Thailand - Conduct

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Social Customs and Manners

Social customs differ in all parts of the world. Informality and general friendliness in personal relationships in all age, economic, and social groups seem to characterize the Thai people.

wai The Thais do not say Good Morning, Good Afternoon or Good Evening. They greet one another with the word sawadee and instead of shaking hands; they put their palms together in front of their chest under the chin and bow slightly (this is called wai). It is customary for the younger or lower in station of life, to begin the greeting. When taking leave, the same word and procedure is repeated.

Women will wai first (to show respect by placing her palms together and raising them to the chin or forehead) during an introduction in which a man is presented. If the woman does not wai, the man should not presume to wai first. The woman is not obliged to extend this courtesy, and when she does, it is because of sincere pleasure at the introduction.

When one greets a person with a wai the other should reply with the same gesture. Not to do so, or to content oneself with merely nodding would be taken as a sign of low breeding.

Thai people are very strict in training boys and girls and even small children are deft at making the wai. Small children, two or three years old, who at the bidding of their parents will make a wai to a guest, prostrating in obeisance on his or her lap. A servant should genuflect when handing water to a guest.

The Thai is humble. The term he applies to himself when talking to an equal is chan or phom, and when he addresses a superior kraphom. A commoner would address a nobility of high rank tai-thao. Similarly, when talking to a royal prince, he would call himself kra-mom and would address the prince fa-phra-baht (in short fa-baht). When addressing a crowd, the term kha-pha-chao is used.

Nai, the official title for male commoners, (equivalent to Mr or mister), is rapidly being replaced by khun, which is a more polite form. Khun can be used in both the written form and also in conversation; it is applied indiscriminately to men and women. Normally it is singular in meaning and is duplicated khun-khun when we address more than one person.

Use khun as a form of address when speaking to a Thai if his name is not known. It is also used when addressing younger or older people. Nai is however, still used in all official documents for men and nang (Mrs) or nang-sao (Miss) for women.

Tanh is much more polite than khun and should always be used when addressing a government official. It would normally be used by a junior employee to his boss, and is roughly equivalent in politeness value to the English 'Sir'. It is also, by courtesy, usually extended to foreign visitors to Thailand.

Khun-nai is the feminine equivalent of tanh and is being used more and more as a title with much the same meaning as Mrs or Madam in English.

Politeness plays a big role in Thai conversations. Here are a few of the many polite expressions in current use. Karuna or proad is used by Thais in making a request. Without proad or karuna, the request would sound, to Thai ears, as an injunction or peremptory and arrogant order. In giving directions to a taxi driver or instructions to a porter at railway stations, airports, wharfs, hotels, etc., the expression of courtesy proad or karuna may be omitted.

Khor corresponds to 'please' when making a request. By itself it means 'give me please'.

Chern is used to indicate a polite invitation to do something and so corresponds to 'please' as in 'please come in'.

The English word 'hello' when used to greet people has no corresponding word in Thai. Instead one has to use the expression sawadee or pai-nai ma which means 'to where come?'. The question is merely a token of friendliness that does not require a specific answer. Thais use 'hello' when answering the telephone.

In Thailand as elsewhere good behaviour may be recognized by its being inoffensive to the eye. Well-bred people speak with moderation, have a regard for the rules of social hierarchy, and above all are mindful to always say khop-chai (thank you) and khor-tort (I beg you pardon, or excuse me). To give greater stress to one's gratitude one will add khop-khun and khop-phra-khun, which are in some sort a form of super thanks. Similarly a well bred Thai will never omit to express his embarrassment by the words pratharn-tort or khor a-phai every time he make a slip in speaking or passes close to some person of quality or is obliged to go first through a doorway.

Remember that khor-tort excuses you from your offence only when the offence is unavoidable. If you must commit a social error, you are forgiven when you very politely use this apologetic expression. you may be pardoned when:

A Thai bends over so politely each time he or she passes in front of people. It is one of those gestures that are so ingrained as to be almost instinctive. Of course, this graceful mannerism could have a Chinese background - the almost imperceptible bow, the diffident smile and the respectful use of both hands when receiving or handing over something.

Thais have no secrets or things that they want to keep hidden from their friends and neighbours, except perhaps their innermost thoughts. but their actions are open to all for appraisal.

To the Thais these are no secrets, along with your age, your income and many other personal details Westerners generally keep to themselves. They are all of common interest or concern. A visitor should not accept some facets of Thai friendliness and reject others as rude.

Thai custom is to use the first name rather than the family name. A person called 'Suraphong Kanchananaga' is addressed as Khun Suraphong even by persons who are not his close friends. He is never addressed as Khun Kanchananaga.

To show the respect for an eminent person, a Thai joins his hands together and bows slightly, without forgetting to smile; which is correct and, what is more, extremely gracious.

Some Do's and Don'ts in Thailand

Thai people are generally very polite and friendly, but some Thai people in the countryside still carry on a tradition of extreme jealousy of their privacy. They may be smiling, but do not stare at them in this country. Do not look into their eyes too long. Many Thais, young and old, could still react very violently to such a gesture, which they consider to be a very rude insult, or an invitation to fight, or a challenge to a duel to the finish.

