ETIQUETTE AND CUSTOMS IN THAILAND
If you visit Thailand, whatever you do, don't say anything bad about the royal family. Even dope dealers, thieves and philanderers who flaunt and ignore social and legal mores refuse to tolerate even the most subtle slight against the Thai monarchy. [Source: The Traveler's Guide to Asian Customs & Manners by Elizabeth Devine and Nancy L. Braganti. International etiquette expert: Mary Kay Metcalf of Creative Marketing Alliance in New Jersey]
Southeast Asians address each other by their first names, prefaced by the equivalent of Mr. or Mrs., Miss, or title such as Dr., Teacher or Professor. Titles are important and last names are often omitted. Young people often call older people they know well “Mr. Uncle” or “Mrs. Aunt.” Many people have nicknames. Some Southeast Asians welcome guests or visitors by tying cords around the wrists.
Thailand is known as the “Land of Smiles”—and the same could be said about Southeast Asia as a whole. While smiles are prevalent and often a sign of happiness and good will that is not whole story. According to Culture Shock! Thailand : In the west, a smile is about something and generally an expression of amusement, In Thailand a smile is a natural part of life, sometimes serving social functions as well.
It is considered taboo to touch the top of a girl's head." Bow to monks, stand for the king’s anthem. Sometimes cashiers curtsy when you pay them. Special patrols have been set up on Valentine’s day to be on the look out for young couples kissing. The patrols have been put on alert in “high risk areas” such as public parks, shopping malls and restaurants. There were even plans to stake out nightclubs, bars and love hotels.
Thais often greet one another with a wai— a palms-together gesture accompanied by a bow, slight bend of knees and smile. The gesture is used in many parts of Southeast Asia and also in India. In Thailand, even Ronald McDonald holds his hands clasped together in a wai.
'Khun' is used as a prefix, instead of Mr and Ms when addressing people. It can be used for both males and females. For example, a 30 year old female, Amporn Duangchit [first name, surname], will simply be Khun Amporn. Every Thai has a nickname, and once you are more familiar with people it is usual for them to encourage you to call them by their nickname instead of their first name. Most Thai nicknames are single syllable words they are given from birth and can be Thai or English words, colours, fruits, or shortenings of their first name. To keep things a little formal, it is still acceptable to call your colleague 'Khun Chai' instead of 'Khun Somchai.' Also note that Thais will tend to translate Khun David to be Mr. David when dealing with foreigners, rather than Mr. Smith. Thais typically don't add a specific title based on the job or qualification. Dr. is really the only exception, in which case it's Dr. [First name]. Engineers are still Khun [First name]. [Source: Executive Planet
Thais don’t use “please,” “thank you” and “hello” and their Thai equivalents in the same way as Westerners. Instead of saying “thank you,” “hello” or “good bye” many Thais simply smile or offer a wai (the traditional Thai prayer-like greeting. The equivalent of “please” in Thai is complex and varies with the rank and status one is speaking to. Many Thais ask where you are going (”Where you go”) rather than saying “How are you?”
A short bow known as a nop in Laos and a wai in Thailand is the most common form of greeting and way of saying good-bye. It involves placing ones hands together in a prayer position between the chest level and nose level but not touching the body and bowing slightly. The higher the hands the greater the sign of respect. The bow is slight and usually accompanied by a slight bend of the knees and a smile. The hands should never be held above the level of the nose.
This style of bow is used throughout the Buddhist areas of Southeast Asia. It is not only a greeting but is also an expression of thanks or respect. The bow is particularly important as a way of showing respect towards people of higher status or age. If two people of unequal status meet, the bow should be initiated by the person of lower status (i.e. the one who is younger, of lower income, of lower position, or a women meeting a man). Bows should not be used with children. Simply say “Hi” to them. Many Southeast Asians are comfortable shaking hands with Westerners.
