As with every place in the world, there are several things that travellers should either do or avoid doing when visiting Thailand so as not to cause any offence or commit any cultural taboos. Whilst many Thai people are fairly tolerant of any small mishaps and faux pas committed in genuine error, ignorance really isn’t a good enough excuse when it comes to not being aware of some pretty basic social codes of conduct. There are also some slips that can land you in quite serious trouble, not to mention some awkward situations.
Here are some basic dos and don’ts for a happy and smooth trip to Thailand:
Don’t: Disrespect the King or Royal Family
Many Thais have a deep adoration and respect for their King, who, incidentally, is the longest-reigning monarch in the world. There are, of course, those who don’t share the same sentiments, but Thailand has very strict laws of lese majeste. This means that it is against the law to say anything negative about the King. It is also illegal to discuss the contentious subject of succession to the throne.
Saying something bad about the King, or Royal Family in general, won’t win you any friends in Thailand. If said in certain company, it could also lead to your arrest. Penalties are severe, with long periods of imprisonment the norm. People have also been arrested and prosecuted for their words on social media.
Actions are equally as important as words. You should not show any signs of disrespect towards the monarchy. This includes things like stepping on money (as it bears the King’s face) and acting badly around images of the King. There are many photos of the King around Thailand; you will notice huge posters at the side of roads and adorning decorative archways, pictures hanging within restaurants, shops, businesses, and private homes, and, indeed, in almost any place that you can think of. It’s not unusual for Thais to have stickers in their car windows and plastered on their motorbike helmets that profess their love for the King.
The Thai national anthem, Phleng Chat Thai, is played every day at 8 am and 6 pm in many public places. Take your cue from people around you – if they stop what they are doing and stand still, you should do the same. This is especially important if you are in the vicinity of an official place where the Thai flag is raised or lowered. The royal anthem, Sansoen Phra Barami, is played before films are shown in cinemas. You must stand up for the duration of this song.
Don’t: Disrespect images of the Lord Buddha
The vast majority of Thai people are practicing Buddhists. Images of the Lord Buddha, in any state of preservation, and Buddhist temples are seen as sacred. Whilst you will see many people posing for pictures in front of Buddha statues, something that was highly frowned upon in the past, you definitely shouldn’t climb onto, or sit on, the statues for any reason. Not even for the perfect selfie!
You will likely also notice that many traditional animist beliefs have been transposed into the form of Buddhism that is common in Thailand. It is better to avoid saying anything negative about Buddhism and Thai animist beliefs; criticising people’s beliefs is, apart from being really impolite, likely to cause offence. Most Thai people also really dislike talking about ghosts and spirits, and you should not touch or otherwise mess with spirit houses (the colourful shrines that you will notice throughout the country), sashes around trees, amulets hanging in vehicles or around a person’s neck, and so on.
As you head further south you’ll spot more mosques too. Sakhon Nakhon Province, in Isan, has many churches, catering to a large Thai-Christian population. Treat any place of worship with respect, and dress appropriately (detailed below).
Don’t: Lose your cool or show your emotions in public
This is quite a tricky point to cover, as in some ways it is a little contradictory. Thais are generally seen as easy-going and super friendly. They come from the Land of Smiles, remember?! There is a concept of face, particularly about losing face, in Thailand. This means that it is not socially acceptable to publicly embarrass, humiliate, or otherwise draw negative attention to someone.
Any disputes should be settled calmly and with a level-head. It’s really not okay to lose your cool and start yelling at people in Thailand. Acting all angry in public will make people around think you are somewhat unhinged! The same goes for crying, roaring laughter, and any other extreme display of emotions. Controlling your anger is one of the most important points to note. Why? Because, when people lose face it can lead to some quite nasty altercations. Some Thais will seethe inside, and retain a cool exterior. Others, however, will look for a way to regain their face. This can lead to quite extreme violence or incredibly tense and uncomfortable situations.
Public displays of affection are deeply frowned upon, especially by the older generations. Beyond a little hand-holding in the main tourist areas, it’s better to save the lovey-dovey stuff for behind closed doors. Unless you’re in one of the known sex-industry destinations, like Pattaya, where you’ll see that pretty much anything goes!
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Do: Dress appropriately for your surroundings
Traditionally, Thailand is a fairly conservation nation. Whilst attitudes towards dress are pretty relaxed in many of the most popular tourist areas, such as Bangkok, Phuket, and Pattaya, there are a few golden rules to remember.
Beachwear belongs on the beach only! You shouldn’t waltz into a restaurant or bar wearing only your bikini! Nude and topless sunbathing is not allowed in Thailand. Whilst beachwear is fine on many of the major mainland beaches and islands, such as Hua Hin, Koh Samui, and Koh Phi Phi, you should cover up a bit more the farther away you move from the tourist hotspots. For example, mainland Nakhon Si Thammarat has some truly stunning beaches that attract very few foreigners. It is fairly normal here for Thais to swim wearing shorts and t-shirts. It is recommended that you do the same, avoiding embarrassment on both sides. In the predominantly Muslim southern provinces, such as Yala and Pattani, long clothes that cover the arms and legs are strongly advised, even on the beaches.
Whilst more and more Buddhist temples, along with other places of worship, are erecting signs about appropriate dress, with some refusing entry to people who do not meet the dress criteria, it helps to know what is expected before you head out for a day sightseeing. Shoulders should be covered when visiting temples, for men and women. Lower garments should reach at least the knees, and sheer clothing is not allowed. A top tip is to always carry a light-weight sarong (large piece of fabric that can be wrapped around the body) in your bag. This can be tied around the waist over shorts, or thrown around the shoulders.
