Same same but different, Mai ben rai, Don’t do this, Don’t do that.
You are in Thailand, loving the weather, it’s horrible hot today, and you take off your shirt to try and cope with the heat, just to receive odd looks from the Thai’s around you and there is even a lady walking past shaking her head, why is that? You are not being offensive or bad mannered, actually you are on the highest level of friendliness, even tapping the little kids on the head with a smile, just to see them freeze and look odd at you.
That scenario could be any normal day at the pool area, but actually with your friendliness and none offensive behavior, you were rude and offensive in the eyes of Thai ethics.
Thailand has a very different set of norms that is very different from most western cultures, and to use our example above, what was done wrong are:
- Exposing your naked torso (male or female)
- It’s rude to be topless, and seen offensive, take a quick look around the beaches and pool areas, they are all covered in some manner, for guys it’s more normal now to be topless, but still to the older generation it’s rude to do that. You can lift up a shirt to get more air on your stomach without any issues, but removing the clothes is crossing the line.
- Touching a kid, or anyone on the head for that matter
- Thailand is a Buddhist country and thus the top of the head is considered a holy spot, and should not be touched.
Other big don’t are:
- Wearing shoes inside the house, you always leave the shoes at the door, in many cases creating a rather interesting skip / jump to get inside the house if there are many people there. Even if you have to just quickly jump inside to grab something, you should remove your shoes first.
- Touching / grabbing a lady’s arm, is another big don’t. Young couples are seen holding hands but not so often if you look for it, and even your intensions are meant well, to just grab the arm of girl or shake hands to say hello or good bye, physical contact is only meant for couples and mostly in the confinements of their own home, not in public areas.
- Talk about Thai politics, this is actually a felony to do this, and you could be charge according to the law if you do so.
- Talk negatively about the Royal family, this is a very big don’t and could sent you to jail for many years, even you mean it as a joke or funny remark, the Royal family is highly regarded in Thailand and should never be mentioned negatively even in a jest.
So what to do? How can I get this right?
Firstly, when greeting a Thai, this is done with a “Wai” the gesture of holding your hands palm to palm in front of your face, toughly with thumbs at Solar Plexus and do a little bow, while saying “Sa-wa-dee kap” if you are a man and “Sa-wa-dee kaa” if you are a lady, and that is really it, no hand shaking, no petting on the arm or anything.
If you arrive at home, you take off your shoes before you enter the house, if you are outside like a temple it’s the same procedure, but with shops/restaurants etc. it’s normal to keep the shoes on, though always check if there are shoes outside, as some shops does expect you to remove the shoes before you enter.
Are there more differences?
There are many cultural differences, more than what we can cover in here, it would take a rather big book to explain all the differences, but if you keep these pointes in mind you will be ok, you are after all a foreigner and thus are not expected to know all the ins and outs of the complex Thai society.
- Don’t touch females in public.
- Neither your wife/girlfriend of stranger.
- Don’t touch anyone’s head
- The head is a holy place, even your wife or girlfriend you should never touch on the top of the head.
- Take off your shoes before entering a house
- Shoes are connected with dirt, and should be removed before entering.
- Don’t start screaming and complaining out loud
- This one is seen to lose face of the Thai person, and thus will only result in the opposite result of what you intend.
- Even it sounds strange, most situations and odd pinches can be cleared with a smile.
- Always “Wai” back if someone “Wai’s” at you.
- If you are in a car or otherwise prevented to “Wai” comfortably a smile and head nod, with the “Sa-wa-dee kap/ka” will suffice, but if you are able to do it, you should.
- Don’t walk topless
- Even you look like a model, and are almost fainting from the heat, don’t remove your shirt, you can lift it up, or flap the lower section as crazy to generate some airflow, but leave it on.
- Be properly dressed for the temples.
- If you are visiting a temple, you should wear shorts longer than your knees, or better yet, long pants, ladies should wear the same or a long dress, and for both a shirt that is not reveling any body parts other than from the elbow down to your hands.
- Ladies, don’t touch a monk
- Monks are not allowed to touch or be touched by ladies, and thus should not be put in that situation where this would be compromised. If you are donating an item to the monks, you should always place the items on the cloth sheet they present to you and not hand it over to them directly.
- Never talk about Thai politics or talk negatively about the Royal family.
- Both are punishable with fines and jail terms and/or exclusion of your stay in Thailand, specially insults of the Royal family can give up to 7 years per insult in jail.
You have probably tried talking Thai only to be met with a confused listener.
The Thai language is quite difficult for everyone, not only is the language from a completely different language tree than most European languages, but it’s also a language that is heavy on dialects which most of us “farangs” aren’t picking up at all.
But in reality it’s not much different from back home, there are also plenty of dialects, we just don’t pay too much attention to them, and they are – in all fairness, very similar when it comes to it, but in Thailand the dialects are very different, if we for instance look at the dialect that is furthest apart it would be Isaarn (which again has a few very different sub dialects) and Bangkok Thai.
The closets would be something like British and Midlands? And to make matters worse Thai language is also heavy on slang expressions that makes it even more confusing, but if you venture out to learn Thai language, you should try to get a teacher that teaches Bangkok Thai, and everyone will be able to understand that, given that you can pronounce it correctly, since that is the second hurdle to cross.
We are brought up with how to spell a word, and that dictates how the words are pronounced, the same really goes with Thai, but as we are using the Arabic letters, the Thai language are using Sanskrit so there is no easy way to decipher the words, nor is there a fixed set of rules on how to spell Thai words in English, and you will encounter signs that are spelled in different ways of the same name within a short distance.
But all is not lost
Just like with any other place you go visit, there are some keywords that you should try to learn to pronounce correctly, as the Thai language is very vocal the tone is the all-important part.
As an example, there are five ways to say “Maa” all depending on the tone it can mean anything from mother to horse, dog and come. So given that fact, you can start to see why they looked confused when you thought you were ordering fried rice with egg, but most likely were saying some complete nonsense, and the tone difference are so minute that many of them sounds the same way to us, but are very different to Thais.
So what is needed to learn? Well, for starters let’s do the hello and good byes, and these are the same.
Hello/Good day/Hi = Sa-wa-dee kap/kaa
I don’t understand = Mai kho jai kap/kaa
How much? = Tau rai
Where is the toilet? = Hong naam tee nay
Rice = Khao
Pork = Moo
Beef = Nua
Egg = Kai
Chicken = Gai
It’s ok / Don’t worry = Mai ben lai
1 = Nueng
3 = Saam
4 = Sii
5 = Ha
6 = Hok
7 = Jet
8 = Baad
9 = Gau
10 = Zip
20 = Yee zip
30 = Saam zip