Meaning “land of the people,” Thailand is a truly wonderful, friendly, and beautiful country. Thai people are often happy and helpful, earning the country the motto “land of smiles.” My experience here has solidified everything I read prior to my trip and has been very positive. I researched quite a bit and feared I may struggle to know how to behave, what to say, and more importantly, what to do and what not to do. Much of Asian culture deals with physical gestures and showing respect. Below, you can read all about the Thai way of life and you will see that it is all very positive, and I promise it is easy to pick up!
Greetings and Showing Respect:
Wai - While Westerners are accustomed to wave for a greeting, the customary gesture in Thailand is a wai. A wai is a small bow with your hands pressed together and you will give and receive them all the time! They understand if foreigners do not execute it perfectly, but it is most respectful to try. It is used to say both hello and goodbye, as well as please and sorry. You can follow these levels of bowing:
-Buddha and monks: thumbs between eyebrows with a bow
-Older people and superiors: thumbs at nose with a bow
-Same age or status: thumbs at chin with a bow
-Subordinates / younger people: a smile or nod works in response to their
wai; you do not have to wai first.
Smile - A smile here goes a long way! I have definitely noticed a change in someone’s look at me before and after I present a smile. Often, locals will stare at foreigners because they are curious, but their expression might be blank and they do not realize they are staring. I give a big Thai smile and it is always returned! In fact, it brightens their day. It’s the easiest way to start off a transaction on the right foot and appear respectful.
Attitude and Manners:
Mai pen rai - The most popular phrase here is “Mai pen rai” which directly translates to “I don’t care” but stands for something closer to “hakuna matata” “no worries.” Thais say it all the time! Any time there is a problem, confusion, misunderstanding, or even an accident (spill, bump into someone, etc), “mai pen rai” is always used. They use it for “don’t worry about it,” “no problem” and “you're welcome,” so you can see they are very laid back people.
Saving Face - This is a big point of difference than my life in New York City. Thai people are all about “saving face,” which is not outwardly showing negative emotions. They are non-confrontational and calm. It is considered impolite and disrespectful to display anger, so if anything is going wrong with a transaction, a meal, or otherwise, you have to try to stay calm and communicate clearly, or abandon the issue. Arguing and showing frustration just doesn’t happen. It’s amazing! Honestly, it really helps you to become more laid back!
In general - Another good way to present yourself respectfully is to dress respectfully. Though it is very hot in this country, exposing your shoulders and knees is considered disrespectful and risque. It’s best to wear a shirt with short sleeve and capri pants or long skirt. Men can wear shorts that fall just above the knee, but woman in short shorts will draw a lot of attention. Also, necklines must be higher to avoid any cleavage.
In mourning period - Currently Thailand is mourning the death of King Rama IX, who died last October. The mourning period is one year and requires stricter dress codes. Many people wear all black daily, with their shoulders and knees covered, no matter their job. Teachers, government officials, and other positions of high respect must always follow this. The mourning period will end October 29th.
In island towns and major cities - The main exception to these rules are on the islands and in the major cities, especially Bangkok. You can absolutely wear your “normal” clothes - tank tops, short shorts, rompers, sleeveless tops, etc. Thai people will dress that way as well unless they are working. Honestly, the less you wear, the more attention you will get. Sometimes it is better to not raise any eyebrows, in my opinion, but it is really nice to wear a bit less clothing in these areas.
In the temples - Dress codes are extremely strict at all of the religious locations like the Buddhist temples. Shoulders and knees must be covered, even men should wear their longest shorts. Sometimes women are turned away for wearing a shawl over a tank top. Be smart and pack an option of clothing for these visits, otherwise you will have to rent or buy a robe or skirt.
As teachers - As mentioned above, currently teachers must wear all black or muted colors. Teachers must always cover their shoulders, knees, cleavage, toes, and tattoos. It is a highly regarded position so dress is formal. Blouses and skirts are the norm at my school, along with dresses. Men wear button down shirts and slacks with a belt. After mourning period, the code is the same except any color is acceptable. Piercings should be removed, hair should be neatly groomed, and you should do your best to appear professional at all times. Outside of school hours, it is wise to appear presentable in case you run into students or school staff (it happens frequently in these small towns!).
In clubs - Strangely, the clubs I have been to in Bangkok require a strict dress code of covering knees and toes and prohibiting one-pieces (dresses and rompers). Shoulders can be exposed, so it’s a bit strange, but good to know when you pack a few “going out” clothes. Men usually wear button down shirts or polos and slacks or nice shorts.
Manners - Like the items above, the best way to be treated with respect here is to use good judgement and show manners. Smile, be calm, polite, and friendly, and you won’t have any problem here. Thais typically do not laugh loudly in public or do anything to call attention to themselves, so that’s something to keep in mind! You may notice some establishments have shoes lined up in front of the door, so simply slip off your shoes before you enter.
Affection - Hand holding is the only physical display of affection that is permitted in public. Do not do anything more than that in any situation.
Respect Buddhism - Disrespecting Buddhism is against the law. When visiting a temple or Buddhist statue, never climb on the structure in general or do strange poses for a photo. Thais are there to practice their religion and pay respects.
Respect the monarchy - Disrespecting the monarchy is also against the law. It is recommended to not speak of the monarchy at all around Thai people, as they may not be able to interpret your intention. Never ever step on money, which has the king’s face on it. Also, when the National Anthem is played, stop what you are doing and remain still through the end of the song. (This is mainly at school and sporting events).
Body parts - For Thai people, the head is the most honorable body part so you should not touch anyone’s head or face. The foot is the dirtiest part of the body and should not be used to point to anyone, anything, or move things. You should sit with your feet flat on the floor and remove shoes when asked or indicated.
Attention on foreigners - One cultural adjustment I’ve had to make is getting used to the fact that I stand out here. Thais, while friendly and helpful people, are overeager to look at foreigners. Many of them will comment (in words or gesture) about the lightness of my skin. That type of conversation is not taboo here, like it is in America. People tell me I am very white and they want my skin, as often as once a week! They truly admire the Western look and may stare or even ask to take a picture with me. It has never been a problem at all, but I was not used to that kind of attention, coming from a big city like New York, where I blended in!
Adjusting to “Thai Time” - With the “mai pen rai” attitude, Thais are very relaxed in all ways, but especially when it comes to scheduling. To paint a picture of who I am, I am a type-A overachiever with experience in nannying for multiple children and corporate event planning. Basically, I am a master of time management and organization. You will quickly learn to live on “Thai time,” which means your food at a restaurant may come in 5 minutes or 35 minutes. Buses often leave close to schedule, but vans leave when they are full or when they want, so you never really know what to expect. This factor scared me senseless before coming, but honestly it is very freeing and has not caused a single major problem for me so far! Fingers crossed it stays that way!
As you can see, there are many aspects of Thai culture that require adjustments from Western habits. I have not personally encountered any issues with the items above, but attire is the best thing to be aware of and plan for in advance. Just be smart, courteous, and respectful, and you will be fine! You will be wai-ing instead of waving before you know it!
Stef is a TEFL teacher in Thailand currently, hailing all the way from NYC! She's shared her tips for living in Thailand here.
To see the TEFL Heaven program Stef chose to start her adventure, see the Teach English in Thailand Program.