Thais are generally an extremely friendly, social, and curious people. That said, failing to observe certain key social customs may offend. Take the time to familiarize yourself with the wai, daily conduct and etiquette, and how to properly address everyone from coworkers to shop clerks.

The Wai

You can’t go more than 10 minutes in Thailand without noticing people putting their hands together in a prayer-like gesture and bowing their heads to each other. Although this isn’t a casual greeting, it is a sign of respect and will almost always be used to greet elders, teachers, bosses, and even hotel guests. The wai is an important social gesture, and for a Thai person, the absence of a wai when otherwise called for can be taken as a serious breach of etiquette. As a foreigner you won’t necessarily be expected to use it in business situations where it would otherwise be appropriate—a handshake works fine—but if you visit someone’s home and meet their parents, talk to a monk, or find yourself in a similar situation, make sure to wai as a greeting.

Though a basic wai is easy to do, the level at which you hold your hands will vary depending on the amount of respect you want to show the recipient. Until you understand the nuances of the motion, it is best to keep the wai somewhere around face level. In general, only wai people who are older than you or otherwise should be accorded respect; wai-ing little children in response to their wai is a bit of a social gaffe. What if your hands are full? There is no need to drop your bags, but make the gesture even if it’s imperfect. Remember, though, that Thai Muslims for the most part do not wai.

A row of kneeling statues with their hands in the wai pose.

Deva statues demonstrate the wai at Wat Chang Kian. Photo © Peerawat Aupala/123rf.

Daily Conduct

The king is generally revered, it is illegal to speak out against him, and foreigners are not above prosecution.Another thing you’ll notice immediately upon arriving (well, maybe once you leave the airport) is the general level of politeness in the country. The use of polite particles ka and kap is nearly universal; people will greet you when you walk into a restaurant or step into a taxi; and when someone bumps into you on a crowded street or even in a nightclub, chances are they’ll say “excuse me” or apologize with a smile. A mai pen rai attitude, which loosely translates as “no worries,” pervades casual social interactions, and acting aggressive and impatient will generally get you nowhere fast.

Although it’s difficult to make generalizations and exceptions always occur, Thais are extremely friendly, social, and curious people, especially when it comes to foreigners. Don’t be surprised if the taxi driver you just met wants to know whether you’re married, how many children you have, even your salary. No offense is meant—it is just friendly banter, and you should take the opportunity to ask questions about the other person’s life too.

It might seem counterintuitive if you’ve ever seen a Thai go-go bar, but Thais are usually reserved and conservative in their behavior in public. Conformist may be too strong a word, but there is a propensity to behave in a manner that does not rock the boat. Very strange behavior or dress can make people uncomfortable, though they may be too polite to express that discomfort to you.

Thai Names

In Thailand, everyone from your building manager to the CEO of the company you work for is on a first-name basis. While you may be used to referring to people in formal situations as “Mr.” and “Ms.,” in Thailand referring to someone by their last name would just be considered strange.

Still, some very important rules of etiquette must be observed when addressing people. As a general rule, put the word khun before anyone’s first name, whether you are addressing them directly or in the third person. If the person is older than you, use pi before their name, and if the person is younger, use nong. If you don’t know the person’s name (if you’re addressing a shop clerk, waitress, etc.) use either pi or nong on its own. All of these rules apply for both men and women.

To make things more confusing, nearly everyone in Thailand has a nickname. You may have a nickname too, but it’s probably a diminutive of your formal name, so it’s pretty easy to figure out who you are on the office contact list. In Thailand, nicknames often have absolutely nothing to do with full names. So your colleague Boom may really be named Gannita, but everyone will call her Boom (or Khun Boom, Pi Boom, or Nong Boom), and that’s how she’ll introduce herself. This isn’t really a problem until you need to send someone an email and realize you have no idea what the recipient’s formal name is!

Etiquette

You need to remember a few important etiquette rules when living in Thailand, besides general politeness and respect. Do not criticize the monarchy or have more than a basic conversation about the king. In a small circle of close friends you would be able to have such a discussion, but most people will take great offense. The king is generally revered, it is illegal to speak out against him, and foreigners are not above prosecution. Twice a day, at 8am and 6pm, the king’s anthem is played on loudspeakers in every city. Do as those around you do, and stop where you are until the music is finished. If you go to a movie in a cinema, you are required to stand when the brief film about the king is played.

Also refrain from pointing your feet at anyone, especially at an image of Buddha in a temple, and don’t touch anyone on the head except for small children. Finally, you are expected to give up your seat to a monk if you are riding on public transportation, and trains and boats even have some reserved seats for them. Women are not allowed to touch monks, or vice versa, but the onus will fall on you to get out of the way if contact seems imminent.

Public Displays of Affection

Two girls hold hands while walking on the beach in Thailand.

Platonic physical affection is much more prevalent in Thailand. Photo © Manit Larpluechai/123rf.

In general, Thais are very affectionate in public but not in a sexual manner. It’s quite common to see two girls or boys holding hands, even in their teens; parents hugging and kissing kids; and friends with their arms around each other. What is not common is seeing people hugging and kissing in a nonplatonic way.


Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Living Abroad Thailand.