Thai people are friendly and tolerant. They know many foreigners do not know their local customs and social rules. They will easily forgive or ignore most transgressions. The two taboos that all people in Thailand should respect are their religion and royal family.
95% of the Thai population is Buddhist. The religion influences Thai society at every level. There are temples (wats) everywhere and most Thai males will do a spell as a monk at some point in their lives.
Buddhism follows the teachings of Siddharta Gautama who was an Indian prince who lived in the 6th century BC. He renounced his royal life to seek a higher spiritual understanding. After years of study and search, he finally achieved 'enlightenment' and became a Buddha.
Some people argue that Buddhism is not a religion at all but a philosophy of life. Buddhists do not worship a god or higher being. They believe in reincarnation - that life is a circle of death and rebirth. Furthermore, they believe that life is suffering and the aim of life is to break the circle of rebirth. This is achieved by attaining 'nirvana' - a state of enlightenment where the 'self' no longer exists.
The more visible side of the religion in Thailand is that people visit the temple to make a donation of food or money in return for making merit. This they hope will lead to good fortune in this life or the next.
The royal family in Thailand is held in great esteem and understandably so. You must not publicly criticise the royal family. In fact Thailand has strong Lese Majeste laws and it is a criminal offence to publicly criticise the royal family.
King Bhumibol is the longest reigning monarch in the world and celebrated the 60th anniversary of his succession to the throne on June 9th 2006. The Thai people love him and credit him as being the most important stabilising force in the country.
Although he is a constitutional monarch, the king has intervened in many a political crisis during his reign. There have been military coups and political upheavals. The king has consistently intervened as a calming influence and the respect he commands means that all sides take notice.
The king and other members of the royal family are very active in charity work helping the poor people of the country. They are not merely figureheads. They are genuinely involved in the day-to-day activities of the charities. They go out to meet the people and are aware of their problems.
Other royal families around the world could learn a lot from the Thai royal family.
The traditional form of Thai greeting is the wai. The two hands are pressed together and raised in front of the face in a prayer like gesture. The higher you raise the hands the more respect you are showing.
The wai is normally performed between equals or by a junior person to a senior. If you go to a restaurant, you may find the serving staff wai you when you enter and leave. It is not necessary for you to return the gesture, although you may if you wish. You are the customer and therefore the senior person in this situation.
However if you are introduced to Thais in a social situation or meet somebody of high social standing then a wai could be appropriate. Certainly if you are introduced to an elder person such as a friend's parent then a wai would be appreciated.
Thais are fully aware that the wai is not a western custom and if you do not do one, they will not be offended.
In Thailand, like many other Asian countries, the concept of 'face' is important. It is important to Thais to maintain their own dignity and reputation, and to protect others from losing theirs.
You should not do anything to demean or belittle other people. If somebody falls over or is in an embarrassing position, Thai people will laugh and make light of it. This is not done to embarrass that person but in a friendly way to lighten the situation.
'Face' also means that admitting personal fault or failure is not easy for Thais. If a Thai has failed to provide a service he promised, then usually there will be an excuse of circumstances beyond his control. It would be considered poor form for you to dwell on such a failure. It is worse to cause someone to lose face than for him to fail to provide a service.
A show of anger is also a cause for loss of face. You should try to keep your temper and be polite no matter what the situation.
Heads and Feet
The head is considered the most spiritual part of the body and the feet are considered the dirtiest.
A lot of guidebooks are very firm in their instructions not to touch anyone on the head. In fact, Thais pat children on the head all the time. It is a common act of friendliness and you will not cause offence by patting a child on the head. However, you must not do the same with adults. This is obvious really. You would not pat an adult on the head at home either.
Do not point the souls of the feet at people or objects of respect such as a Buddha image in a temple. No matter how casual the situation, do not use feet to point or to poke people. When sitting, place the souls of your feet on the floor. If you are sitting on the floor, then sit cross-legged or bend your legs behind.
We know a lot of people want to top up their tan at every possible opportunity but walking in public without a shirt is not the custom in Thailand. Not wearing a shirt at the beach or swimming pool is fine but away from these locations, you should wear a shirt. The Thais are tolerant of westerners ignoring this custom but you will make a better impression if you respect it.
It is not normal for women to sunbathe topless. At some private swimming pools, it may be okay. At most beaches it is not acceptable (it is actually illegal) although some foreign tourists do it. Again, Thais will be tolerant and may well joke about it but they really do not like it.
In Thailand, it is the custom to remove your shoes before entering a house. Some shops and offices also follow this practice. If there is a collection of shoes at the entrance then you should probably remove your own shoes before entering.