The wai has been described as a physical demonstration of the “height rule”—in which people of low status are expected to respect people of high status. The hands are often raised during the wai as you bow your head, however there are rules regarding where the hands should be raised to. Generally the higher the hands are raised the more respect that is being shown. It is also important to note that the hands are not jerked upwards, but rather are raised in a fluid and graceful movement. In addition, the lower the head is bowed towards the hand the more respect shown. When equals or strangers unaware the status of the people they are meeting meet the hands are kept at neck level, but not above the chin. When an inferior meets a superior head is lowered so the nose is just above the fingertips. When an a superior meets an inferior head is straight or slightly bent. [Source: the bool Culture Shock! Thailand ]
A wai can be used as a sign of respect for objects as well as people. This often done when passing a temple or something else of religious significance. When encountering a statue of The Buddha or a monk one is supposed to drop to one’s knees and wai from that position (with men sitting on their heels and women with their legs to one side), accompanied by a deep bow so that one’s head almost touches the floor. When the head almost touches the floor one should place the palms of one’s hands on the floor (right hand first) and then straighten the body into a the sitting wai position. [Ibid]
The wai first appeared in Thai culture during the Sukhotai Period (13th century AD). As was the case with the origin of handshaking, the wai is thought to have begun as a way of showing a person you are meeting that you have no weapons in your hands. The low status-high status aspect of it is close to the heart of Asia where relations between juniors and seniors and inferiors and superiors is important to how people interact with one another. At the top of the heap is the king who is not expected to wai anyone except monks. When children wai their elders, elders may nod but otherwise are no expected to wai back. The same is true when a junior employee meets a high-ranking boss.
When And How To Wai Properly
According to Steve in his website Thailand Musings: In addition to a greeting and way of saying goodbye the wai is also used for giving thanks, apologizing, praying to the Buddha and begging and is part of the unique Thai honorific system and is used to convey a variety of emotions and modes of deference including politeness, respect, honor, gratitude, apology and friendship. In order to wai correctly it is important that the person waiing do so with their whole heart. You should feel your wai and be sincere in paying your respects physically, mentally and spiritually. [Source: Thailand Musings Thailand Musings /\]
“There are a number of rules surrounding the use of the wai. These include when to wai and the type of wai to use for various people. What many foreigners don’t seem to realize is that it is not necessary to wai to everyone. That’s right, there’s no need to wai the 7-11 clerk after paying for your bottle of water. Typically there’s no need to wai any service type individual and this includes waiters/waitresses, shop clerks and anyone else you pay to perform a service. If you feel that you MUST wai these people only do so if they wai you first and then make your wai very generic i.e. palms to the chest and no bowing of your head. /\
“While Thai’s can recognize and use a vast number of types of wai’s depending on social status, power, age, and prestige there are 3 major groups of higher prestige people in Thai society. Initiating a wai to each of these groups is different. 1) Royal Family/Monks. When waiing someone in this group you bow your head and raise your hands until the index fingers or thumbs touch the forehead. 2) Parents/Teachers/Older Family Members. When waiing someone in this group you bow your head and raise your hands until the index fingers touch the nose. 3) Older acquaintances/Superiors at work. When waiing someone in this group you bow your head and raise your hands until the index fingers touch the mouth. /\
“In all three cases you want to keep the elbows tight against your body. When returning a wai you can typically use the stranger’s wai which is a slight lowering of your head until your fingertips touch the point of your chin. This is the wai used when you don’t know the social status or age of the person you are waiing and is generally accepted as a happy compromise. This is also the most useful wai for us farang as typically we won’t know the social status of the Thai person. /\
“Etiquette and social status determines who initiates the wai. Younger people will wai older people first and those who are lower in social status wai those of higher status first. Because you are a farang and outside the Thai social hierarchy it makes it difficult for many Thai’s to know where to place you. In fact, it is only recently that a Thai person would even consider waiing a farang. This wasn’t meant as an insult, but rather a way to avoid embarrassment since there was usually no way for either Thai or farang to know the social status of the other and insult could be given if the wrong wai were offered. /\
“In some cases (especially business situations) a Thai will offer a handshake to you instead of a wai. Simply returning the handshake is completely acceptable. If they do offer a wai the polite thing to do is to respond in kind. And don’t worry too much about getting the wai right. You’re not Thai and no one expects you to be able to wai properly. The fact that you attempted to wai back is enough to make the person who initiated the wai happy. /\
“In many western cultures a nod of the head is often acceptable as a response to a greeting and it is important to note here that in Thai society a wai can be acknowledged by a nod of the head or an upraised right hand, BUT this is only done by monks or royalty. It is called Rap Wai or acknowledging a wai. If you respond to a wai in this way it may be perceived as if you are impersonating a monk or royalty and there is a slight chance that you will cause offense. At the least it can certainly be seen as amusing to the person you Rap Wai. In fact, outside Bangkok and the other tourist areas of Thailand you will likely generate loads of goodwill along with some amusement and possibly even amazement if you are able to wai. I guarantee that you will get many genuine smiles of appreciation at this small act of politeness. /\
Public Customs in Thailand
Public displays of affection are frowned upon. Men and women rarely show affection in public. Even holding hands is frowned upon. However, men often hold hands with men and women hold hands with women. This is an expression of close friendship not a gay relationship. Special patrols have been set up on Valentine’s day to be on the look out for young couples kissing. The patrols have been put on alert in “high risk areas” such as public parks, shopping malls and restaurants. There were even plans to stake out nightclubs, bars and love hotels.
