Waiter, Where’s My Knife? – It’s actually very easy to master Thai table manners.

thai table manners

Even though you’re in a country that’s probably very far from your own, and which is renowned for being exotic, table manners aren’t so different to those back at home. And there’s further good news in the fact that Thais are extremely tolerant, and are aware that holidaymakers are bound to make a few faux-pas when it comes to eating.

There are a few things to know, however, and the first of them is that unless you’re eating in a western-style restaurant in Thailand, you’re probably not going to see many knives in evidence. No matter whether you’re eating at a night market stall or dining in a top-notch Thai restaurant, you’ll be given a spoon and fork. Always use just the spoon for eating. Use the fork to guide the food onto the spoon. You’ll find this arrangement quite practical most of the time. If you’re tempted to eat with the fork, ask yourself how you feel back home when you see someone eating food off a knife – it’s the western equivalent in bad etiquette. And, by the way, Thais don’t normally eat with chopsticks – unless they’re eating noodles.

Thailand is a very convivial country, and people are used to eating together as strangers. If you’re in a supermarket food court or small eatery, you may find yourself facing lots of packed tables. Where to sit? Just take a seat anywhere that looks
free, perhaps nod and smile before you sit down, but definitely don’t do a high-wattage big grin. If you’re not sure if the seat’s spare, then raise your eyebrows in a silent ‘OK?’ gesture. Once you’ve made yourself comfortable, don’t try to engage your new neighbours in conversation, however. Thais are used to being by themselves in crowded spaces and chatting isn’t expected.

But back to that table. Whatever is already on the tables in the eatery is fine to use; help yourself to the condiments you find and if, without asking for it, you’re brought a glass of water, it’s on the house. It’s the same if you’re brought an empty
glass with ice and there’s a carafe of water on the table. The exception to this rule is that if there are sealed plastic bottles of water instead, then these are for sale. In some places they may also have laid out some fresh vegetables on the table
such as small cucumbers, Thai eggplants and green beans. Again feel free to help yourself, but only take as much as you are going to eat.

One of the main things to recognize when eating out with friends is that ordering food is done completely differently. Whereas in the west, each person orders for himself or herself, in Thailand, it’s a communal decision. So half a dozen friends may order half a dozen dishes, but they’re for sharing. Once you get used to this system, you’ll be happy to follow it. And why not? Instead of your one, solitary dish, yours to gloriously eat alone, you’ll be able to sample food that the
entire group has chosen – many more dishes, in other words. Just be aware that this system calls for everyone to respect the others present. Don’t hog any one of the dishes so that there’s not much of it left for anyone else. And be aware
that some of the group may be slow eaters; they won’t be happy if the food’s all gone and they’ve only just started.

When you look around at Thai people eating in restaurants, you’ll notice that they’re mindful of each other. Look for the subtle signs of this and you’ll see them. Generally, however, you’ll see that there’s no standing on ceremony. No
elaborate manners, no arcane rituals are being observed. The whole point of this is that no-one stands out. Really, no matter how many times you eat in a Thai restaurant, you’ll probably never see anything remotely jaw-dropping. And
that’s exactly the point: nothing much to see, nothing to really comment on. But make no mistake; this is all part of the etiquette, too.

The worst infringement of Thai etiquette isn’t to do with eating with a fork or ordering that amazing green curry just for yourself, it’s being noticed for all the wrong reasons. To give an example, just last week I was at the food-court at Tesco-Lotus when three young guys sat down next to my table. They seemed to be holidaymakers, but they were obviously not Thai – as a Thai person would never, ever come to a table half-naked. They had no shirts on but didn’tseem remotely embarrassed. Well, at least they weren’t in Speedos. Next they hunkered down to their food, quite literally, somehow concertinaing their spines until their heads were just about a foot off the table. This gave them the disquieting
appearance of over-large children. Next elbows came right out (dangerous for anyone passing close by them) and then came the mighty shovelling of food into their avid mouths. I thought of mechanical diggers. They looked a sight. They made trough noises. As for the Thais around them, I couldn’t tell what they were thinking, not that I expected them to say
anything. A lot of visitors mistake the amiable silence of their fellow diners to mean that everything is just fine. Further encouragement then to keep on with the same bad behaviour – or worse.

Alas, it’s not just holidaymakers who manage tokeep on offending their patient hosts, it’s foreign residents themselves, some of whom have been living on Samui for decades. They should be setting some kind of example (does one really
need to be set?) and leading the way, so to speak. And not all do. Check out ex-pat gracelessness: the swaggering gait, the loud voices, the ordering-around of staff and worse. Somehow, a certain percentage of people feel entitled, and their over-sized egos are right on display. Are they doing themselves a favour by standing out? Definitely not. Here in Thailand in
a nation of some 60 million people who are trying to get through their day with calmness, they just look … stupid.

But perhaps the most important consideration is the way that waiters, waitresses and restaurant staff are treated. The obvious, no-brainer rule is, treat them well. This means being patient when they don’t understand your order, summoning
them in an appropriate way and being well, kind, to them and not oafish. And leave a tip, too, as they are working very long hours and very probably for wages that might shock you.

In Thailand, the fundamental idea of eating is the enjoyment of the food and being with friends and family. Nothing is therefore very complicated about etiquette, and it’s almost a minimalist approach at times. The crucial point to bear in
mind, as with all Thai etiquette, is to think of others around you. If your attitude shows this, no-one will ever mind if you make some small mistake at the table.

Dimitri Waring