Video #51 | August 30, 2018
In this video I’m going to introduce you to 13 Thai customs and traditions that you need to know.
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Welcome to the fifty-first video of Bangkok Unmasked! The YouTube channel that helps you get the most out of your visit to Bangkok city! If you’re new here, please consider subscribing! In this video I’m going to introduce you to 13 Thai customs and traditions that you need to know.
So why is this information important? When we live in a clan, tribe, group or a society we have to follow some set of rules, principles, policies or laws which becomes customs.
I firmly believe that if you want to fit in, and make real friends during your visit to Thailand, it’s important to understand the local customs and traditions. If possible, one should try to adapt accordingly.
A good number of the Thai customs and traditions which I’m going to discuss came as a complete surprise to me. I hope that this information makes your holiday, business trip or adventures in Thailand easier. My first couple of years in Thailand were great. That said, they would have been much easier if I had known all this stuff before I got off the plane!
Let’s get started!
Thai customs and traditions #1. The body.
The Thai place great importance and significance to certain parts of the body. The head is seen as the most spiritual part of the body. You should never touch a person’s head. Note. This goes for children too. An affectionate ruffling of a child’s hair might cause offence to Thai parents.
Most Thai are not touchy-feely. Not at all in fact! It’s not common to see Thai couples holding hands or hugging in public. Kissing and other public displays of affection are an absolute no-no.
The feet are seen as dirty and symbolically low. You should never touch somebody or something with your foot. When sitting try to sit with the sole of your foot pointing outwards. The main point here is to avoid pointing your foot at a person, or especially any Buddhist image. Absolute no-no’s are also to hold doors open with your feet, pushing a bag along with your feet, or otherwise using your feet in place of your hands.
Pointing with a finger is also seen as impolite, as is beckoning somebody with a crooked finger. The Thai will often use their lips to point, pushing out the lips to indicate a direction. Alternatively, use the whole hand, with all fingers outstretched, to point. To beckon somebody, the palm should be face down with all fingers extended and the action from the wrist.
Thai customs and traditions #2. Sexual Tolerance.
Thailand has long enjoyed a reputation for sexual tolerance, based more on non-confrontational [rather than progressive] attitudes. The country is very safe for LGBT travelers.
Transsexuals, also known as krathoeys or ladyboys, are highly visible in mainstream society, from scantily clad teens to high-profile celebrities.
There is of course a caveat. While there is sexual tolerance in Thailand this will quickly evaporate if, as mentioned before, public displays of affection are overtly visible. Do whatever you want, within reason, behind closed doors. Do it in public and things will likely go sideways very quickly!
Thai customs and traditions #3. Beware the ‘Thai smile’.
Many new visitors to Thailand believe that it’s a warm, happy, and welcoming nation because of the constant smiles. Indeed, the Tourism Authority of Thailand leveraged this fact to create the slogan ‘land of smiles’ back in the 1980s.
However, Thai smiles don’t always show happiness. In many instances they’re used as a mask. This is not to detract from the fact that most Thai people are kind, welcoming, and all-round good people. I do though want to emphasize that a smile may not be what you think it is. From my experience, in Thailand situations can go from smiles to extreme violence very quickly. This often leaves foreigner extremely confused as they were misunderstanding the smile. I will do a video on this in the near future.
Thai customs and traditions #4. “Yes” and “no” don’t always mean what you think they do.
If a Thai person says no outright, it means a firm no. However, yes doesn’t always mean yes. The Thai generally don’t like letting others down and will often agree to things even if they don’t want to, or even have no intention to, follow through on what they have agreed upon. To say that this can be frustrating is an understatement.
Note. It’s rare for a Thai person to admit to not knowing something. If for example you’re asking for directions, don’t expect the directions to be correct.
Then there’s the Thai custom of kreng jai [เกรงใจ] which is somewhat related. To discuss this is a YouTube video in itself. Briefly, it’s customary to be ‘kreng jai’ i.e. to be considerate, and not inconvenience someone else. Many Thai though often take kreng jai to great extremes, and it can lead to some truly crazy situations. One common example is where a group of Thai knows that a senior is talking nonsense, but they don’t/can’t call them out on it due to kreng jai. This often leads to people feeling obligated to follow through on instructions that they know are ridiculous.
Thai customs and traditions #5. Family comes first.
Family pretty much always comes first in Thailand. Also, a much greater emphasis is placed on the extended family than in most western countries.
In Thailand it’s normal for extended families to live close to each other. It’s also very common for children to be raised by grandparents or aunts and uncles if their parents need to work elsewhere. Younger members of the family are expected to help take care of older members. This is often financially, or by doing a range of chores.
Note. It’s very common when speaking Thai to also use family terms such as “brother”, “sister”, “aunt”, “uncle”, “mother” and “father” as personal pronouns. This can often apply to strangers where there is no blood relation to them at all.
One other note. The Thai-Chinese differ from the Thai in so far as they often have a rigid family hierarchy. Each member of the family has a specific name which depends on their age, and where they are in the family in relation to the other members.
Thai customs and traditions #6. Mai bpen rai.
A common phrase heard in Thailand is ‘mai bpen rai’. This roughly translates to ‘no problem’, or ‘never mind’. Foreigners often misinterpret the phrase and incorrectly assume that the Thai don’t ever take offense or take things too seriously. To believe this is grossly misunderstanding the Thai. They often do care but have been conditioned to respond in such a way.