When giving an object to someone you should use two hands or the right hand. Never use the left hand (sometimes associated with toilet duties). This is especially true when a younger person give something to an older person. When offering a book or paper to someone older than you or of higher rank, you should show respect by using two hands to present the object. An alternative is to present it with the right, with the left hand holding the right elbow. Some a bow accompanies the offering of an object. The receiver should accept it gently with the righ hand. Books and written material are treated with great reverence and should never be placed on the floor or slid across a table.
Talking in a loud voice is sometimes viewed as threatening. Talking gently and discreetly is more socially acceptable. In the old days a loud voice conveyed a powerful, chaotic force capable of destroying those that it was directed towards.
Despite their reputation for tolerance and having an anything-goes attitude, Thais don’t like the public nudity or topless bathing displayed by foreigners. The Lonely Planet Guide on Thailand reads: “I talked with a few Thai bungalow/restaurant proprietors who said that nudity on the beaches was what bothered them most about foreign travelers. These Thais took nudity as a sugn of disrespect on the part of travelers for locals, rather than a liberated symbol or modern custom. I was even asked to make signs that they could post forbidding or discouraging nudity,”
Heads, Hands and Feet
In many Asian cultures, the head is considered the most sacred party of the body; the bottom of the feet are the least sacred and dirtiest part of the body. One should not touch a person's head, point his or her foot at a person or sacred object, place a hand on the back of chair in which someone is sitting, put feet on tables or chairs or touch anyone with his or her feet. If you accidently touch someone with your foot or touch their head, apologize profusely. In the old days and even sometimes today Thais manifested “height” respect towards the monarchy crawling in front of the King so that the head of crawlers was below the feet of the king.
In Southeast Asia many people believe that the head — the most sacred part of the body — is inhabited by the kwan, the spiritual force of life. Never pat a Thai on the head even in the friendliest of circumstances. Standing over someone older, wiser, or more enlightened than yourself — is also considered rude behavior since it implies social superiority. As a sign of courtesy, lower your head as you pass a group of people. When in doubt, watch the Thais. Because hats are associated with the head they are also treated with respect. They are hung carefully and should not be tossed casually on a chair or, especially, the floor.
Because the feet are the dirtiest part of the body a great effort is made to avoid stepping over someone, food, utensils and sacred books. It is much more polite to ask someone to move than to step over them. Also don’t touch anyone with your feet. If you do, You can touch your hand to their feet or make a gesture that implies that to apologize. It is also considered rude to cross your legs when sitting because when you do so there is a good chance you are point the bottoms of your feet at someone.
Pointing your foot at someone is like saying you are the lowest, dirtiest creature on earth. Don't pat a child on the head. Patting the head is disrespectful. Many Southeast Asian carry good luck charms in their shirt pockets instead of their pants pockets, because the higher up you go on the body the more sacred it is. If it necessary to touch someone the most polite way to do it—say to get someone’s attention is to gently touch them on the elbow. Among friends, and even cowokers, touching is acceptable and common. Good friends of the same sex sometimes hold hands. This does not mean they are gay.
Pointing with a finger and waving are also considered rude, with the latter being less so. If you need to single somebody out do it with a glance and a gentle nod towards the person. In some massage parlors the girls where numbers to avid being pointed at. If you must beckon somone with you hand the best to do it is with the palm down, moving you fingers towards you but considered rude as it is used by parents to call their children and people on the streets to hail a taxi or flag down a bus. Don’t sit on a pillow as it is regarded as extension of the head.
