the Chinese New Year, including cultural performances, dragon dances, firecrackers, and banquets.
Makha Bucha Day (full moon in the third lunar month of the year) - a Thai public holiday and an important Buddhist celebration, honouring the teachings Buddha gave on this day. Donations are often made, as well as refraining from alcohol. Candlelight processions around the temple's ordination hall are also seen.
Chakri Day (6th April) - celebrating the coronation of Rama I to the throne in 1782 and the contributions of subsequent Kings. It is also an opportunity to prepare for Songkran.
Songkran (13th April - 15th April) - this is one of the most well-known, popular and celebrated Thai holidays, the Thai New Year. Celebrations often include religious ceremonies, family events, food, drinks, parades, and one of the most popular - water fights. Water is important due to its association with purification, and water pouring and pouring was traditionally done to bring on the fertile rainy season for agriculture. Now it is usual to see water fights lasting between a day and a week during these three days everyone involved, visiting or just passing by, should expect to get wet and join in the fun!
Visakha Bucha (full moon in the sixth lunar month) - one of the most important Buddhist holidays, which is a public holiday and will see Thai's visiting their local temples to offer donations.
Asanha Bucha and Khao Phansa (late July) - Asanha Bucha is a public holiday determined by the lunar calendar and marks the day Buddha delivered his first sermon. This will see Thai's visiting their local temple and offering donations. The day after is Khao Phansa marking the start of the three-month long Buddhist Lent - during this time monks may remain at a single temple for the duration rather than travelling around the country, and it is also a popular time for men to ordain as monks. It is also common to see boat races during this time.
Mother's Day (12 August) - this is a public holiday in which Thai's typically visit temples and offer donations. Children will be given the opportunity at school to pay respect to their mothers, who will come into school for the occasion. Mother's will often receive gifts and it is usual to celebrating with a special meal.
Vegetarian Festival (ninth lunar month - September/October) - this is a nine-day festival in which those participating (particularly those of Chinese origin) will consume exclusively vegan food and drink, as well as abstaining from alcohol, gambling, swearing and sex in order to cleanse the body and mind. Many street food vendors will take part in this festival and you will be able to find a number of variations of Thailand's dishes made with meat substitutes. White and yellow clothing will be worn, and Chinese temples come alive with chanting and music. Processions may be found, and dramatic acts such as walking on coals may occur in some areas of the country.
Chulalongkorn Day (23rd October) - marks the life of Thailand's most revered Kings (King Chulalongkorn), who died on this day in 1910, and is a national holiday.
Loy Krathong (full moon in the twelfth lunar month, usually November) - this is Thailand's most romantic festival giving thanks to the river spirits for plentiful water supply during the rainy season, and floating away bad events and habits of the past year. You will see Thai's floating a 'krathong' (an item such as a polystyrene based craft, bread or a coconut), on a river, sea, lake, pond, swimming pool or even a bathtub, and these krathongs will contain a few small coins and some nail clippings or snips of hair as a symbol of themselves that they are hoping to be rid of. In Northern Thailand you can see the sister festival, Yee Peng, be celebrates, which involves launching a beautiful display of fire lanterns into the sky at night.
Father's Day (5th December) - this is a public holiday and is marked by Thai's paying respect to and giving gifts to their father's
Constitution Day (10th December) - celebrates the end of the absolute monarch in 1932 and the introduction of the constitutional monarchy. It is celebrated with parades and fireworks.