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Thailand Customs and Habits

here's a Thai proverb which says, "When you enter a country where everyone winks, wink back." Or as we say, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." As with any foreign country, your life teaching English in Thailand will be a lot easier and you will make a lot more friends if you show respect for local customs and make the effort to adapt to them.

Local Customs

There's a Thai proverb which says, "When you enter a country where everyone winks, wink back." Or as we say, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." As with any foreign country, your life teaching English in Thailand will be a lot easier and you will make a lot more friends if you show respect for local customs and make the effort to adapt to them.

Here are some points that it?s worth bearing in mind not just in dealings with students, but with Thais in general.

The Monarchy

If you come from Britain, you?ll be used to making jokes about the reigning monarch and treating her and her family with a casual familiarity. Such behaviour is incomprehensible to Thais!

Thais from all walks of life still have deep respect and a genuine affection for their royal family. You will find pictures of the King adorning not just every public building but even holding pride of place in most private homes. All television channels devote at least half-an-hour every evening to a round-up of the royal family?s activities for the day and you will have to stand to pay your respects to His Majesty before every film or public performance of any kind.

The King?s words and political vision still carry great weight in today?s Thailand. If you are coming to work as an English teacher, you should thank the King for his support of a language that was almost unknown in Thailand until he spoke out in favour of its value and usefulness.

Speaking disrespectfully or jokingly about any member of the royal family in Thai hearing will very rapidly make enemies.


Thailand is officially a Buddhist country and some 95% of Thais are Buddhists. In many ways Thai Buddhism is a very laissez-faire religion, but if you are not a Buddhist there are some things you should be aware of. Always remove your shoes and dress smartly when entering a temple. Never allow your feet to point towards an image of the Buddha.

Monks are not allowed to have any physical contact with women. This means that whether on a crowded bus or as a student in your class, a monk cannot sit next to a woman. If you are a woman teacher and you have a monk as a student, you should not try to hand anything directly to him. Place handouts, for example, within his reach and allow him to pick them up himself.

Heads and Feet

Taboos exist on some parts of the body that have little significance in Western culture. For example, the head is regarded as the highest part of the body and you should never touch another person on the head.By contrast, the foot is regarded as the lowest part of the body and you should take care never to point your foot towards anyone. This is an extremely insulting gesture! Try to get into Thai habits of sitting with your feet on the floor or tucked away under you. Even moving objects around with your feet is seen as very uncouth.

Among other actions that might seem harmless to you, passing things in front of people (instead of behind) or stepping over a sitting or lying person?s legs (even in crowded places) are considered very offensive. If you have to pass between two people, you should lower your head slightly as a mark of basic politeness.

Physical Contact

Thai and Western ideas about what constitutes acceptable physical contact in public are fundamentally different!

While people of the same sex can often be seen holding hands on the street, you will rarely see a man and a woman being so shameless as to do so. In stark contrast to the image some tourists have of Thailand as a kind of sexual theme-park, probably the majority of Thais have ideals of modesty and appropriate behaviour between the sexes that most Westerners would regard as nineteenth-century. On the negative side this can extend to a certain level of hypocrisy and an insidious sexism.

While attitudes are changing among the urban young, public displays of physical affection such as hugging and kissing are still generally regarded as coarse and distasteful. On the beach you will notice that most Thais prefer to wear brightly-coloured pyjama-style clothing rather than revealing swimsuits.

Thais have a more starkly contrasting idea of what is appropriate or not appropriate in certain contexts than the average Westerner and can behave very differently - to Western eyes, inconsistently - in different situations. You would be wrong to assume, for example, that what happens in the enclosed fantasy bubble of a girl- or boy-bar in any way represents some underlying ideal of sexual freedom.

With their cultural preference for avoiding confrontation, most Thais choose to turn a blind eye to what goes on in the sex-industry that mushroomed in their country in the wake of the Vietnam War. Few take any pride whatsoever in the fact that so many of their fellow countrymen and women are still forced through extreme poverty to make their living in this way.


In Thailand you will always be judged on appearances!

You will rapidly notice that, no matter who they are, all Thais put a great deal of effort into being well dressed and well groomed. If you want to fit in, you will need to do the same. To Thai eyes, if you wear the casual dress beloved of Western holiday-makers, you look like you?ve crawled out of an old laundry basket.

In particular, the standards of dress expected of a teacher are very different from those in Western countries. If you are a male teacher, you should always wear a shirt and tie, a belt on your trousers and formal shoes. If you are a woman, you should dress smartly and never wear anything that exposes your shoulders.

Wearing the kind of casual clothing that teachers tend to see as a welcoming gesture in the West will only earn you ridicule and disrespect in Thailand. If you turned up to teach in a T-shirt and jeans, your students would regard you much as you might regard someone who turned up to teach you in an old bathrobe and slippers - more deserving of a psychiatrist than a salary!

Expressions of Emotion

Thais admire serenity and regard overt expressions of emotion as immature and unsightly.This is especially true in the case of anger or impatience. If you show anger, you will immediately lose the respect of Thais. Their first reaction will be to laugh at you, in the hope that you too will remind yourself of the absurdity of trying to solve anything in this way. You still have time to smile off your momentary lapse. If you persist in being angry, Thais will simply disappear - in order to leave time for the childish hothead to cool off and grow up.

This can be hard to adjust to. In general, Western cultures are prepared to accept that if someone has become angry, they may have a point to make and should at least be listened to. In Thailand this simply isn?t the case. If you have a point to make, you will have to make it with quiet non-aggressive eloquence and show potential goodwill to the person you are talking to throughout.

The Wai

Thais greet each other with the ?wai? (pronounced like the word ?why?), placing the palms of their hands together as in prayer and raising them to the level of their face whilst bowing slightly. Before coming to Thailand, you may have thought of this gesture as no more than a charming habit of waiters in Thai restaurants, but it carries deep resonance for Thais. You will see Thai mothers teaching babies to wai even before they can speak. Many people take both pride and pleasure in the gracefulness and warmth of their wai. In addition to greeting and saying goodbye, the wai is also always used when either presenting or receiving a gift. The wai is, amongst other things, a mark of respect for position and age. For Thais, different levels of the closed hands can show different degrees of respect.


As a rule, if someone wais you, you should always wai back. However, it is not considered correct to wai children or to wai someone who is thanking you for your patronage. Thais are aware that foreigners don?t use the wai and in situations where you are unsure, a nod and a smile will always pass as an acceptably polite response.

The Thai Smile

Newcomers to Thailand are sometimes shocked when Thais convey bad news, such as the death of a parent, with their faces wreathed in broad smiles.

For Thais, showing a smiling face to other people, no matter what your personal problems, is a basic kindness and a mark of emotional maturity. They are made very uneasy by what they see as the curiously miserable or scowling faces of Westerners.

This doesn?t mean Thais don?t have the same sorrows and sensitivities as the rest of us. If you take an interest in the language, you will hear plenty of hope and heartbreak in the words of ?luuk thung? songs, for example, the haunting indigenous popular music that started life as the music of the displaced. But you won?t see any pain on the beautifully smiling face of the singer. When they constantly tell you not to ?think too much? about your problems, behind that ear-to-ear beam they have the same awareness of the wishful impossibility of this as anyone else.

If you decide to stay here, you may pass through a phase where you feel this is not so much the Land of Smiles as the Land of Grinning Lunatics. But you will soon find yourself developing an admiration for flood survivors or victims of the economic crash, for example, relating tales of deep personal tragedy whilst struggling bravely to preserve the Thai ideal of a face ?yim yaem berk baan jaem sai? - ?smiling like a flower in full bloom or a clear day?.


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