On top of all this, the left hand is considered unclean and should not be used to eat, receive gifts, shake hands or pass something. This is true even if you are left handed, which many people are in Thailand. Aggressive stances such as crossed arms or waving your arms expressively are consider boorish and threatening. Throwing objects are putting your hands in your pockets are also considered rude.
It is said that even executioners apologized to the condemned for disrespecting their head when they lopped it off with a sword.
Etiquette Towards Monks
Monks should be greeted with three Southeast Asian bows. When talking to a monk try if you can to have your head lower than his. This can be achieved by bowing slightly or sitting down. If a monk is sitting down you to should also be sitting down. Women should not touch a monk or give objects directly to him (instead place the object on a table or some other surface near the monk). On buses and trains, people customarily give up their seat to monks.
The relationship between monks and lay people in Theravada Buddhism is very strong. This type of Buddhism could not, in fact, exist in its present form without this interaction. It is a way of mutual support - lay people supply food, medicine, and cloth for robes, and monks give spiritual support, blessings, and teachings. But this is not a tit for that situation. Monks are not allowed to request anything from lay people; and lay people cannot demand anything from the monks. The spirit of it is more in the nature of open-hearted giving.[Source: BBC >>>]
The system works well and is so firmly established in most Theravadan countries that monks are usually amply provided for, Monasteries often have facilities for lay people to stay in retreat. The accommodation is usually basic and one has to abide by Eight Precepts (to abstain from killing, stealing, engaging in sexual activity, unskilful speech, taking intoxicating drink or drugs, eating after midday, wearing adornments, seeking entertainments, and sleeping in soft, luxurious beds). There are numerous ceremonies and commemoration days which lay people celebrate, such as Wesak which marks the birth, enlightenment, and parinibbana (passing away) of the Buddha, and for these events everyone converges on the local temples. >>>
Laymen are expected to eat after, walk behind and seat themselves lower than monks.Do not eat after noon; be mindful about eating or snacking around them. f a monk is sitting, show respect by sitting before starting a conversation. Avoid sitting higher than a monk if you can help it. Never point your feet at any Buddhist while sitting.Only use your right hand when giving or receiving something from a monk. >>>
Women and monks: It is taboo for a woman to touch a monk or his robes or hand something directly to a monk. A woman should never touch or hand a monk something. Even accidentally brushing against their robes requires that they fast and perform a cleansing ritual. Food or donations must be passed to a man first and then on to the monk. Women also should not sit on the back seat of a bus because this is wear monks usually sit. Even the monk's own mother must follow these rules. If a woman does accidently touch a monk’s robes an elaborate purification ritual needs to be performed. >>>
According to Buddha.net: “If a layperson wishes to give something to a particular monk, but is uncertain what he needs, he should make an invitation. Any financial donations should not be to a monk but to the stewards of the monastery, perhaps mentioning if it's for a particular item or for the needs of a certain monk. For items such as travelling expenses, money can be given to an accompanying anagarika (dressed in white) or accompanying layperson, who can then buy tickets, drinks for a journey or anything else that the monk may need at that time. It is quite a good exercise in mindfulness for a layperson to actually consider what items are necessary and offer those rather than money. [Source: buddhanet.net <>]
Buddhist Temple Customs in Thailand
People are supposed to take off their shoes before entering a temple and leave umbrellas outside. They are also expected to be neatly dressed. Hats should be removed. Short sleeve shirts, short pants, short skirts and pants for women are generally regarded as inappropriate attire but are often grudgingly tolerated from foreigners. Some cultures require visitors to take off their shoes (and sometimes their socks) when entering the temple grounds. Others only require that they be removed when entering a temple building, shrine or pagoda. Some people wash their feet before entering a temple.
Always walk clockwise around Buddhist monuments, thus keeping the religious landmarks to your right (this is more important in Tibet and Himalaya areas than it is in Southeast Asia) Don't walk in front of praying people. Don’t take photos during prayers or meditation sessions. Don’t use a flash. As a rule don’t take photos unless you are sure it is okay.
Buddha images are sacred object and one should not pose in front of them or point their feet at them. When sitting down many local people employ the “mermaid pose” to keep both feet pointed towards the rear. Photographing Buddha images is considered disrespectful, but again, is tolerated from foreign tourists.