Entering any house (especially upcountry) in Thailand involves a set of formalities. First it is usual to remove your shoes before entering. The host will probably not tell you to, but will respect you if you do. The foreigner who keeps his boots or shoes on in a Thai house is never forgotten or forgiven. Second one washes one's feet with water from a Shanghai jar at the foot of the wooden steps leading up to the house; using a half-coconut shell as a scoop. Another problem is where to leave your shoes. It must be remembered that Thais believe that shoes are impregnated with the filth of the streets, and if you've been doing some walking around since you last cleaned your shoes they probably are. The lowliest person leaves his footwear on the bottom rung of the house steps while the house owner leaves his at the very top on the veranda. Lesser members of the family all have their own rung and visiting guests are supposed to leave their shoes in ascending social order, somewhere below the top but well above the bottom.

On the veranda you can walk anywhere you like. The actual living quarters are normally raised about 10 inches above the veranda and have a polished wood floor in contrast to the veranda, which is comprised of rough planks. No one is supposed to walk on this polished floor except the family members who live there unless mats are laid down first. In the absence of mats you sit on the edge of the polished floor with your feet out on the veranda.

If your host asks you to spend a night in his house you may do so and may be supplied with a phaakhamaa. At the hour of the bath a phaakhamaa is an absolute essential for a Thai man, as the bathing is almost alfresco, at a well in the middle of the village.

The phaakhamaa has 100-odd different uses for men - a dressing gown (wrapped around you while you get your pants off), a swimsuit (when you are in the water), a rather ineffective towel, and a wrapper around a rheumatic poodle, cheesecloth, headband, rag, and finally a wall decoration.

When living in a friend's house the local custom is that one's wife or daughter helps the wife with the household chores.

Do not sit in a Thai house with legs crossed. Traditional village breeding has many taboos. You are taught never to raise your voice, say a harsh word or make a rough movement. Never, ever must you show disrespect for your parents or elders. You must not in fact ever contradict your elders in word, deed, gesture or facial expression. They are always right, having 'eaten salt' before you did.

In Thailand the head is a respected part of the body and normally should not be touched except perhaps in a fatherly manner by one's parents. Though he does not believe, as his ancestors did, that the head is the sacred seat of a person's spirit, he would still be offended. So you must not play with a Thais head or headgear. Nor should you ruffle his hair unless he obviously wants you to.

Since the head contains the delicate and most important substance in the human body, the brain, it should be carefully treated and jealously guarded. Thus, in Thai style manner of politeness no one is to stand above or near the head of another person of higher or equal rank or status. On the other hand, when in the presence of the sovereign head of state, every Thai would instinctively and spontaneously bow their heads, almost as if to pay obeisance.

Another sign of bad breeding is to point out an object with one's foot. It is with one's right hand that one must show things. Also, to receive something from a superior a courteous Thai will rest on his left hand and receive in his stretched out right. Do not use the feet to touch any part of another person's body, it is considered very rude and an insult.

Any visiting to a friend must be accompanied by a complicated ritual. To begin with it would be unseemly to knock at the door, so a visitor who is well up on the ways of polite society will announce himself by a discreet cough. He will then come in on tiptoe, his hands clasped in a wai.

On a bus a gentleman will give his seat up to woman, especially to an elderly woman or one with a child or one is burdened by many packages.

The Thais have a refined polished language spoken among gentler folks as differentiated from the language of the servants. It is sometimes shocking to hear foreigners speak Thai because they have imitated the language of their servants. Never make your servants your language teachers!

It is a good custom to wash one's hands before a meal, since the Thais will often eat with their fingers. Thais never mix their dishes. Shrimp, beef, pork, oysters, fish, vegetables, etc., are kept separate, each being brought to the rice and then the lips. All food is served neatly cut up; there is no dividing or separating required with knife and fork, and so the meal is eaten with spoon and fork and china soupspoon.

Often Thai food is highly spiced. If you've never had Thai curry before, here's a hint: take a good-sized helping of rice, and baby samples of the curry itself.

If you are invited to a dinner you should not refuse anything put before you by your host in his house. It is believed the easiest way to win respect from the Thais is to eat everything. You should eat all the rice you take as rice left over implies waste and waste is unforgivable in the often-hungry East.

If you are in a restaurant or an eating-house don't let your eyes linger too long at the people on the next table. They may not have gone there for the food. Fights can erupt just because of an exchange of glances.

It is correct to take a second helping if you so desire. It is a compliment to the host or hostess to do so. If you don't care for a second helping, you say phaw laew, khop khun.

Most Thai men and eldest sons still eat apart from the women folk and the small children, and only in restaurants and at parties do they mix to show that they are men and women of this modern world.

Courtesy requires, that one keep one's appointments punctually. Yet is often playfully said of a person who has only a vague sense of time that he is keeping 'Thai Time'. Thai Time is an hour late of the specified time.

