Fortunately, having good table manners in Thailand is easy; the rules of food etiquette are pretty simple. Despite taking their famous cuisine quite seriously, Thai people are fun and easygoing when it comes to eating. Any accidental infractions will be forgiven.
You won’t have to worry much about excessive snobbery or strict eating etiquette in Thailand -- mealtimes are often rowdy, social affairs with talk and laughter. Relax and enjoy the cultural exchange!
Ordering Food in Thailand
All group meals in Thailand are shared; don’t plan to order your own food. Per custom, the senior ladies at the table will pick and choose dishes to fit the group. Several types of meat and fish may be represented along with some different vegetables. As a guest, you’ll probably be expected to try some local specialties.
If you have special dietary restrictions, no need to make them heard during the ordering. Just don’t reach for dishes you think could be a problem, and politely decline if someone asks you to try something that doesn’t fit into your diet.
You’ll be given a plate of white rice, and possibly a bowl if any soups are to be served. When the food arrives, put only small amounts -- no more than two spoonfuls -- of each dish onto your rice. You can refill your plate as many times as you like, assuming that everyone has had a chance to try each dish. Taking too much of any one item -- and possibly preventing others from trying it -- is rude.
Another good reason not to overindulge from the start: food probably won’t arrive all at once! Dishes will continuously be brought out to the table as they are prepared.
Tip: If sat on bamboo mats on the ground, position yourself in a way that you can avoid showing your feet to anyone while they eat.
The Eating Utensils
In Thailand, chopsticks are really only used for standalone noodle dishes. Even if you prefer chopsticks and know the rules for using them politely, don’t use them for rice-based dishes. Thai people eat with a spoon in the right hand and fork in the left. The spoon is the primary utensil; the fork is only used to manipulate food. Only items not eaten with rice (e.g., chunks of fruit) are OK to eat with a fork.
There won’t be knives on the table, or anywhere outside of the kitchen for that matter; food should already be cut up into bite-sized pieces. If you need to cut food smaller, use your fork and spoon to tear it apart.
Meals from northern provinces such as Isaan may include glutinous “sticky” rice served in little baskets. Eat sticky rice by compressing with your fingers and using it to pick up food and sauces.
- Don’t ask for chopsticks.
- Hold the spoon in your right hand and fork in the left.
- Eat with only the spoon. Don’t put the fork into your mouth.
- Use the fork to push food onto the spoon.
- Eat sticky rice with your fingers; you should use your right hand.
Thai people love to season and spice things up. Unlike in upscale Western restaurants or nice sushi establishments, you don’t have to worry about adding extra sauces and seasonings to your food. Taste a dish first -- some authentic Thai food can be especially spicy!
Respect Seniority at the Table
As in most Asian cultures, age and social status are given top priority. The rules of saving face apply at all times. Before you begin shoveling in mouthfuls of food, wait for the highest ranking or most senior person at the table to signal that it’s time to eat. If they don’t say anything, simply wait for them to begin their meal.
Don’t Use Your Left Hand
Throughout much of the world, the left hand is considered the “dirty” hand. Avoid handling food and communal serving utensils with your left hand.
The rule of avoiding left-hand use especially applies to enjoying items such as sticky rice that is eaten with the hands.
Time to Pay
At the end of the meal, don’t immediately reach for the bill to check the damage. And certainly don’t argue over who will pay. Per custom, the more senior -- or perceived wealthiest -- person at the table is expected to pay. If you’re the only farang (foreigner) at the table, despite being a ‘guest,’ you may be expected to cover the meal. Fortunately, food in Thailand is typically very affordable.
Unlike in the West, there is no need to show good intentions about covering the meal. If you aren’t the one paying, don’t offer to chip in or help cover costs -- doing so insinuates that the person paying can’t afford the amount.
Tipping in Thailand isn’t customary in authentic restaurants, however, you can allow the staff to keep the change if you like. A service charge is often already added to the bill in nicer restaurants.
Don’ts for Table Manners in Thailand
- Don’t order separately.
- Don’t ask for chopsticks if they aren’t already provided.
- Don’t eat with your fork.
- Don’t use your left hand.
- Don’t take too much of any one dish.
- Don’t offer to cover your meal unless you’re the one paying.