Praying is done by prostrating oneself or bowing with hands clasped to their foreheads from a standing or seated position in front of an image of Buddha. Prayers are often made after tossing a coin or banknote into an offering box and leaving an offering of flowers or fruits or something else. Many people visit different altars, leaving some burning incense and praying at each one. Other bow at the altar and sprinkle water, a symbol of life. Other still, kowtow before shrines, bend down and stretch three times. In big temples money can be left in a donation boxes near the entrance. If there is no donation box. You can leave the money on the floor.
Royal Family Customs in Thailand
The King always sits higher than everyone else. Ranks within the court are often signified by how high up one sits. The elevation is often created by layers of pillows. When the King gives a speech he does from a throne that is elevated to a point that his feet are higher than everyone else’s head. Guests at the Thai Royal Palace have traditionally been required to approach the King and Queen crawling on their hands and knees. In the old days it was a criminal act to look at the king. Visitors to the palace speak a special language and never address the King directly but rather communicate with the "coarse fine invisible dust" beneath his feet. The everyday male pronoun phom , (meaning and literally translated to “my hair”) grew from this tradition and is viewed as way of expressing respect to superiors and equals.
Pictures of King Bhumibol are seemingly in every office, school classroom and restaurant. Yet he rarely speaks publically. While both the King’s official residence, the Grand Palace, and his traditional residence, Chitralada Palace, are located in Bangkok (where the King has instituted an agricultural research center), the King and Queen are typically found at Klai Kangwon Villa in the seaside town of Hua Hin.
After an election or the appointment of a new prime minister the king approves the cabinet swears in the prime minister and is asked to endorse cabinet reshuffles. King Bhumibol usually stayed out of politics and put himself above the fray except during times of crisis when he made speeches calling for unity or supported side to bring to an end to violence or upheaval.
When foreign leaders meet the king they are not supposed to wear black, because it symbolizes mourning, or make any sudden movements towards the king, including offering a handshake. The leaders make a half bow to which the king responds with a nod. The people who meet the king are introduced by their titles not their names.
Even little things can be seen as slights towards the monarchy. For instance, if you drop a coin or banknote (which have the King's image on them) on the floor you shouldn't step on them with your feet. This is viewed as stamping on the King's head. There is one story of a Frenchman who got so irate over the change he was given at a restaurant he threw the money on the ground and stamped on. A Thai man who witnessed this himself became so enraged he punched the Frenchman in the face and delivered a flying kick ot his stomach. In a similar vein, you are supposed to roll up a newspaper with a picture of the King on the front to use to squash a bug. [Source: Culture Shock Thailand!]
The six-hour clock is a traditional timekeeping system used in Thailand, and formerly in Laos and Cambodia, alongside the official 24-hour clock. Like the other common systems, it counts twenty-four hours in a day, but divides the day into four quarters, counting six hours in each. Richard Barrow wrote in Thai-Blogs.com: “It can be confusing at times about telling the time in Thailand. I remember my first conversations with local people who often had the habit of translating literally from Thai to English when they arranged a time to meet or go somewhere. If a Thai person tells you that the bus will leave at two o’clock, then don’t presume that he means 2 o’clock in the afternoon. He could mean 8 o’clock in the morning. Others might tell you that they want to meet at 1 o’clock to watch a movie. But, they could mean 7 o’clock in the evening. I was often baffled when my students used to tell me that they went to bed at 3 o’clock. Were these primary 6 students really night owls, out dancing all the night? No, they meant that they went to bed at 9 p.m. [Source: Richard Barrow,Thai-Blogs.com December 27, 2008]
“In newspapers and on television, the 24 hour system is often used in telling the time. Even big posters advertising events will show the time using the 24 hour system. But, in every day conversations, Thai people will use a system that divides the day into four blocks of six hours each. Once you get used to this idea, it does kind of make sense. Here is a list to help you better understand: The first block is “chao” which means morning. 6 a.m. – hok mong chao (6 hour morning); 7 a.m. – mong chao (hour morning); 8 a.m. – song mong chao (2 hour morning) 9 a.m. – sam mong chao (3 hour morning); 10 a.m. – see mong chao (4 hour morning) 11 a.m. – haa mong chao (5 hour morning); 12 p.m. – tiang wan (noon). [Ibid]
“The next block is “bai” which is early afternoon and “yen” which is late afternoon. The word “yen” means “cold” and Thai people often translate 4 p.m. as being in the “evening” when speaking English. So, don’t be surprised if they say “good evening” to you at that time. 1 p.m. – bai mong (afternoon hour); 2 p.m. bai song mong (afternoon 2 hour); 3 p.m. bai sam mong (afternoon 3 hour); 4 p.m. – see mong yen (4 hour late afternoon); 5 p.m. – haa mong yen (5 hour late afternoon); 6 p.m. – hok mong yen (6 hour late afternoon). [Ibid]
“The next block is “toom” which is the evening. 7 p.m. – neung toom (1 evening) 8 p.m. – song toom (2 evening); 9 p.m. – sam toom (3 evening); 10 p.m. – see toom (4 evening) 11 p.m. – haa toom (5 evening); 12 a.m. – tiang keun (midnight). The last block is “dtee” which is the Thai word for “hit”. This is probably due to the gong being beaten to mark the hour during the night. 1 a.m. – dtee neung (strike 1); 2 a.m. – dtee song (strike 2); 3 a.m. – dtee sam (strike 3); 4 a.m. – dtee see (strike 4); 5 a.m. – dtee haa (strike 5).
