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This post about cultural etiquette in Thailand to help you “blend in” amongst locals was written by Sean of TravelThailandTogether, the #1 resource for everything Thailand travel related.
These tips for visiting Thailand from a regular visitor’s perspective will help you have a more enjoyable experience and know what to expect before you go. Read on for more!
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15 Must-Know Do’s and Don’ts of Cultural Thailand Etiquette for Tourists
The Kingdom of Thailand is one of the most popular destinations in Southeast Asia. Known as the “Land of the Smiles”, it is a country with vibrant culture, gorgeous landscapes, delicious food, and of course, friendly locals.
However, Thailand is also a place that is rich in customs and traditions, many of which are a mystery to travellers. There are many things a tourist could do that the locals might find offensive.
So, what is considered rude in Thailand? After spending extensive time in this country, here are 15 do’s and don’ts when visiting!
1. Do Try the Street Food
Street food is the heart and soul of Thai cuisine, and trying them should be on everyone’s Thailand bucket list. Luckily, the country is filled with bustling night markets, where vendors whip up some of the most authentic Thai food and flavours you’ll ever taste.
Not only is street food one of the best ways to sample the most unique dishes in Thailand, but it is also very cheap. Anyone traveling on a budget will appreciate the ability to try different foods without breaking the bank.
TIP: My favourite is sun-dried pork and an entire grilled fish.
Each city in Thailand is most likely going to have its only night market, but the ones in Bangkok are definitely the best. Head to Chinatown on any night besides Monday and you’ll find hundreds of stalls and a hungry crowd!
2. Don’t Put Your Feet Up: It’s Considered Rude in Thailand
Thailand has a deeply rooted cultural belief that the feet are the lowest and dirtiest part of the body. Therefore, it’s considered extremely rude to point your feet toward someone, especially toward a Buddha statue or a royal portrait.
Always sit with your feet flat on the ground or tucked underneath you, and never point your feet directly toward someone.
TIP: I once crossed my legs and rested one of my feet on top of my knee on the MRT (Bangkok’s metro system), and all of a sudden, I got so many stares. Let’s say I learned the hard way!
3. Do Dress Appropriately When Visiting Temples
Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist country, so it’s quite common to come across intricate and beautiful temples. However, when visiting these sacred sites, it’s important to dress respectfully.
Anything that reveals your shoulders is generally not accepted, especially if you are a woman (unfortunately). Shorts and skirts are accepted, as long as they are modest and below the knee.
Some temples will have scarves that you can borrow to cover yourself before entering, but it is always better to be safe. Revealing clothing that shows too much skin should be avoided. Stick with a regular T-shirt and long pants if you want to be on the safe side.
4. Don’t Ride The Elephants
As much as we all love elephants, it’s crucial to remember that they’re not domesticated animals that are meant to be ridden. If you’re offered the chance to ride an elephant, consider the ethical implications before accepting.
Riding elephants is an extremely inhumane practice and can cause immense harm to the animals. The spot where you sit on them is not naturally designed for elephants to take weight. This means that sitting on them can cause long-term physical harm to them!
Instead, opt for an elephant sanctuary or a wildlife sanctuary where you can observe these gentle giants in their natural habitat. It is also important to do your research beforehand, as some so-called elephant “sanctuaries” are not very ethical at all.
TIP: This also goes for places like Tiger Kingdom, where visitors can get in a tiger enclosure and take photos with a “sedated” tiger.
5. Do Take Off Your Shoes
When entering someone’s home, a temple, or a sacred site, it’s customary to remove your shoes before entering. As we mentioned, the feet are the dirtiest part of the body, and consequently, wearing shoes indoors is one of the most disrespectful things you can do in Thailand.
This is especially true for temple etiquette, where there are signs to take off your shoes before you enter. If you do wear sandals or flip-flops when you visit, make sure you have socks. It is very impolite to go to a temple barefoot.
TIP: This is a lot more common than you think, especially if you are staying in cities or towns near the beach such as Krabi and Phuket.
6. Don’t Rent A Motorcycle Unless You Are Licensed and Experienced
Renting a motorcycle is almost like a rite of passage in Thailand, especially for backpackers. As fun and liberating as that might sound, driving a motorcycle is illegal unless you have a valid International Driver’s License.
If police stop you while driving, they will ask to see your license and if you don’t have one, you might face a hefty fine. Unfortunately, most of them will want a bribe, but it is more about your safety and that of others on the road. Not only is driving a motorcycle dangerous, but the chaotic traffic and unfamiliar road rules can make it even riskier.
TIP: I’ve met so many people that have gotten into life-changing injuries while driving a motorcycle in Thailand, so please think twice because renting one. And always wear your helmet!
7. Do Respect Buddha Images
Buddha statues and images are an integral part of Thai culture and religion. It’s important to remember that they are sacred objects and should be treated with the utmost respect.
