A Backpacker's Guide
to Thailand Culture

"If you reject the food, ignore the customs, 
fear the religion and avoid the people, 
you might better stay at home" - 
Quote by James Michener

The Thailand culture is warm, inviting and relaxing. But there's more to it...

When backpacking in Asia, it's logical that you should know something about the countries you're visiting.

That knowledge is important because:

  • You need to know how to behave so you won't come off as disrespectful, don't offend or piss off some locals
  • As a backpacker, you have a responsibility. You want to give a good impression of how foreigners really are. Consider yourself as a role model.

Think about it this way: If a Thai person was to visit your home country, what would you expect of that visitor?

  • It's a great way of adjusting yourself to the Thailand culture ...- so you feel that you already know a little about the country. It will ease the culture shock
  • And most importantly, knowledge about the Thailand culture will likely prevent you from getting arrested. Your worst case scenario: JAIL

First, information you must know about when it comes to Thailand Culture:

  • Type of government: Monarchy
  • Religion: Buddhism (Theravada) is the official religion, and Islam is the second largest religion. Most Thai Muslims live in the Southern provinces of Thailand (Yala, Pattani, Narathiwat)
  • Family is the cornerstone in Thai culture.
  • Major hill tribe groupings in Northern Thailand: 
    Hmong, Lisu, Karen, Lahu, Akha and Mien. Each hill tribe has its own customs.
  • National Animal: Elephant

To understand the Thai culture, you should understand the religion (in my opinion). 
Here are the things you should know about Theravada Buddhism:

  • The founder of Buddhism was Buddha.
  • The causes of human suffering is anger, greed, jealousy, hatred, fear, sensual desire, passion, irritation, revenge and so on.
  • Nobody or nothing is separate. Every person, animal, insect, plant, mineral etc is part of an whole. If you kill an animal, the killing will affect the world.

Meeting Thai locals 
Thailand culture

Wai statue in Thailand, ©iStockphoto.com/Suthin Soonthornnont
  • When you meet locals, it's part of the Thai culture to greet them with a Wai

A Wai is when the palms of your hands meet under your chin. If you meet an old monk, your Wai should reach your forehead. How high your Wai should be, depends on the person's status (elderly people should also have a high Wai). If a Thai greets you with a Wai, you should do the same.

  • SMILE! 

This may seem obvious to you. But here's the deal:Thailand is called the Land of Smiles for a good reason. Don't get angry, or raise your voice. Getting angry is only considered as "losing face." Losing face is a dishonor in Thailand.

Watch how the Thais celebrate the Songkran festival (New Year) in Bangkok:

  • Never touch anyone's head in Thailand, even if you're just kidding with them. In Buddhist countries, the head is considered the most sacred part of the body.

I have some friends from Thailand and they told me that this rule was made out of respect. The society in Thailand can be divided into a hierarchy where you have to pay a special respect to the elderly (if you're younger than them).

Their explanation was this:

You should never touch the head of an eldery person. But it's actually ok to touch the head of persons of your same age and small children.

This makes sense though. In the Philippines (where my parents are from), when we (the young ones) meet an elderly person it's common to take that person's hand, and touch our forehead against the top of their hand. It's a sign of respect as well.

Note: I saw "Grand Torino" with Clint Eastwood and the amazing Hmong people. In the movie, it's mentioned that the soul is in the head.

So, when Eastwood touched a Hmong kid's head (he wanted to be nice), every Hmong person in the room gasped. The scene was exaggerated, but great movie and great story - you should see it!

  • Always take off your footwear before entering a Thai's home, a temple (called 'Wat' in Thai), some family-run shops and even guesthouses and internet cafes. That's because feet are considered the lowest valued part of the body. We can't really blame them for this. Just take a look at the streets in, say, Bangkok. There's dirt, poop, spit, snoot everywhere.
  • Never point your (bare) heel directly at anyone, or any sacred in Thailand.
  • You should bring a gift if you're visiting a Thai's home. A gift is not expected, but they will surely appreciate it. Present the gift with both of your hands. Example of appropriate gifts are flowers, Thai snacks, Thai traditional desserts and chocolate in nice wrapping. 

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Monks in Thailand

  • If you're a female backpacker, remember that you must not touch the monks. Monks in Thailand are forbidden to have any physical contact with women. 
  • The same applies for distance. As a female, you must not stand too close to (elderly) monks. Keep an appropriate distance.

Thailand's national anthem

When the national anthem is played, stand up.

They play the national anthem twice a day (around 8am and 6 pm). It is played on all radio, TV stations, bus stations, police stations etc.

You should be prepared, stop what you're doing and stand up politely.

In Chiang Mai, I can personally tell you that they even played the national anthem at a cinema. We had to stand up, even if it felt weird.

If you're unsure, the best tip is to follow what the locals are doing.

A Thai man accused for insulting the monarchy because he didn't stand up.

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Public affection 
Thailand culture

Kissing in public is not accepted. Period. 

Holding hands is OK, but it still embarrasses Thai people. Hugging and kissing are not accepted. If I were you, I would not hold hands, hug and kiss at all!

The King in Thailand

King Bhumibol of Thailand, ©iStockphoto.com/Georgios Kollidas

Thailand's Lese Majeste law is among the toughest in the world.

It is illegal by the Lèse Majeste law to insult the monarchy in any way.

Have in mind that the Royal family in Thailand is highly respected and loved by the Thai people (apparently not by everyone since Thai citizens also have been arrested).

Foreigners have been arrested. The penalty is from 3-15 years in jail.

Here are some relevant news:

2011-2012: Thai court jails activist in latest royal insult trial

2009: Australian writer freed after Thai Royal pardon.

2006/2007: Swiss Man jailed for Thai insult

Thailand has also blocked websites insulting the monarchy.

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Throw your clothes off?

If you're female, don't sunbath topless. You don't want the locals to feel uncomfortable. Remember that it's illegal to bath nude on the beaches in Thailand (applies for men and women).

Thai Food and Eating Etiquette 
Thailand culture

Pad Thai with beef in Thailand
  • ONLY eat with your right hand

In Thai culture, eating with your left hand in considered inappropriate. Because they use that hand to wash themselves when they're in the toilet and doing dirty business.

  • If you don't eat with your hand, spoon and fork are common to use in Thailand. Let's say you're right-handed. Hold the spoon with your right hand and the fork with your left hand. Use the fork to shove food into the spoon.
  • Don't make any noise when eating, like slurping your soup.
  • Leave a little food on your plate after you've eaten to show that you're full. If you've eaten everything, it indicates that you're still hungry.

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Buddhism and Living Creatures

Elephants in Thailand
  • If you're going to do the elephant riding, treat the elephant with respect. The elephant is the symbol of strength of mind in Buddhism.
  • In public, don't kill bugs on purpose (no matter how much it tempts you). According to Buddhism, every living creature should live.

Visiting Sights and Attractions

  • Never touch a Buddha image or a statue
  • Never stand higher than a Buddha image or a statue. So, kneel.
  • Religious sights and attractions (Wats and Royal Museums) have dress codes. Wear long pants, cover your shoulders and cleavage is a no-no. So, that means no shorts and no sleeveless shirts.
Children in Asia, ©iStockphoto.com/Kevin Landwer-Johan

Too much to remember?

You'll be alright!!!

To adjust to the Thailand culture, you just need time to let go of your regular habits.

It will be awkward the first weeks of your backpacking trip in Thailand. If you make a mistake - apologize! Don't be hard on yourself. Thai people are known to be forgiving! :-)

Look for Thailand Culture Shock! (book) through Amazon.com. It's full of good information on Thai culture!

Further reading:

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