Hopefully you will now have a better understanding of telling the time in Thailand. However, don’t expect any Thai person to turn up on time. There is another factor that I like to call “Thai time”. When I arrange to meet someone, I always ask whether the time of the meeting will be “Thai style” or “Western style”. When I was brought up, we were always taught to be punctual for meetings. Before I came to Thailand, I would obsess about setting off at the agreed time or rushing across town to meet someone at the appointed time. Something which is not easy with Bangkok’s infamous traffic. To say “Thai time” really means we will leave when we leave. If you are stuck in a taxi in the middle of a traffic jam, there is no point in getting all steamed up like most Westerners. You need to have a more relaxed “mai ben rai” attitude of not worrying and just saying to yourself, “I will get there when I get there”. Life is too short to be worrying about making appointments on time. However, you must never forget that Western educated Thai people or even fellow Europeans will probably expect you to turn up on time!
Social Customs in Thailand
Southeast Asians often ask strangers questions about marriage and age almost immediately after meeting them They sometimes even ask how much money you earn. This is not necessarily meant to be nosy. Rather, it is important to know this information about someone to know the correct way to address them and bow to them.
The “height” rule also manifests itself horizontally in that when in a room people of high rank and status sit at the front of a room while those of low rank and status sit at the back and when a people are walking one in front of the other and those of higher rank are at the front. The expression “Walk behind an elder, the dog doesn’t bite you” refers to children walking respectfully behind those old than them, although it isn’t always adhered to.
Be on time if you can. Avoid red ink. Don't mention the King and I or criticize Buddhism, the king or Thailand, its people or economy.
Eating Customs in Thailand
Thais generally use spoons and forks not chopsticks. Spoons are used to put food into the mouth. Doing so with a fork is regarded as uncouth. Noodle soups are eaten with chopsticks and a spoon. Sticky rice is often eaten with the right hand along with whatever food. Dishes are served in bite-size pieces in accordance with a Buddhist custom that no whole animal be cooked and served.
Thais like to eat in groups and sample many different dishes. Dishes are often served all at once and people share dishes except for soup. When helping yourself don’t take a whole bunch at one time. Rather take one or two spoonfuls and take a little more later. T the start of a meal it is customary to eat a spoonful of rice first. They often eat cross-legged on a mat when eating.
The Thais often form a ring around dishes set in the middle of the table or picnic-style on the floor. The dishes often comprise a spicy soup, a fried dish, a soup, and a dip, with an individual rice dish for each person, who may choose from among the shared dishes to eat with his or her portion of rice, while eating together with the others. While Thai curries are shared and meant to be ladled over rice, soups are served communally with diners receiving small bowls to eat out of.
A Thai salad is often one of the spiciest Thai dishes and is frequently ordered as one of the many communal dishes in a meal. A Technically Thai meals don’t include appetizers per se; all dishes are ordered at once and come out in random order for diners to share as they arrive. However, there are certainly finger-food style dishes that can be categorized as appetizer style foods. Satay (grilled meat on a stick) and spring rolls are the most common of these, the former available on many street corners and technically classified in Thai cuisine as a snack rather than an appetizer.
