You’re in a mini-mart, waiting to be served. There are three people in front of you and, just as the queue moves up, the door ding-dongs open and a man crashes in. He shoves straight to the front and shouts at the girl on the till, “gimme a coke!” The question is: is this acceptable? Is this the sort of behaviour that most folks would just shrug off, unaffected, or is it what most would think of as infuriatingly rude? The point here is that social etiquette can be thoughtful and considerate, or it can be selfish and demanding. To some extent that’s a personal thing, but at least you know what’s going on, unlike in a foreign country with a different culture and traditions!
I think the keyword in both cases, at home and abroad, is ‘thoughtful’. With maybe a touch of ‘consideration’ and a big How to spoonful of ‘unselfishness’! Thailand is a very conservative nation which cherishes long-held traditions. And it’s oh-so-easy for an unwitting stranger to put his foot in it. Worse, to end up in jail, which can, and sometimes does, happen. Take the concept of ‘rights’, for instance. In your own country you have certain rights as a citizen. One of them is probably that of ‘freedom of speech’. You have grown up with the idea that you can say what you want about whatever you want – you’ve a right to your own opinion and you’ve the right to express your feelings and ideas. But it’s foolish of you to assume that those rights travel with you. Because in Thailand there will be occasions when they most certainly don’t.
One thing to be aware of is that it’s forbidden for a monk to have any contact whatsoever with a female. Please don’t sit next to one on a bus, even if it’s the last seat. And if you accidentally bump into one, don’t just say ‘sorry’, try to express concern as well, and ‘wai’ him respectfully. (More about that ‘wai’ in just a moment.) Temples, too, are mostly sacrosanct little oases of veneration. Please don’t fool about or climb on any statues for photos! And,A short guide on how to spend time here without upsetting anyone – etiquette in Thailand. of course, both women and men should dress respectfully before entering.
At which point it has to be said that the Thai people are a tolerant race (well, of most things anyway) and they will benignly overlook foreign visitors who genuinely are confused or unsure of themselves. This is particularly true in tourist areas such as Samui. But don’t expect all ‘wats’ (temples) to be as astonishingly laid back as, say, the temple at Big Buddha (Wat Phra Yai) where, it seems, just about anything goes. And this is in stark contrast to some government buildings on the island, such as the vehicle taxation office on the west coast, where you’re risking being turned away if you turn up in a skinny tank-top T-shirt.
And while on the subject of covering up (or not) please be thoughtful enough not to walk about semi-naked in public. It’s distasteful to see people in brief swimwear sauntering around Tesco Lotus as if they were still on the beach. Thai people are modest. They will even mostly go swimming in the sea fully clothed, and they certainly find topless sunbathing offensive, unless it is perhaps attempted discretely.
Be aware also that the Buddhist belief is that the head is the most sacred part of the body and the feet are the most unclean. There’s a kind of no-go space 20 centimetres or so above people’s heads so try to avoid leaning over them and, on the beach, please don’t step over the head of anyone lying down. Or, for that matter, pat little kids affectionately on the head, no matter how cute they are. And, down at the other end, similarly be aware that putting your feet up on a seat or table or pointing towards others, is considered very low-class and uncouth, and to be avoided.
Finally, that confusing little gesture known as the ‘wai’. It’s the Thai greeting. They grow up it with it, and there is a whole realm of social conventions attached to it which visitors aren’t usually aware of, nearly all of it relating to social status. Firstly, play it safe and don’t wai someone unless they wai you first – that saves a lot off mild embarrassment all round! Never put your hands together right up in front of your face or forehead in the ‘high wai’ – this is reserved for abbots and royalty. Instead, place your hands loosely together, relaxed, with your thumbs just touching the underside of your chin, and dip your head a fraction while still smiling and keeping eye contact. Finally, don’t wai children. If a doting mother prompts her infant to ‘wai the farang’, then respond by smiling hugely and dipping your head in acknowledgment, while keeping it in mind not to ruffle the kid’s hair in an affectionate manner!
Of course, there’s more. Whole books have been written on the matter. But, with a little bit of common sense plus some thoughtfulness, at least you’ll now have enough info so that people won’t frown at you and say, “Please don’t!”
Rob De Wet