Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Thailand Etiquette

Thai customs can be a bit confusing; foreigners are not expected to know and follow local etiquette to the letter, but good manners and appropriate dress will earn you instant respect. A few small gestures and a general awareness will help foster a spirit of good will. First-time visitors are sure to make a few laughable mistakes: read below carefully in order to avoid the more offensive faux pas.
Thais greet each other with a graceful bow called a wai. Hands are pressed together; the higher they are held, the greater the respect. Younger people are always expected to wai an elder first, who will almost always return the gesture. Foreigners are more or less exempt from this custom. In hotels, doormen, bellhops, and waitresses will frequently wai to you. Don't feel compelled to return the greeting; a simple smile of acknowledgment is all that's necessary. In situations where a wai is appropriate, like when meeting a person of obvious status, a friend's mother or father, or a monk, don't fret about the position of your hands. To keep them level to your chest is perfectly acceptable. Two exceptions -- never wai a child, and never expect a monk to wai back (they are exempted from the custom).
One of the most important points of Thai etiquette to remember is that Thais expect a certain level of equanimity, calm, and light-heartedness in any personal dealings. If you are prone to temper, aggravation, and frustration, Thailand can be a challenge. Displays of anger and confrontational behavior, especially from foreign visitors, get you nowhere. Thais don't just think such outbursts are rude but believe them to be an indication of a lesser-developed human being. Getting angry and upset is in essence "losing face" by acting shamefully in front of others, and Thai people will walk away or giggle, to spare revealing their embarrassment. Travelers who throw fits often find themselves ignored or abandoned by the very people who could help.
So what do you do if you encounter a frustrating situation? The Thai philosophy advocates chai yen, meaning, "Take it easy. Chill." If it's a situation you can't control, like a traffic jam or a delayed flight -- chai yen. If you find yourself at loggerheads with the front desk, arguing with a taxi driver, or in any other truly frustrating situation, keep calm, try a little humor, and find a non-confrontational, compromising solution that will save face for all involved.
The Thais hold two things sacred: their religion and their royal family. In temples and royal palaces, strict dress code is enforced. Wear long pants or skirts, with a neat shirt, and tops with shoulder-covering sleeves. Remove shoes and hats before entering temple buildings if it is the custom (that's always indicated at entry), and give worshippers their space. Be mindful of your feet -- sit with your legs curled beside you, never in front, or pointing at the Buddha image. While photographing images is sometimes allowed, do not climb on any image or pose near it in a way that can be seen as showing disrespect. Women should be especially cautious around monks, who are not allowed to touch members of the opposite sex. If a woman needs to hand something to a monk, she should either hand it to a man to give to the monk, or place the item in front of him. Important: Never, ever, say anything critical or improper about the royal family, past or present, not even in jest. Never deface images of royalty (on coins, stamps, or posters); this will result in a hefty prison sentence. In movie theaters, everyone is expected to stand for the national anthem, which is played before every screening.
Young Thai society may seem very liberal, but it is in fact remarkably conservative and sartorially prudish. You will notice that educated Thais always cover their shoulders and wear knee- or ankle-length hemlines. Men tend to wear a mix of casual-smart gear with collared shirts and would never be unkempt. In the city, it is considered extremely improper to dress in cut-off shorts, skimpy tops, singlets, or postage-stamp miniskirts. This may look good for a night's clubbing but is regarded by locals as unacceptable attire -- unless you are working in a go-go bar, or want to give that impression. On beaches, European women sometimes sunbathe topless; this is never accepted by locals, many of whom are Muslim. Foreign men who choose to go bare-chested are regarded with equal distaste, and moreover, distrust.
Thais avoid public displays of affection. While straight members of the same gender often hold hands, or walk arm in arm (this includes men), you'll rarely see a Thai man and woman acting this way. Thai women who date foreign men flaunt these rules openly, but as a rule of thumb, Thais frown upon lovers who touch, hug, or kiss in public.
Buddhists believe the feet are the lowliest part of the body, so using the foot to point or touch an object in Thailand is unbelievably insulting. Do not point your feet at a person or a Buddha image, or use your foot to tap a runaway coin (it bears the king's image).
In contrast, the head is considered the most sacred part of the body. Don't touch a Thai on the head or tousle a child's hair, but rather offer a friendly pat on the back. Even barbers have to ask permission to touch a customer's crown.

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