Everyday social graces in Thailand
The following information is is taken from Lonely Planet Thailand, which we can recommend as the probably best travel guide for our students.
"Thais are tolerant of most kinds of behaviour as long as it does not insult the two most sensitive fields of monarchy and religion."
King and Country
The monarchy is held in considerable respect in Thailand and visitors should be respectful too – avoid disparaging remarks about anyone in the royal family. Please be aware that Thailand has a rigid lese majeste law and will harshly punish anybody who is assumed insulting the monarchy.
While it is OK to criticize the Thai government and even Thai culture openly, it is considered a grave insult to Thai nationhood as well as to the monarchy not to stand when you hear the national or royal anthems. Radio and TV stations in Thailand broadcast the national anthem daily at 8am and 6pm; in towns and villages (even in some Bangkok neighbourhoods) this can be heard over public loudspeakers in the streets (so on the main campus of Ramkhamhaeng University). The Thais stop whatever they are doing to stand during the anthem and visitors are expected to do likewise. The royal anthem is played just before films are shown in public cinemas; again, the audience always stands until it is over.
Correct behaviour in temples entails several considerations, the most important of which is to dress neatly and to take your shoes off when you enter any building that contains a Buddha image. Buddha images are sacred objects, so do not pose in front of them for pictures and, definitely, do not climb upon them.
Shorts or sleeveless shirts are considered improper dress for both men and women when visiting temples. Thai citizens wearing either would be turned away by monastic authorities, but except for the most sacred temples in the country (e.g., Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep near Chiang Mai), Thais are often too polite to refuse entry to improperly covered foreigners. Some temples will offer trousers or long sarongs for rent so that tourists dressed in shorts may enter the compound.
Monks are not supposed to touch, or to be touched, by women. If a woman wants to hand something to a monk, the object should be placed within reach of the monk, not handed directly to him.
When sitting in a religious edifice, keep your feet pointed away from any Buddha images. The usual way to do this is to sit in the ‘mermaid’ pose in which your legs are folded to the side, with the feet pointing backwards. Some larger temples in Bangkok charge entry fees. In other temples, a small donation is appropriate. Usually donation boxes are located near the entry to the central sanctuary or next to the central Buddha image at the rear.
And please - take your shoes off when ever you enter a room with a Buddha statue, and may it be very small.
Social Gestures & Attitudes
Traditionally, Thais greet each other with a prayer-like palms-together gesture known as a wâi. If someone wâi-s you, you should wâi back (unless wâi-ed by a child or service person). Most urban Thais are familiar with the international-style handshake and will offer the same to a foreigner, although a wâi is always appreciated. Most long-term staying Westerners appreciate that as well, by the way – in the hot and humid climate, hands tend to sweat a lot.
Thais are usually addressed by their first name with the honorific Khun or other title preceding it. Other formal terms of address include naai (Mr.) and naang (Miss or Mrs.). Friends often use nicknames or kinship terms like phîi (elder sibling), náwng (younger sibling), mâe (mother), or lung (uncle), depending on the age differential.
A smile and a cheery ‘sàwàt-dii khrap’ (for men), respectively ‘sàwàt-dii kha’ (for women), goes a long way towards calming the initial uncertainty that locals may feel upon seeing a foreigner, whether in the city or the countryside.
When handing things to other people, you should use both hands or your right hand only, never the left hand (reserved for toilet absolutions).
Books and other written materials are given a special status over other secular objects. Hence you should not slide books or documents across a table or counter-top, and never place them on the floor – use a chair if table space is not available.
Head and feet
The feet are the lowest part of the body (spiritually as well as physically), so do not point your feet at people or point at things with your feet. Do not rest your feet on chairs or tables while sitting. Never touch any part of someone else’s body with your foot.
In the same context, the head is regarded as the highest part of the body, so do not touch Thais on the head (or ruffle their hair) either. If you touch someone’s head accidentally, offer an immediate apology or you will be perceived as very rude. Do not sit on pillows meant as headrests, as this represents a variant of the taboo against head-touching.
Never step over someone, even on a crowded 3rd-class train where people are sitting or lying on the floor. Instead, squeeze around them or ask them to move. In rural areas and at temple fairs, food is often eaten while seated on the floor; stepping over the food is a sure way to embarrass and offend your Thai hosts.
These should not be worn inside Thai people’s homes, nor in some guesthouses and shops. If you see a pile of shoes at or near the entrance, you should remove your shoes before entry. Most Thais cannot believe how oblivious some foreigners seem to be of this simple and obvious custom.
Shorts (except knee-length walking shorts), sleeveless shirts, tank tops (singlets), and other beach-style dresses are not considered appropriate dress for anything other than sporting events. Such dress is especially counterproductive if worn to government offices (e.g., when applying for a visa extension). The attitude of ‘This is how I dress at home and no-one is going to stop me’ gains nothing but contempt or disrespect from the Thais.
Sandals or slip-on shoes are OK for almost any but the most formal occasions. Short-sleeved shirts and blouses with capped sleeves likewise are quite acceptable.
Thais would never dream of going abroad and wearing dirty clothes, so they are often shocked to see Westerners travelling around Thailand in clothes that apparently have not been washed for weeks, such as blue jeans. If you keep up with your laundry, you will receive much better treatment wherever you go.
Thais can be very hospitable and it is not unusual to be invited home for a meal or a sociable drink. Even if your visit is very brief, you will be offered something - a glass of water, a cup of tea, a piece of fruit, a shot of rice liquor, or whatever they have on hand. You are expected to partake of whatever is offered, whether your are thirsty or hungry or not; to refuse at least a taste is considered impolite and rude.