As an American I used to think that when anyone visited the U.S. they would instinctively know how to behave. Granted there are general rules of behavior that are safe bets wherever we go. But it is the cultural stuff that is tougher to grasp. Thais are usually very tolerant of westerners, but there are as many levels of behavior in Thailand as there is anywhere else. No one is all anything and everybody is part everything (If you know what I mean). I always try to remember that I am a guest in Thailand; therefore I need to respect my host. Thais appreciate people who at least try to respect their culture.
Below is a list of some things that may be helpful when visiting Thailand for the first time. This list only scratches the surface of Thai customs and is only from my perspective.
For those who know more, feel free to comment or contribute.
Remember to always show respect for the King. Thai people have unwavering respect for their King who has committed his life to the betterment of his people. They do not appreciate anyone, let alone a non-Thai, commenting in a negative way about Him. It is not only disrespectful, it is unlawful.
An estimated 94% of all Thais are Buddhist. I don’t believe anyone could spend even a short stay in Thailand without sensing this fact. The Theravada tradition is the most widely practiced. The “5 Precepts” are the basic code of ethics for Buddhist lay people. The Five Precepts are: commitments to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication. There are additional precepts for the more dedicated follower. Buddhism, temples and Buddha images are considered sacred and should always be treated with respect.
Thailand is a popular destination for those wishing to learn to practice meditation as well as those already experienced in the practice. Vipassana, aka “Mindfulness” meditation is the tradition most widely practiced here. There are temples and monasteries around Thailand that offer free instruction as well as fee based meditation centers.
Along with Buddhism, monks are a very important part if Thai society. When meeting a monk one should always wai. Women are not allowed to touch a monk nor are they allowed to directly hand anything to a monk. If a woman wants to give something to a monk then it should be handed to a man first who will then give it to the monk. Women are also not supposed to sit close to a monk. There are seats on busses and the sky train that are designated “monk seats”. In many areas, monks travel the sois seeking alms. To join in the giving, plan to be up early as this usually happens at around 6am.
There are more than 40,000 temples in Thailand. They are constantly being worked on or expanded. There are small, quiet temples on the top of some mountains where lone monks reside. I was recently at a temple in a cave up in Chiang Rai where a solitary monk lived. Then there are the huge, busy, noisy temples in the heart of Bangkok where hundreds go everyday to pray. Thais seem to be more than willing to assist visitors wanting to join in when visiting Buddhist temples. Don’t be afraid to try. You could be pleasantly surprised. Remember to dress properly when visiting a temple in Thailand. Long pants and preferably a button shirt are the norm.
The wai is as customary in Thailand as a handshake is in the west, though it has a bit more respect tied to it. Here in Thailand we wai Buddha always, monks always, the King always, those older than us often, those our own age frequently, and children rarely, unless they are monks. It is courteous to return a wai someone wais us. Younger people will often wai first. The higher the wai the more respect is implied. When one wais Buddha the fingers are usually to the hairline. The wai for a monk will place the fingers on the brow, for someone older the fingers on the bridge of the nose, etc.
“Jai yen yen”
Keep a cool heart and head. Losing face in Thailand is akin to losing respect. If one loses his or her temper they also lose a degree respect. This may also cause the person to whom the anger was directed to lose face, which is worse yet. Always try to stay cool in this warm, humid country.
It is customary to remove ones shoes before entering a temple or anyone’s home. There are places to remove shoes and places to not remove shoes. I have never seen anyone take off their shoes to enter the shopping mall. Nor have I ever seen anyone fail to remove their shoes when entering a temple. An easy way to remember this is to look on the ground in front of the place you intend to visit. If there are shoes on the floor at front entrance then I would suggest you take yours off as well.
The head and feet
The head is considered sacred, being the highest part of the body. The feet, being the lowest part of the body are considered unsacred and unclean. Try not to touch people on the head and to be aware of your feet and where they are pointed. It is considered an insult to have the soles of your feet pointing at another person. It is also considered rude to point at anything with the foot.
More to follow….