Thailand culture FAQ

Be respectful, stay calm and carry on smiling
Thailand culture FAQ

What are the basic do's and don'ts ?

Though there are many cultural errors it is easy to make inadvertently in Thailand, people are very tolerant providing it is not insulting towards the monarchy or religion.

  • Don't be disrespectful towards the King or the royal family, as this could get you in serious trouble. This includes never making any negative comments about them to anyone, even joking, and standing up during the national anthem (composed by the king) before the film in a cinema. It also means not stamping on coins and notes if they happen to fall on the floor, as they have the King's picture on them.

  • Dress properly when visiting wats (temples) i.e. no shorts or sleeveless shirts - a couple of the most important temples won't even let you in if you are dressed inappropriately. All Buddha images are considered sacred even if they are old and run down, so don't do anything such as climbing on top of them for photos (tourists have been imprisoned for this before).

  • The head is considered spiritually as well physically the highest part of the body, and the feet are likewise the lowest. Therefore, try and keep your feet as inconspicuous as possible - don't point them at people, touch someone else with them, rest them on tables or chairs, use them to point with etc...

  • Smile a lot and stay calm. Being jai yen (calm or composed, literally 'cool heart') is highly valued in Thailand, and is a much better attitude in case of a problem than shouting and getting aggressive. Losing your temper (being jai rorn, 'hot heart') will almost always get you nowhere and only hinder your cause. Related to this is the very Thai attitude in case of a problem, mai pen rai (it's not important, it doesn't matter).

  • Before going into a Thai house or temple, take off your shoes. Some guesthouses and even shops apply this rule too. Though some people do, it's not necessary to take off socks as well.

  • Use your right hand or both hands when giving things to someone, not the left hand alone which is regarded as being dirty.

  • Out of tourist areas, it's best to dress fairly tidily and conservatively. Dirty and/or inappropriate clothes (such as shorts) are considered low class, and you may be treated accordingly. This doesn't apply so much on beaches such as Phuket or heavily touristed areas such as Khao San road in Bangkok.
What are Thai people like ?

Many visitors leave with a very positive impression of Thais in general, as they are friendly, smile a lot and are rarely confrontational. Unfortunately, some (but by no means all) of the Thais who spend a lot of time working with tourists can hassle you and lie if it'll make you buy something. Try and make contact with ordinary Thais outside of the tourist industry, and it's likely to be a very rewarding experience.

What sort of clothes should I wear while I'm there ?

Generally, the more conservative your clothes the better. This is mostly true in rural Thailand, where tourists are relatively uncommon. In very touristy places such as Phuket and Ko Samui, the locals are used to tourists and you can basically wear whatever you want. In Bangkok, this is true for Khao San road and Sukhumvit road but you may start to feel self-conscious if you wander elsewhere. The best guide is to emulate locals in the area where you are.

What is perhaps most important, however, is that the clothes are clean. Unwashed or dirty clothes will lose you a lot of respect, and the Thais have a none-too-complimentary phrase (farang kee nok) for some of the low-budget tourists who dress like this.

How difficult is it to talk with the Thais ?

It's perfectly possible to take a long trip around Thailand without being able to speak a word of Thai, but it's certainly helpful to be able to. Places that get a lot of tourists, and Bangkok in particular, have English speakers everywhere but this is not the case in other parts of Thailand. The more off the beaten track you go, the more speaking some Thai becomes necessary. The Thai people are generally very appreciative of any attempts to speak their language, not least because so few foreigners are able to.

Check the Thai language section for words and phrases in Thai.

Is it okay to go topless / nude on beaches in Thailand ?

This is frowned upon in Thai culture, and you will almost never see a Thai doing it. Nevertheless, going topless on some beaches on Ko Samui, Phuket, Ko Pha-Ngan and other very touristy islands is commonplace. The locals here are used to foreigners and don't care so much.

In less touristy places, particularly where there are Thai families on holiday, it is considered rude and offensive. Going nude at beaches is illegal in Thailand, and is impossible pretty much everywhere. If you really want to do this, your best bet is to find somewhere remote where you are not sure not to be seen.

If I want to take presents for the Thai people I meet, what should I bring ?

Basically, anything representative of your country that is difficult to get in Thailand is a good idea, even things such as photos and postcards of where you come from. Fancy chocolates are also a good idea, as these are next to impossible to get in Thailand. Bringing flowers as a present to any Thai person is not really a good idea, as the type of flower given is very significant - you may well end up inadvertently offending them.

Am I allowed to take Buddha images out of Thailand ?

Small amulets and the like that are worn on the person can be taken out without any problem, but there are restrictions on anything bigger by non-Buddhists. It requires a permit if you want to take one out of the country, the store you buy from should be able to help you with this.


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