If you’re spending just a few days to a few weeks in Thailand, it’s easy for some to forget that there is an entire population of people who’s lives began here before you came, and will continue after you’ve left. It’s important to be aware of that no matter how long you spend in this country, because (depending on where you’re coming from) the cultural differences can be so vast, that temporarily breaking certain habits can be crucial to how you’re perceived here.
Thai culture can often be a beautiful, colorful, and happy one. This inviting energy can sometimes cause foreigners to believe that everything they’re doing here is okay, but something to know before you come here is this concept of Kreng Jai, which essentially means having consideration for others hearts. It is very embedded in Thai culture, and affects the way they interact with people. In order to “save face”, another common concept used here, they try to always treat one another with consideration and kindness. This can come across in the way they give gifts to each other randomly or how they might detour 20 minutes out of their way to give you a ride home and not expect anything in return, all of this is kreng jai. It can also cause Thai people to keep their animosity to themselves. They might see you doing something culturally taboo, and more often than not they will not tell you. So, in order to avoid being in these quietly uncomfortable situations, here are some tips for the (mainly western) traveler coming to Thailand.
Learn Some Thai
You don’t need conversational proficiency to get around in Thailand, especially cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai where many Thai people speak English. However, it is courteous to know some simple words and phrases, and they will help you get around much easier. Learn the words for hello (Sawadee ka/krap) thank you (kop khun ka/krap) how much (tau rai ka/krap?) and an old favorite across the globe–where is the bathroom (hong naam ti nai?). Knowing just these words and questions will not only make your experience smoother, but it will impress and delight Thai people to see you making an effort.
Dress Properly for Temple Visits
There are countless mesmerizing temples in Thailand. They are the fantastic structures that represent the Buddhist religion, and many travelers come to see their beauty. Buddhist or not, anyone entering a temple’s grounds must adhere to the proper clothing rules. For women, it’s covering shoulders and knees. Think conservatively, and if you’re coming during the hotter months, an easy way to stay cool is wear lightweight (but sleeved and knee length) clothing. For men, it’s simpler. Men should generally cover their shoulders, and shorts that are about knee length are okay. It’s important to follow these guidelines not only because they are rules, and some temples won’t allow you in if you’re not dressed right, but it’s also a show of respect for the religion.
Watch Your Feet
One of the many cultural norms that stems from Buddhism in Thailand is the idea of removing shoes, and being aware of where you’re placing your feet. Shoe removal in temples is meant to eliminate dragging dirt into the temple space, which is meant to be very clean like in most religions. This often carries out into the homes and sometimes establishments of Thai people. Shoe removal is sign of respect for their attention to cleanliness. Many hostels and guesthouses will have guests take shoes off before entering the dorms or common areas, just look out for piles of shoes and/or a sign instructing you to do so. Aimlessly walking into a place without noticing your surroundings is an honest mistake, but once you realize it, be respectful and remove your shoes, whether they be sandals or hiking boots.
Another feet habit to try and be aware of, if pointing at or touching certian things with your feet. Thai people consider it extremely rude to touch someone else with your feet, point at things with your feet, or put your feet up on tables and the like. A place this foot sensitivity can often be encroached on is the markets. Many market vendors (especially at Sunday Walking Street in Chiang Mai) set up their products very low to the ground, and it can be a Westerner’s habit to point at an item they might want with their feet, instead of bending down and using their hands to gesture towards it. While the Thai vendor will likely not be visibly upset, they are surely uncomfortable with the gesture, so keeping it in mind is always a show of respect.
All of these cultural nuances can be overwhelming for the traveler who has little to no exposure to this type of culture. However, if you’re going to be traveling here, it’s important to take note of, and to remember the kinds of expectations that you might set on tourists in your home country.