The Thai rarely display negative emotions. Anger, tantrums, and public crying are uncommon. This however doesn’t mean they aren’t displayed in private, or that the emotions aren’t there. It simply means that a person doesn’t want to lose face by showing their feelings in public.
Thai customs and traditions #7. Social status is important.
As an outsider, this point is very easy to miss. Age, family connections, job, education, and income are all factors to a Thai’s perceived status in society. When the Thai meet, they will perform different versions of the greeting, or wai, depending on a person’s status. There are social rules concerning who should offer the first wai. Note. When socializing and a bill is presented, it’s traditional for the person of the highest social status, generally the highest earner, to pay.
The Thai also have words that indicate a person’s age. ‘Pee’ is used before an older person’s name to show respect. ‘Nong’ is used for somebody younger than them. With this said, it’s possible for a younger person to be referred to as ‘Pee’ if they have a higher social status. Frankly, it can become very confusing in certain social situations!
Thai customs and traditions #8. Easy ways to show respect.
The use of language and the wai are a couple of ways for the Thai to show respect. There are a couple of easy things that foreigners should do in social situations to show respect.
1. Bring a small gift when you visit someone. Especially at their home. It doesn’t have to be something expensive. Food is a very standard gift. Some decent fruit, or possibly a Western food product that they might like will work.
2. Always remove your shoes before entering a home. It’s a major sign of disrespect to not do so.
Thai customs and traditions #9. ‘Loss of face’.
As most are aware, shaming a Thai [especially publicly] will cause a ‘loss of face’. If I was you, I’d avoid making a Thai lose face. Unless this can’t be avoided. It’s not uncommon for Thai people, particularly in rural areas, to deal with perceived injustices outside of legal frameworks. Acts of extreme violence have been committed due to ‘loss of face’. In some cases, it won’t simply be one individual getting involved. Families, groups of friends, or even entire communities may administer punishment as they see fit.
Thai customs and traditions #10. Patriotism.
Thai society has three pillars; nation, monarchy and religion. National pride is a huge part of the Thai psyche. Many Thai will proudly tell you that they’re the only nation in Southeast Asia to have never been colonized. Frankly, in my opinion, this point is debatable. However, it’s a long conversation for another YouTube video.
In many places throughout the country the national anthem will be played twice a day. It’s expected that people will stop and stand until the song has finished. The King’s anthem is also played before a movie starts at the cinema. Again, you must stand for this.
Thai customs and traditions #11. Thai religion is somewhat unique.
Thailand is a Buddhist country. Specifically, Theravada Buddhism. However, the religion practiced in Thailand is somewhat different to other Buddhist nations. Thai Buddhism has been infused with many outside elements. Specifically, Hindu practices and traditional Chinese beliefs. Animist beliefs also play a large role in making Thai Buddhism what it is today.
While in Thailand you’ll notice that many Thai people wear amulets or carry talismans. This is despite Buddhism prohibiting attachment to material objects. Belief in ghosts and spirits is also strong in Thailand. This stems from traditional Animist beliefs. Most Thai houses and office buildings will have spirit houses for example.
Thai customs and traditions #12. Superstitions.
To say that superstitions are rife is something of an understatement. Many superstitions are connected to the belief of ghosts and spirits, and they really do drive most critical life decisions.
It’s customary for people to consult a fortune teller or monk for an auspicious date before arranging a wedding, buying a home, or test driving a car. As an aside my marriage date, 13 years ago, was determined by my mother-in-law’s visit to a monk in Singburri!
The tradition of giving newborn babies a nickname originated from a desire to trick malevolent spirits who may want to steal the baby away. Traditionally, people avoided complimenting parents on their new baby too, fearing making the child seem too desirable to the spirits. There are also superstitions related not being able to attend a wedding if you have had a recent death in the family. Plus, ghosts telling you winning lottery numbers, and more.
Thai customs and traditions #13. Monks are highly respected.
While in Thailand you’re sure to see plenty of monks. They’re pretty much everywhere. Monks are highly revered and respected in Thai culture and disrespecting a monk is a huge no-no.
Monks generally get designated seats on public transport, and people should always give up their seat to a monk if no other seat is available. Women should be especially careful of their actions around monks. Touching a monk is a big no-no. Also, women must not directly hand things to them. Any offerings should be placed on a monk’s dish, rather than into their hands. Women also mustn’t sit next to a monk, or their belongings.
If you act inappropriately around a monk in Thailand, you can be sure that all the Thai around you will quickly point out your errors with great disapproval.
In general, the Thai are generally pretty tolerant and understand that foreign visitors will sometimes make mistakes. As long as it’s not something major, like showing disrespect to the religion or monarchy, yelling in public, or walking around semi-naked, most Thai will simply overlook cultural differences.
Anyway, that’s it for this video. Expect a new video next week.
For all you techies out there, this video was shot on a Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus and edited using HitFilm Express.
To check out details on arranging a bespoke Bangkok tour with experienced tour guides, please click on the link in this video’s description section.
Finally, please don’t forget to subscribe to this channel through the button below! Also, I’d like to hear from you if you have any questions or comments regarding Thai customs and traditions. Maybe you know some customs and traditions that I missed. Please do reach out to me through the comments section of this video!
Thank you very much for watching. I’ll see you next week. Goodbye.