Cassandra James wrote on Yahoo Voices: “Thais normally eat most dishes with a spoon and fork. The spoon is held in your right hand and the fork is used to scoop food onto the spoon and rearrange it so it doesn't fall off on its way to your mouth. Even in many top restaurants in Thailand, you'll be given a spoon and fork. Knives aren't used much while eating Thai food as the food is normally in bite sized pieces already, so there's no need to cut anything. With so many Thais descended from Chinese immigrants, the use of chopsticks is also prevalent in Thai culture but they are saved for use with noodles and Chinese food. [Source: Cassandra James, Yahoo! Contributor Network, March 4, 2010]
“In most cases in Thailand, Thais will order several dishes then everyone shares, eating communal style. In this case, either wait for someone to serve you (one of the youngest people at your table usually will) or, if you help yourself, just take a small amount of rice followed by a small amount of toppings. Thais don't heap their plates full. Instead, they just take a small amount and keep going back for more. Normally you would serve yourself with the larger spoons that arrive with the food. In many restaurants though no other utensils arrive so it's perfectly acceptable to use the fork and spoon you're eating with to help yourself to more food from the communal plates.: [Ibid]
“Thai table etiquette dictates you eat slowly. Thais like to spend a lot of time over meals, hanging out with friends, talking and laughing, so don't eat your food quickly. If you do, you'll find you're sitting there with an empty plate while everyone else has barely started. Savor the food, enjoy the many tantalizing tastes and you'll enjoy the meal even more.
Who Pays? - In Thai culture, either the oldest member of the group or the wealthiest pays for everyone. Often, particularly if you eat with poorer Thais, then that's usually you. Take the check when it's brought to the table and start to pay. If it's absolutely not expected of you, someone will take it from you very quickly and insist you are their guest. But, if it's left in your hands then "tag, you're it". Don't get upset though. It's meant as a compliment as they think you are a higher level or richer than them and thus hold you in high respect. Plus, in Thailand, as a meal for four people is as cheap as $10, it doesn't break the bank anyway.
Home Customs in Thailand
It is customary to remove one's shoes or sandals when entering a private home. In homes raised off the ground, shoes or sandals are sometimes left at the stairs. Otherwise they are left outside the doorway. There often aren't any tables or chairs because the family spends most of its indoor non-sleeping time sitting or lying on the floor. In a traditional home, one sits on low seats or cushions on the floor. Men may sit with legs crossed. Women often sit with legs bent off to one side.
According to Phuket.com: “Before entering a Thai house take your shoes off and leave them at the door. The custom is also the same when entering other places such as wats and some offices (a clue: if there are lots of shoes lying outside the door, you're about to enter a barefoot zone). Don't be surprised, if you visit a Thai school, to see students leaving their shoes just outside the classroom and walking in with just their socks on. This is an everyday thing for Thais. Why? No one is quite sure, but in the old days, most Thais houses - and indeed, most buildings of any kind - were built from wood, with beautiful wooden floors. Imagine the homeowner's feelings if you stomped all over them in your grubby boots, scuffing the wax and leaving muddy footprints all over. Today, even though few houses are made of wood any more, the custom is still a practical one for keeping people's homes clean. [Source: Phuket.com
If you are lucky enough to get invited into a Thai home you should bring a small gift for your hosts or their children. No need to spend a lot of money: some fruit or sweets or cake will suffice. This is more polite than going there empty-handed. When eating and drinking accept at least a little food and drink when it's offered. Even if you have just had a huge lunch, take a nibble or two of any snacks laid out, and a few sips of any drink you are offered. Thais are famed for their warm hospitality. They themselves like to eat, and they like to make sure that no guest ever goes hungry or thirsty, so don't disappoint them by refusing offers that are made from the heart. Also make sure that the oldest people in a gathering take food first before you jump in. If you are invited to join the family for lunch or dinner, be aware, too, that one of the most important table manners in Thailand is to make sure that the oldest person is the first to sit at the table, usually at the head of it.
When entering a home Don't step on the raised threshold of a doorway. Thais believe that it will bring you bad luck if you do. There's also a more practical explanation: you could stumble and fall. Don't wear all black for a visit, even if black is the only color that suits you and is the only color that makes you look slim. Black is the color people wear at funerals. Many Thais are taken aback and cannot understand why, in Hollywood movies or Western TV shows, some people wear black to happy functions such as weddings.