Perhaps one of the biggest offences you can commit is climbing on the Buddha statues. This also includes statues that were fully intact, but might only have a fraction of it remaining. Even Buddha statues that only have the base left count.
While adults usually don’t break this rule, those traveling with children might do it more than you think.
I’ve seen parents just leave their children running wild in temples, especially the ones in Ayutthaya. Those temples are mostly in ruins with many statues of Buddhas in terrible condition. Children can sometimes climb on something not knowing they are remnants of a Buddha statue and get in big trouble.
8. Don’t Disrespect The Thai Monarchy
The Thai monarchy is deeply revered by its people and disrespecting the monarch, its symbols, or its customs can result in serious consequences, including jail time.
Avoid any political discussions or negative comments about the monarchy, as it’s considered disrespectful and can lead to trouble. The topic is so sensitive that I recommend you just not talk about the Thai Royal family at all. You don’t know what can be offensive or not to Thai locals.
9. Do Treat Monks With Utmost Respect
Because Buddhism is the predominant religion in Thailand, monks are held in the highest regard. Thai people believe that monks have attained a level of spiritual enlightenment and wisdom that ordinary people have not achieved. As such, they are deeply respected and revered in Thai culture.
If you come across a monk, show respect and avoid physical contact. If you’re a woman, avoid sitting next to a monk or giving them anything directly. Instead, hand it to someone or put it on the ground for them to take.
10. Don’t Turn Your Back To Buddha Statues: A Big Faux Pas in Thailand
One of the biggest mistakes I see tourists make all the time is turning their back to Buddha statues. In Buddhism, having your back to the Buddha is seen as disrespectful. This helps often when tourists try to take a photo with the Buddha in a temple.
If it is unavoidable, make sure you are far from the statue before doing so. And when you are standing next to the statue, back backward while facing the Buddha for a few steps before turning away.
11. Do Return A “Wai”
The Wai is the traditional Thai greeting that involves pressing your palms together and bowing slightly. It’s considered polite to return the Wai when someone greets you, especially if it’s a local.
There are many degrees of a Wai. Depending on the social status of who you are greeting, you should press your hands on different levels. Generally, the higher you press your hands together, the more respect and admiration you are showing.
For regular peers, pressing your hands near your chest is the appropriate thing to do. For monks, Thai Royal Family, or King, you should press your hands near your head and slightly bow.
12. Don’t Assume Everyone Speaks English
While English is taught in schools across Thailand, it’s not the primary language spoken by the majority of the population. Don’t assume that everyone you encounter will speak English fluently, especially if you are heading out of the main cities.
Consider studying a few basic phrases of Thai, as it can go a long way in creating a positive interaction with locals. Saying basic phrases such as “Sawadee ka/krap” (Hello) and “kop khun ka/krap” (Thank you) are much appreciated by the locals.
13. Do Haggle While Shopping
Haggling over prices is a common practice in Thailand, especially if you are shopping at markets, street vendors, and souvenir shops. Unfortunately, many shops inflate the price once they see that you are a tourist. It is also a must if you are taking a tuk-tuk, as drivers commonly overcharge tourists.
Haggling in Thailand is a skill that needs to be mastered. If you tell them a price that is too low, it might come off as disrespectful. Tell them a price that’s too high and you may get scammed.
Though there is no one way to haggling, I usually counter-offer with 50 percent of the asking price. After a bit of back and forth, we usually settle with 75 percent of the initial offer. Even a price like that is going to be a lot more than what the locals pay, but you are a tourist so that’s something unavoidable.
TIP: Don’t expect to be able to haggle if you are in larger and more reputable shops. Doing so in the wrong place can come off as very disrespectful.
14. Don’t Touch Anyone’s Head
In Thai culture, the head is considered the most spiritual part of the body. It is inappropriate to touch someone’s head, especially locals that you’ve just met. It is one of the things that you might not realise you’ve offended someone until it’s too late.
The older generation tends to follow this tradition more than the younger ones, but it is always better to be on the safe side.
15. Do Venture Off the Beaten Path
While popular tourist destinations such as Bangkok, Phuket, and Chiang Mai are must-visits, Thailand has plenty of hidden gems waiting to be explored. Get off the beaten path and explore lesser-known regions such as Mae Hong Son, Sukhothai, or Koh Panyee, and you’ll find unique experiences and more eye-widening sights.
These off-the-beaten-path attractions are often much cheaper than the popular places. And because the locals aren’t used to seeing tourists, they would be delighted to meet you and show you a different side of Thailand.
Visiting Thailand can be an incredible experience if done with the right mindset and respect for the local culture. There are many do’s and don’ts that can make or break your trip. Many of these might not be obvious to outsiders, but they are an integral part of the culture of the lovely Thai people!
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