Following a few simple rules of Thailand etiquette will not only prevent you from accidentally offending someone, doing so will set you apart from the tourists only interested in cheap shopping or idyllic beaches. Observing and respecting local culture will certainly enhance your experience.
Thailand is known as the “Land of Smiles” -- but the famous Thai smile has many meanings. Although Thai people are very forgiving of infractions, particularly when committed by farang (foreigners), observing these basic dos and don'ts will keep them smiling.
Don'ts to Observe in Thailand Etiquette
- Don't point your feet: Pointing your feet at someone, raising your feet higher than someone's head, or simply putting your feet on a desk or chair are considered extremely rude in Thailand. The bottoms of feet are dirty: don't show them to people! Avoid pointing feet at Buddhas. When sitting on the ground, try to sit in a way that doesn't show others the bottoms of your feet.
- Don't touch someone's head: While the feet are considered the lowest and dirtiest parts of the body, the head is revered as the most sacred. Never touch someone's head or hair -- this includes playfully ruffling a child's hair. Don't raise your feet above someone's head; avoid stepping over people who are sitting or sleeping on the ground.
- Don't point: Pointing at someone is considered rude in many cultures but particularly so in Thailand. If you must indicate a person, do so by lifting your chin in their direction. When motioning for someone to come over, don't use fingers pointed upward; make a patting motion with your fingers straight and palm toward the ground. Pointing at inanimate objects and animals is usually acceptable, but it's more polite to point with your entire hand rather than a single finger.
- Don't lose your cool: Shouting, blowing your top, or displaying strong emotions is generally frowned upon in Thailand. Always keep in mind the rules of saving face. Keep your cool even when things go wrong; you'll be respected for doing so. Don't lament that bus breakdown. Instead, laugh and say "mai pen rai."
- Don't disrespect the king: Never disrespect the king or images of the king, this includes currency -- his picture appears on the Thai baht. Although Thailand's lese majeste laws are controversial, open disrespect toward the king can actually land you in prison! People have received lengthy sentences for Facebook posts that spoke out against the monarchy.
- Don't throw things: Tossing an object or money in someone's direction is rude. Take time to hand things to people properly, face up, preferably with your right hand. Unfold money when paying someone.
Do Follow These Rules of Thailand Etiquette
- Remove your shoes: As in many Asian cultures, removing your shoes before entering a temple or visiting someone's home is essential. Some businesses, restaurants, and shops also ask that you remove your shoes. If unsure, just look to see if there is a pile of shoes at the entrance, or check to see if the staff are wearing shoes. This is why simple footwear is a good idea in Southeast Asia. It's better not to step on the threshold when entering homes and temples.
- Return a wai: The wai is Thailand's prayer-like gesture with the hands together in front and head slightly bowed. To not return a wai is considered impolite; only the king and monks do not have to return wais. Try not to wai while holding something in your hands; a slight bow will suffice. You might want to learn how to say hello in Thai.
- Use your right hand: The left hand is considered dirty, as it is sometimes used for "toilet functions." Always use your right hand to pass objects to someone and when paying. Touch your left hand to your right forearm (showing that it is safely out of reach) if you wish to show extra respect.
- Eat with a spoon: The proper way to enjoy delicious Thai food is with the spoon in your right hand and fork in your left. Use the fork to rake food onto your spoon; the fork never goes into the mouth. Chopsticks are usually only used for noodle dishes and treats such as spring rolls.
- Show respect to monks: You will encounter many monks in places such as Chiang Mai; treat them with respect. When greeting a monk, monks receive a higher wai than ordinary people; monks do not have to return your gesture. Women should never touch a monk, brush a monk's robes, or hand something to a monk. Monks should be allowed to eat first at ceremonies and gatherings. Monks in Thailand are commonplace -- you'll sometimes see them using smartphones and in internet cafes!
- Smile: The "Thai smile" is famous, essential to Thailand etiquette, and Thais show it whenever they can. Always return someone's smile. Smiles are used during negotiation, in apology, to relax whenever something goes not as planned, and just in everyday life.
Thailand Temple Etiquette
Visiting temples in Thailand is a must for every trip, however, many tourists shy away from interesting places such as the Tunnel Temple in Chiang Mai because they don't understand Buddhism or the local customs. Be sure to brush up on your temple etiquette so you don't offend any of the worshipers!