Showers and Toilets in Thailand
Most Thais bath twice a day and never use hot water. Men and women often bath and shower outside while wearing clothing. In rural areas they often bath in rivers in steams. In towns and cities most homes have a cement trough filled with water and a plastic scoop used for bathing. In homes toilets and showers are often in separate rooms. Sometime there is no hot water, because it is considered too hot take a hot shower. Even houses that have showers often don’t have hot water.
Traditional Thai houses don’t contain a shower or bath as we know them, instead there is a big 'tub' for the water and a jug. Thai people bathe by throwing water over themselves. Most toilets are squat toilets although the western style toilets are becoming more available. Near the squat toilets there is a container filled with water and a cup or a hose pipe. These are used to flush water down the toilet.
Many toilets in Thailand are Asian-style squat toilets or a hole in the ground. Upscale hotels and restaurants usually have Western-style toilets; sometimes the don't have seats. Bring along toilet paper or tissues. Many restrooms don't have toilet paper. Asian style toilets often have a small cement tank next to it with some water and a plastic scoop inside. The water is there to clean your butt and flush the toilet. Many Asian sewer systems can not handle toilet paper. You are expected to put used toilet paper and tissue in a wastebasket rather than in the toilet. Otherwise the paper might clog the pipes.
A typical rural bathroom in Thailand is an outhouse in back of the house with cinder blocks walls and a metal door and roof. The toilet is a hole in the ground surrounded by concrete. People squat instead of sit.
The men and women’ rooms of public toilets are sometimes identified with pictures a man or woman. Many rest rooms have the words "men" and "women" written on them. Other are color-coded with pink for women and blue for men. Some restrooms are unisex. Some public restroom are cleaned by an attendant who expects payment of some small money and sells tissue for more money.
Public toilets in parks and markets are treated with suspicion and fear. At best they are regarded as filthy, dirty places. At worst they are places one might run into a gay stalker or drug addict or get attacked. One idea that was suggested to make them less threatening was outfitting the stalls with blue lights that would make difficult for intravenous drug users to find a vein.
In 2006, the World Toilet Expo, hosted by the Singapore-based World Toilet Organization, was held in Bangkok. Under the theme, “happy toilets for happy life,” delegates from 20 countries were given models of miniature toilets by pretty girls giving. Mannequins demonstrated the correct to use the latest toilets.
Squatting, Sitting, Washing, Wiping and Toilet Culture in Asia
In December 2005, the Asahi Shimbun reported: Junichi Hirata, vice president of the Japan Toilet Association, is fascinated by the notion of adapting cultural anthropology to toilet studies. He came up with his own term, "toilet demarcation," and a world map marked with cultural boundaries based on toilet styles. He says the area covering Asia, the Middle East and Africa can be labeled as belonging to the "squatters." The "sitters," for their part, are distributed in Western Europe, the entire American land mass and Australia--all areas hosting immigrants from Western Europe. However, Hirata warns, "There are many enclaves. So we can never be clear about these boundaries."
Hirata estimates that the area in which squatting-style toilets are used roughly matches up with the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire (1299-1922) at the height of its power, covering the Middle East, parts of North Africa and much of southeastern Europe. The demarcation line runs south down the Aegean Sea and travels west through the Mediterranean, drawing a line incidentally congruous with that dividing the Islamic and Christian cultures that continue to vie for dominance.
The origins of the two styles are unclear. One hypothesis is that humans were all originally "squatters." Then some branched out to become "sitters," perhaps to become less vulnerable to a sneak attack. The hypothesis, however, remains just that.
And when it comes to cleaning, there are, again, two main schools: washing and wiping. Washing, naturally, relies on water. But when it comes to wiping, people have come up with a variety of ingenious materials. Only about 30 percent of the world's population uses toilet paper, according to Hideo Nishioka, professor emeritus at Keio University. Nishioka specializes in geography, but is well-versed in all sorts of matters related to the toilet. Other materials of choice include leaves, bark, wood chips, seaweed, sand, gravel and more. In other words, people have been making use of whatever natural resources have been handy in their local environment.
The world map as re-envisioned through toilet culture can thus be demarcated according to four basic elements: squat, sit, wipe and wash. As for how the four elements are combined, things take on a decidedly anthropological bent, swayed by local climes and customs. Even now, as the world moves toward globalization, tradition usually has the last say in what takes place in the bathroom--or its equivalent.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014