While Thailand is a Land of Smiles and a country where almost every visitor greatly enjoys himself, it should be remembered that the King and Queen as well as Buddha images are sacred and are not to be the subjects of even the most innocuous joke.

Although Thai temples are an irresistible magnet for tourists and well worth visiting it should be remembered that they are primarily places of worship rather than tourist attractions. Remove your shoes before entering a temple and if people or praying stand quietly aside. Also wear proper attire, no brief skirt, singlet or shorts.

Ladies must on no account enter within the boundary stones of a bote (the most sacred building in a wat). This is the building in which various religious ceremonies are held, including ordination of Buddhist monks. It is not necessarily the largest building, what sets it apart is the eight or more boundary stones that surround it.

Thai tradition forbids women to go inside the monk's quarters where sacred Buddha images are kept. It would be considered extremely unlucky if a woman was sitting upstairs and a monk should pass by downstairs.

Ladies must not for any reason touch a Buddhist monk, hand things directly to him or to directly accept any article from him. Remember always that a monk is looked up to and respected. He cannot ask you anything but may accept if offered. Women should never be alone in the presence of a monk, as many monastic orders forbid even verbal contact with a woman.

It is customary among Thai people to put a Buddha image in an elevated place. One should therefore avoid placing an image on the floor or on the lawn without a stand underneath. The following places are regarded as being low and therefore improper to place an image: at the foot of or underneath a staircase, under a table, a chair or a bed, or in a bathroom.

Apart form a taboo against any physical contact with Buddhist monks; women are also barred from stepping into a boxing ring lest their presence would weaken the fighting spirit that inspires boxers.

Similarly women must not climb onto the rooftop of public buses to retrieve their luggage with male passengers aboard because a female presence up there is believed to neutralize sacred spirits dwelling inside Buddha amulets hung on men's necks.

A Buddhist will be displeased to see an image or part of an image being used as a decoration, or part of a decoration, and not for worship or for educational purposes, for instance, as a decoration in a meeting room, a drawing room or on a lawn. Thai people would feel deeply insulted to see an image being used as a paperweight, an ashtray or a hat stand. If one wishes to have an image for worship it should be placed in a separate room.

Do not climb on top of a Buddha image to have your photograph taken as some tourists have done.

Finally, foreigners coming to live in Thailand will not lend themselves to committing unpardonable errors of sacrilegious or disrespectful treatment of the Buddha image which should be kept at a place of worship and not as a piece of furniture, for an ornament or commercial advertisement. Such disrespect or sacrilege would offend the public eyes in Thailand. We have witnessed many notorious instances of looting of relics in temples and pagodas, beheading and dismembering of Buddha images. The acts constitute the most heinous offences not only against the Kingdom but also against the entire people of Thailand.

Conduct

The TAT put out a useful publication on do's and don'ts in Thailand, starting with the warning that the monarchy is held in considerable respect in Thailand (they are) and visitors should be respectful too. One of Thailand's leading intellectuals, Sulak Sivarak, was arrested in the early '80s for lese-majesty when he called the king 'the skipper' (a passing reference to his fondness for sailing).

Correct behaviour in temples entails several guidelines, the most important of which is to dress neatly and take your shoes off when you enter the inner compound or buildings. At the temple on Doi Suthep near Chiang Mai you can see a whole snapshot photo gallery of 'inappropriately dressed' visitors. Buddha images are sacred objects, don't pose in front of them for pictures and definitely do not clamber upon them.

Thais greet each other not with a handshake but with a prayer-like palms-together gesture known as a wai. If someone wais you, you should wai back (unless waied by a child). The feet are the lowest parts of the body (spiritually as well as physically) so don't point your feet at people or point at things with your feet. In the same context, the head is regarded as the highest part of the body; so don't touch Thais on the head either. Thais are often addressed by their first name with the honorific Khun or a title preceding it.

Beach attire is not considered appropriate for trips into town and is especially counterproductive if worn to government offices (e.g. when applying for a visa extension). As in most parts of Asia, anger and emotions are rarely displayed and generally get you nowhere. In any argument or dispute, remember the paramount rule is to keep your cool.

Nudity on Beaches

Regardless of what the Thais may (or may not) have been accustomed to centuries ago, they are quite offended by public nudity today. Bathing nude at beaches in Thailand is illegal. If you are at a truly deserted beach and are sure no Thais may come along, there's nothing stopping you - however, at most beaches travellers should wear suitable attire. Likewise, topless bathing for females is frowned upon in most places except on tourist islands like Phuket, Samui, Samet and Phangan. Many Thais say that nudity on the beaches is what bothers them most about foreign travellers. These Thais take nudity as a sign of disrespect on the part of the travellers for the locals, rather than as a libertarian symbol or modem custom. Thais are extremely modest in this respect (despite racy billboards in Bangkok) and it should not be the traveller's intention to 'reform' them.

Etiquette Rules

Most Thai are very forgiving about social mistakes, but trying to honour Thai standards, shows the Thai that the traveler has respect for their values. Here are some important taboos whose observance is prudent, if one does not want to be thought of as "bad mannered". These are a few things that tourists should keep in mind.


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