Guide to Thai Culture

north andaman thai culture

Thailand is a wonderful place full of wonderful people, so it's worth taking some time before your trip to learn about the country that you will be visiting. By understanding the local culture you will have a more enriching experience. First and foremost, smiling and attempting to speak Thai will really impress people.

In detail — the finer points of enjoying Thai culture

The Monarchy

Thai people have a deep, traditional reverence for their Royal family. You will notice photographs and pictures of the Royal family inside and outside Thai homes, both in Bangkok and rural areas. Respect the Monarchy and any imagery including Thai money, and do not make negative comments about them. The Royal Anthem is played before any film at the cinema and everyone is expected to stand up for the duration of the song. The National Anthem plays twice a day at 08.00 and 18.00. It is customary to stand during the National Anthem. Watch to see if the Thais stand up and follow suit.

Why wai?

The wai, putting the hands in a prayer-like position, is used to greet, pay respect, thank, and say farewell. When and how people wai someone depends on two things; status and age. Thai people tend not to wai people of the same age, they wai older people and those of a higher status (like teachers and monks). The general rule is, the higher the status of the person you are wai-ing, the higher the hand position. For example, if a child wai's you, return the wai with a smile and a wai at chest level, however if a wai-ing a monk, the hands should be positioned near the forehead.

Pe or Nong – How to Address people

How Thais address each other is determined by age. During your time in Thailand, you will hear people referring to each other as either Pe   (name)   or Nong   (name)  . Pe loosely translates into older brother or sister and Nong, younger brother or sister. There is not really an English equivalent. If someone is older than you, you can call them Pe and if they are younger than you, Nong. It's a great way to avoid embarrassment if you forget someone's name as you can just call them Pe or Nong. For Muslim people it's Bang   (name)   and Nong   (name)  .

Mai Pen Rai – It Doesn't Matter

You will hear mai pen rai a lot during your time in Thailand. It translates into 'not at all, you're welcome, no problem, it doesn't matter, no worries, never mind.' Mai pen rai is typically Thai and shows consideration for others, conflict and anger avoidance and a desire for peace.

Greng jie – To be Considerate

Understanding the meaning of greng jie reveals a lot about Thai's and their way of thinking. It loosely translates into 'to be considerate' or 'to have consideration for others'. In reality, it means thinking about how what be said or done will affect others around. It allows Thais to avoid conflict, awkward challenges, conflicts and basically any difficult or unpleasant situation. In many cases, a Thai will decide not to act or speak a lot more than foreigners/farang would. Keeping their opinions to themselves avoids conflict and being disrespectful to their peers.

Jie Yen – Chill Out

This translates into 'cool heart' and means to keep cool and to calm down if getting angry, annoyed or upset for whatever reason. Being jie lorn or hot-hearted displays a lack of self control, rudeness and poor attitude which can make others 'lose face'. This all relates to the Thai's avoidance of confrontation. In Thailand it is considered disrespectful to put someone in a position where they 'loose face'. Whatever happens, you should keep cool and do not raise your voice or loose your temper.

A simple solution to avoid making another person 'lose face' is to turn a criticism into a polite request. For example:

Criticism: There's something wrong with the door to my room, it won't shut.
Request: I was wondering if you could help me. I couldn't shut the door to my room and I wasn't sure if I was opening it correctly.

You You You – Direct Questions

Westerners are referred to as farang, which is also the Thai word for guava. It is not derogatory. They may refer to you as a 'farang' or simply say "You, you, you" to get your attention.

Do not be surprised if a Thai person asks you personal or direct questions, like "How much do you earn?" or "Are you married yet?" They do not mean anything by this; in Thai culture it's perfectly acceptable to ask these types of questions. If someone asks you if you are married or have a partner, they are not chatting you up or hitting on you, they are just curious.

Body Awareness

Much of Thai culture has evolved under the influence of Buddhism, and therefore it permeates many cultural norms and customs. It is considered impolite to touch another person on the head, as it is the most sacred and honourable part of the body. The feet, the most inferior part of the body should not be used to point at people or things. If you are sitting on the floor, avoid sitting with your legs out straight with your feet pointing at another person. Please be aware where your foot is pointing if you are sitting crossed legged on a chair. Do not step over people sitting on the floor or over items left on the floor. Avoid putting your feet up on chairs and tables. Never point your feet at a Buddhist statue or image, keep your feet tucked behind you when sitting on the floor.

In a Temple

When entering a temple, both men and women should dress modestly and politely. Men should wear a T-shirt or shirt, with long trousers. Women, should have their shoulders and legs covered. Vests, low cut tops and shorts are to be avoided and saved for the touristy beaches. Shoes should be removed when inside the chapel where the principal Buddha image is kept. Kneel on the floor with your feet tucked behind you, never point your feet at a Buddhist image, it is very disrespectful.

Monks

Buddhist monks are a common sight all over Thailand and are easily recognized with their orange robes and shaved heads. It is strictly forbidden for male monks to have direct physical contact with women, this includes handing them something. It is acceptable for women to offer a gift by placing it on the ground in front of a monk and backing away, or by giving it to a man to offer for the woman. Men can come in direct contact with monks. Please treat monks with the utmost respect, to speak to them respectfully and wai when greeting, saying goodbye and thank you.

In a Mosque

When entering a Mosque, both men and women need to be suitably dressed, well covered and neat. Men should wear trousers, a long-sleeved shirt buttoned to the neck and a hat. Women need to have their shoulders, knees and hair covered. Shoes are removed before entering. If there is a religious gathering, it's best to ask before entering.

Thai-Style Dining

Thai food will definitely be one of the highlights of your trip. If you are lucky enough to be invited by the locals to eat with them, or are staying with a Thai family, the way that they dine is slightly different from the Western norm. A selection of dishes will be placed in the middle of the diners, and each person will be given a plate of white rice, along with a spoon and fork. Using the serving spoon provided or your own spoon if a serving spoon is not provided, take a small portion of food and place it on your plate with your rice. Do not load up your plate like an all-you-can-eat buffet. Watch how the Thai people eat and follow their lead. If you are offered more rice, it's not impolite to decline. Try to eat everything you put on your plate and avoid wasting food.

Thais use a fork and a spoon instead of a knife and fork. The fork is used to push food onto the spoon and then the spoon is the one that goes in the mouth. If this doesn't feel right, it's acceptable to continue to use your fork. Chopsticks are generally used only for noodle soup (gwit teaow naam).

Thai food tends to be quite spicy, if you do get caught out with a chilli, eat some rice, it's a better way to cool your mouth than water. A spoonful of honey also works. Do be willing to try new things and Thais are sure to ask, "Alloy mai?" which translates into, "Is it delicious?"

In the Bathroom

Asian squat toilets can take some getting used to. With your back to the wall, and face to the door, place each foot either side of the toilet and squat down. Many toilets do not provide toilet paper, so you may want to take your own. The toilet paper should be put into the bin provided. Alternatively you can rinse with water from the squirt gun or bowl. If there is not a flush, use the water provided in the bucket using the small bowl to flush.

Thai Style Showering

Some homes in rural Thailand do not have a Western shower with hot water. Instead, there will be a large bucket or container of clean water with a small scoop bowl inside. Once undressed, use the small scoop to pour water over yourself. Most Thais will shower in the morning and afternoon or evening.