Thailand is an exotic destination far off and has completely different unwritten rules of etiquette compared to western countries. This list helps you not to offend or violate cultural conventions. Moreover, it will get you the respect of locals and even prevent you from beeing imprisoned. In this article, we also share hacks that will save you money, time and tell you how to keep the good vibes, even if a gang of intrusive tuk-tuk drivers chases you down.
In general, Thais are very forgiving and tolerant when it comes to minor social indiscretion. They know, that foreigners might don't know about all the unwritten rules of etiquette. In most cases, you'll not even realize when you behaved wrong somehow, especially because of it's the land of smiles. But, if you show respect to common cultural rules of conduct, it'll pay off by earning recognition of Thais hosts in return. Furthermore, it helps to get in touch with locals and it might work as a door opener. Above all, Do's and Don'ts in Thailand deal with the Royal Family and Buddhism.
Thailand Culture & Religion
The monarchy and Buddhism are first priority over all in Thailand. For this reason, it's a must for travelers to know about appropriate behaviors.
- Stand up and straighten or rest at least for a moment, if the Thai anthem is played, like locals do. Thais expect this from foreigners as well and would interprete it as an insult of their national pride if you don't. Pay attention especially at Bangkoks Skye train, where national anthem is played twice a day.
- Always offer your seat to buddhist monks when they get on puplic transport. Besides that, make sure that you're not sitting at seats particularly accounted for monks.
- Buddhists grant entry to their holy temples to everybody. Thus, respect the dress code at temples. Get your shoes off and cover knees and shoulders to comply minimum requirements or even better - cover ankles and elbows.
- Buddhists consider the head as the seat of the soul and thus should'nt be touched by strangers. Even most Thai moms do not stroke their children heads for this reason.
- Don't step on dropped down money, because a portayal of the king is printed on Thai currency. Thais rate all images of the king or royal family as sacred.
- Never disparage or insult the royal family. Speaking bad of them is treated as serious crime.
- Women aren't allowed to touch or sit besides buddhist monks. If you like to give alms to monks while their begging rounds, make sure to provide it on a sheet or hand it over to a man.
- In Thailand, feet are said to be unsaintly and dirty. Therefore be sure, that your feet don't point towards a buddha statue or image while sitting. It's recommended to adopt the "meermaid posture".
- If you buy a buddha statue and it gets broken somehow - don't junk it. Buddhists have special places for them. Mostly they are gathered beneath a bodhi tree (ficus religiosa), due to the fact that Siddharta became enlightened below such a tree.
If it comes to public transport, there are several helpful hints that will save you money, time and keep the good vibes.
- Keep your valuables close to you while long distance transport. Thieves make use of the flurry at big bus terminals and rummage through your backpack down at the luggage box.
- Avoid to step over a person or his belongings. This may occur while a third class train rides for example. Again, feet are said to be unholy and dirty. Hence, Thais feel offended by getting too close to strangers feet.
- Some of you may like wearing flip-flops more than brought along shoes. But then, store your shoes inside your backpack, instead of tying them outside. Thais consider feet as unholy, so no surprise, same counts for shoes. While swinging around with your moves, tied shoes can easily hit somebody's head (holiest body part) as you pass by.
- Learn a few words in Thai. We experienced to pay much less if we were able to ask for the price in the local language. But this presupposes that you learn the numbers too, otherwise, you're not gonna understand the answer.
- If you rent a motorbike or scooter, give the breaks and tires an extra check for safety reasons. If you haven't any driving experience, don't worry - it's easy to learn. Take some long session at remote streets, until you feel comfortable enough for dense traffic. There is one important rule to know about traffic in Southeast-Asia: there are no rules. Besides that, the stronger survives - which means the bigger the vehicle, the less its driver cares about other road users.
- Never get angry and shout at Thais even if they crush your nerves. This would mean that they lose their face. Imagine, you just arrived at a public bus station out of town after an 8h drive and find yourself encircled by 6-8 tuk-tuk drivers. Every single one of them wants you to pick him and thus all are pushing and bugging you at the same time. Travel hack: Choose one driver you like, separate him from the crowd and start haggling one on one. Make sure to agree on a price before you ride. Tuk-tuk drivers are tough negotiators. But keep in mind that haggling over 20 Baht for 5 min or even worse - getting angry, isn't worth the $0,6.
- If you just started your trip, try not be recognized right away as a travel rookie. Don't navigate with a travelguide in your hands or accept the first offered price.
- Don't let them rip you off. Catch a glimpse on what locals pay for a bottle or water or a ticket before you get your own. It's ok to pay a tourist surcharge, but some traders are way too cheeky. Try to develop a feeling for fair prices.
- Some taxi drivers may try to convince you of a fixed price. Just don't, it's always more expensive. Insist on taximeter instead and if they say no, don't hesitate to move on along the rank to the next driver.
- Some scooter rentals request to keep your passport for guarantee reasons. That's a mighty lever, if something goes wrong. In some rare cases, it's been misused to squeeze extra dollars for damages or scratches the lessees didn't cause. Instead, give them only a copy of your passport, so you're able to travel on in the event of a dispute.
general advices for tourists in Thailand
- Learn basic Thai or at least a few words. It's an icebreaker and locals will definitely appreciate your effort.
- Learn the "Wai"! It's the traditional gesture of greeting, respect, and gratitude. Place your palms together like praying and raise your hands, the higher you raise them, the more respect you show. But not higher than your forehead, because that's habitual for beggars or prisoners who ask for mercy. Thais expect, that the person of lower social status begins to greet, but it'll be replied immediately.
- Haggling is an integral part of shopping at Thai markets. Note, that the aim is to negotiate a price which is fine for both sides. Keep smiling and try to halve the first price. In touristy areas this means, the vendor still obtains a good cut. Haggling is not expected, if products are labeled with prices. Moreover, it's not common to haggle at restaurants, streetfood stalls, and supermarkets.
- Try a homestay experience. Staying with locals at their home is a great way to get a real feel for the culture you're visiting. By the way, your money goes straight to the pocket of local people and not to foreign CEO, who's responsible for the resort next door.
- Avoid elephant tourism. Don't do elephant riding at central Ayutthaya for example. Elephants are undergoing a process which systematically breaks their mind, body, and spirit, to ensure they fit in human use. But if you have an elephant ride on your bucket list, there are places to see elephants in an ethical and responsible way. Check our Thailand guide for further information.
- Don't visit tiger temples. The hype began after the TV-channel "Animal Planet" reported of Buddhist monks, who take care of tigers within the walls of their monastery. With exploding visitor numbers, it became a serious business. A three years investigation of animal-rights activists unveiled cruel and violent abuse of the big cats. They are treated with sedatives to do no harm to tourists. At night they are kept in small iron cages and do not get any sort of species-appropriate treatment. Therefore think twice, before you queue up for a photo with a cute tiger baby.
- You might be offered to free birds from tiny cages for money, in front of Buddhists temples. In Thailand, this is supposed to bring luck. But despite feeling sorry for those little birds - don't free them. That's because the more money people earn with this business today, the more birds they will catch tomorrow.
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