Save your clubbing gear for the clubs, avoid cropped tops (those that don’t cover the midriff) when wandering around local villages and markets, and guys – throw a shirt on!
It’s normal to take your shoes off when entering temples, official buildings (like the immigration office), private homes, and some shops and restaurants. Many places have signs to tell you, although they can be quite small and difficult to spot. A huge indication though is a pile of shoes outside somewhere; if you spot lots of shoes, take yours off too. Wearing flip flops can really make your day a lot easier!
Do: Expect some awkward questions and comments!
Many Thai people are pretty curious about foreign visitors, and it’s not uncommon to be asked a range of seemingly personal questions by strangers. Your taxi driver might try delving into your love life, wanting to know are you married, how many kids you have, if you’re not married why not, why do / don’t you have kids etc. A restaurant server might ask how much money you earn, a bartender might want to know how much you weigh, a hotel receptionist might inquire about your age, etc. There aren’t the same social taboos about such questions in Thailand, with things like marital status, age, weight, height, income and expenditure, choices regarding children, and so on all quite routine questions for Thai people. If you feel uncomfortable answering, just change the subject or make something up!
Some comments can also seem quite abrupt. Many Thais won’t think twice about telling you if they think you are fat, saying you are rich, or reminding you that you’ll soon be too old to have children! Remember that there is generally no malice involved, and shrug it off with a smile. As the famous travel quote says:
“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.” (Clifton Fadiman)
Expect the unexpected in Thailand!
Do: Be body aware – especially with heads and feet
The head, as the highest point of the body, is seen as the most spiritual part of a person. It’s really impolite in Thailand to touch a person’s head. Even an affectionate ruffle of a child’s hair can be upsetting, especially for the parents.
Conversely, the feet, as the lowest part of the body, are seen as unclean. Don’t use your feet to point, pick things up, or move things. Be careful of pointing the soles of your feet at people or Buddha images. This can be quite problematic for people who are used to sitting in a chair with their legs crossed. Cross at the ankles instead, rather than at the knees. When sitting on the floor, it is better to fold your legs to one side, or sit on your knees with your legs folded underneath you, as opposed to with your legs out straight or crossed. Definitely, don’t touch people with your feet! Try not to step over people or their belongings too – if you cannot walk around, a quick nod will usually ensure people make space or move their things.
Traditionally, the left hand was used for cleaning after going to the toilet. It is, therefore, seen as unclean in Thailand. Try to remember to take food, shake hands, and pass things using your right hand.
It is forbidden for females to touch Thai monks, or sit next to a monk or their belongings. This is a big thing to remember if you plan on taking public transport. If you’re female and the only seat left on a bus is next to a monk, you should stand. Very often, however, a male passenger will swap seats, offering you theirs instead. If you’re giving alms to a monk (money or food), place it in their collection bowl rather than handing it to them directly.
Other common dos and don’ts in Thailand
Whilst nobody expects you to observe every single social rule, and be aware of each cultural nuance, there are a few other dos and don’ts in Thailand, some that relate to your well-being and health.
Don’t drink the tap water, unless you want to potentially end up with a bad stomach! Ice is generally fine, as it is usually made from filtered water.
Whilst many visitors to Thailand rent scooters to get around more easily, it is worth keeping in mind that Thailand is one of the worst countries in the world for fatalities on the road. If there is an alternative way of getting around, think about whether you really want to risk becoming another road traffic accident statistic. Only rent a scooter if you have ridden before, preferably with a license to do so! Don’t put other people at risk because of your inexperience. If you do ride a scooter, including as a passenger, always wear a helmet.
There are many stray animals in Thailand, especially in the more rural areas, Street dogs can be quite aggressive, and rabies is a real risk. Be cautious of petting cats and dogs. Be wary of wild animals too – monkeys can be problematic in some towns, such as Lopburi, Phetchaburi, and Prachuap Khiri Khan.
Before visiting any animal attractions, make sure you do your research first to find ethical operations. Animal abuse is quite a big problem in Thailand, largely fuelled by income from tourism. Whether it’s elephant riding, cuddling up to tigers, having monkeys pose on your shoulder for pictures, snake shows, crocodile farms, or zoos, dig a bit deeper before arranging your activities.
Connected to the rules of lese majeste, don’t openly criticise the ruling regime. At present, Thailand is under a military regime following one of many military coups (where the army takes control of a country). There are strict penalties for anyone who speaks badly of the regime, including on social media.
Drugs are illegal in Thailand, and punishments are harsh. Gambling, with the exception of bets at registered Muay Thai (Thai boxing) venues, is illegal. Playing cards is often seen as gambling, even if no money is actually involved. Don’t whip out your deck of cards for a game of poker in public!
If you must pass between people, or close to another person, try and stoop slightly so that your head is lower than theirs. This shows respect and courtesy.
There are many social rules within Thailand, many of which won’t concern a regular tourist. Perhaps the most common thing you are likely to encounter is the wai. This is the name given to the action of placing bath hands flat together in front of the chest and bowing the head slightly. It is used in many situations: as a greeting, to apologise, to interrupt somebody, to worship, to bid farewell, and to show respect, to name a few. In general, if somebody performs the wai to you, you should do it back. This does not apply to people working in the service industry, such as waiters and waitresses, or children, but it’s still polite to reciprocate the wai in any case. There are many etiquette rules surrounding the wai, most of which shouldn’t be of too much concern for a tourist.
Importantly, enjoy your time discovering what makes Thailand different and learning more about this fascinating land! Book your trip to Thailand for a marvellous holiday to remember.
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