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Thai Culture and Customs

Updated on June 22, 2012
The Thai flag and I.
The Thai flag and I.

The Culture of Thailand

Have you ever felt like a child again? Ever been thrown into in culture completely alien to your own? I’m talking about my biggest eye-opener to date - working, living, becoming integrated into Thai society and learning the weird and wonderful ways of Thai Culture.

This is an introduction to culture in Thailand, Thai customs and some useful tips a westerner needs to be aware of in before visiting Thailand. You may find these surprising, interesting and somewhat strange compared to what you’re used to!

Previous to moving to Thailand I’d only had a month’s experience of any Asian country, where I had a stint traveling around Bali and Lombok, Indonesia during 2009. That taster developed into a bit of a crush on Asian culture. I often found myself day-dreaming about going back whilst de-icing my car at 6am in -10, back in good old blighty! (For those of you who don’ know the term 'blighty' – it’s a slang term for the U.K.) Anyway, eventually I succumb to my Asian travel flirt and found myself on a plane bound for Bangkok a year later.

Customs at Customs.

Upon arriving in Bangkok airport one of the first things noticed whilst speaking to people, or over hearing general conversation was ‘krap’ and ‘ka’. If you’re uniformed about Thai culture, as was I back then, you might not have a clue what I’m talking about! Basically, it’s the respective male and female versions of showing respect, politeness and honour during conversation. Showing respect is an integral part in the culture of Thailand which I believe is echoed throughout many other regions in Asia. These sayings are used all the time, whether in a formal or informal situation, younger to elder, elder to younger and so on. If your specifically interested in Thai language check out my other hub.

'Krap’ and ‘Ka’ can also have different meanings depending on the context in which they’re used. A simple ‘krap’ on its own for example can mean hello, ok or agreeing with someone. ‘Saw waa dee krap’ simply means 'hello', but in a polite way as 'krap' is added to the sentence. I found that adopting the infamous ‘krap’ in most of my communication, especially with elders and people of higher stature, seemed to go well locals, colleagues and new acquaintances alike. Even if I was mixing my limited Thai with English. Thai’s, I soon came to realise, appreciate the effort.

A brave soul thanking his teachers with a Traditional Thai 'Wai'.
A brave soul thanking his teachers with a Traditional Thai 'Wai'.

Thai Customs; Heads, Shoulders Knees and Toes.

OK, so forget the shoulders and knees but the head and feet are significant in Thai culture. Touching peoples head’s for example…NOT TO BE DONE HERE! The head is seen as the most sacred part of the body in Thai culture , which I believe (correct me if I’m wrong) originates from Buddhism, the majority religion in Thailand.

As a rule, I’d say, don’t touch people at all especially strangers, unless you are acquainted, already friends or they touch you first. In this case you’ll more than likely be the recipient of casual hand positioned on your inside leg, around your waist or somewhere else you’re not quite sure of! This is a fairly normal and common practice, just another part of culture in Thailand. Do not fear! It’s just an example of Thai people’s friendly nature and affection; as I unwittingly came to learn over the duration of my stay here.

Buddha images. Taken in Ayutthaya near Bangkok with Canon Powershot G12.
Buddha images. Taken in Ayutthaya near Bangkok with Canon Powershot G12.

Feet in Thai culture

Not the most savoury item of the body regarded by Thai people. Feet are known as the furthest part of the body away from the most sacred, the head. It is not uncommon for a Thai to come home and go straight to the bathroom and wash their feet. This is nearly a necessity after walking around grubby Bangkok in flip flops. Of course shoes, flip-flops or whatever would have been taken off and left outside of the home before entering. I also think this is standard many Asian countries, not just in Thai culture.

Some no no’s regarding feet include; moving things, raising them above the head, pointing your toes at somebody or purposely showing the soles of your feet. Don’t even think about casually putting your feet up on a chair. It’s seen as disrespectful amongst Thais and generally rude. However, being a Farang (westerner) you’ll probably get away with performing one of these sacred acts! Thai people are generally aware that you are not aware and quite understanding of the ‘Farang Ting Tong’ (silly westerner).

A traditional Thai foot spa.
A traditional Thai foot spa. | Source

Culture in Thailand...No, no's!

A fine example of my cultural sensitivity failing occurred in swimming pool with friends on Koh Chang . For reason’s I don't remember the subject was about feet, and I, without remembering our Thai friend was in the swimming pool, casually pulled my own out of the water, swung them around and proudly presented them saying, ‘Look, one of mine’s bigger than the other’. I soon realised my error as look of horror came over Rungwit who was at eye level and suddenly face to face with my feet.

A feeling of dread came over me as I noticed how shocked and disgusted he was, showing a strange emotion I’d never seen before. He quickly swam backwards to get away from my bases! Not the most comfortable situation I've ever been in. Naturally I apologised sincerely and Rungwit, much to my relief, seemed OK about the whole situation. He eventually (maybe begrudgingly) laughed it off over a few Chang’s later that night, and as you can imagine I was the centre of jokes for quite some time afterwards. Needless to say I had learned the hard way. Not the first time of my cultural mishaps in Thailand!

The pool with foot incident. Koh Chang.
The pool with foot incident. Koh Chang.

Other Hubs

Thanks for stopping by! If your especially interested in Thailand and you may like to take a look at these hubs.

Information about Asia: Riding a motorbike in Asia.

Thai Language: Basic Thai Phrases and Sayings.

Thai Culture and Customs: The 'Wai' Greeting. Sawas Dee Krap!

Information about Southeast Asia.

Thai Dialling Dialling Code: How to Make and Receive Cheap International Phone Calls to and from a Thai mobile.

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Submit a Comment

  • livingabroad profile image

    livingabroad 3 years ago from Wales, UK

    Thanks for your comment Thelma, Thailand is a wonderful place with wonderful people! If you can ever get there I highly recommend it.

  • Thelma Alberts profile image

    Thelma Alberts 3 years ago from Germany

    Great informative hub. I did not know much about Thailands culture and traditions. Thanks for sharing the informations.

  • Harishprasad profile image

    Harish Mamgain 4 years ago from New Delhi , India

    livingabroad, you have written a nice article about culture and customs of Thai people. You are also right that most of the asian countries echo the same kind of customs. The'' foot'' part of your story is very interesting and here in India also, people think on parallel lines. I really enjoyed reading this stuff.

  • livingabroad profile image

    livingabroad 5 years ago from Wales, UK

    Thanks for the generous comments Rich! I also know a few of those you call 'beenheretoolong' and I agree!

    It's a beautiful country with lovely people and I should feel so lucky to live here, especially in the tropical paradise of Koh Samui. Not to say that Thailand doesn't have it's problems, it does. For now lets just keep on enjoying it! I look forward to trawling your hubs! :)

  • Richawriter profile image

    Richard J ONeill 5 years ago from Bangkok, Thailand

    Hey Livingabroad!

    I love this hub and the way you presented Thai culture and its adorable people!

    I have lived here on and off for 6 years and I must say that like you, I have unequivocally fallen in love with this country and customs.

    Sadly, there are many 'Farangs' here who I and my collegues like to call 'beenheretoolongs' because all they do is winge about Thai culture and customs. We all know what they should do.

    Anyway, this is a good hub for anyone wishing to travel to Thailand and I enjoyed your experience of the 'Foot' incident.

    Nice one mate. Peace. Richawriter