For the majority of us Westerners; Thailand is on the opposite side of the world-both geographically and culturally. Many ‘farangs’ (foreigner in Thai) experience some sort of ‘culture shock’ when they get here; habits, rules and morals can be extremely different to those you are used to in your native country. For example; it is very rude in Thailand to stack your plates on top of one another (something I only recently discovered), whereas in England you are doing the waiting staff a favour if you do this for them. On the flip side of this; Thai people have absolutely no issues with talking with their mouths full; something which locals in the west find quite rude.
There are countless differences between western cultures and that of Thailand; most of which you will pick up as you go along; especially if you are here for an extended period of time. One of the biggest issues with this though is that Thai’s HATE confrontation, so if you’re doing something that offends them (despite whether you mean to or not) it is very unlikely they will ever say it to your face- although behind you back is a different matter altogether. Hence why I have been stacking plates for 6 months- nobody ever told me it was the wrong thing to do (very frustrating).
Here are 10 things to watch out for while you’re in Thailand; some culture advice and some general handy hints to minimise your culture shock and maybe save yourself some embarrassment (which trust me, you’ll experience plenty if you live in Thailand)
1. Take your shoes off
It’s finally time to take the Cheeky Girls’ advice and take off your shoes. Places of worship, a person’s home, hotels and hostels and even some shops require you to take your shoes off before entering. To avoid any faux pa’s, check all signs before entering a temple and have a quick scan before you go into a shop; if there are shoes in front of the door or there are shoe racks close by, chances are you must enter bare foot. Save yourself a hassle by bringing flip-flops or sliders to Thailand- having to unlace shoes every 2 minutes can be a bit of a nightmare.
2. Don’t flush toilet paper
This is one that took me absolutely ages to remember to do- NEVER flush your loo paper down the toilet…just don’t. Thailand’s sewage pipes and drainage systems are absolutely terrible so even if you flush one tiny square of paper… the toilet will instantly block and you’ll have to leave red faced with your tail between your legs because you ignored this piece of advice. Once you’ve finished you need to put your paper IN THE BIN next to the toilet. If you think this is disgusting, in Thai culture the paper is never dirty because they use the toilet hose (a.k.a bum gun) to clean themselves and the paper to dry. Simple.
3. Do your squats
If you find a western style toilet in Thailand, you’re lucky. More often than not you will need to squat when you need the loo, which can be quite traumatic if you don’t know how to use it. Step straight onto the squatty potty, squat as far down as your body will let you and go for it- you can hold onto the stall walls to steady yourself if you need to (don’t bother with trying to turn around, I’ve heard horror stories of people slipping and breaking their collar bones). Always carry around loo paper with you as squats never have them and they won’t have bum guns either (just remember advice no.2). Once you’re done fill up a bowl of water and throw it down the squat to flush….you’l get used to them after a while trust me.
4. Stand still!
The National Anthem plays every single day at 8am and again at 6pm- you MUST stand still. If you’re in a public place- stand still, if you’re sat down- stand up and stand still, if you’re crossing the road- quickly get to the footpath and stand still! Stand still and be silent. Please don’t be that farang that carries on walking and chatting extremely loudly despite everyone around them standing still…it gives us all a bad name.
Thailand is an extremely patriotic country and you must pay respect to this. The anthem and the King’s song is played before each film at the cinema so before stuffing your face with popcorn you must stand up and pay respect to the King.
5. Keep your mouth shut
Discussing politics and/or the royal family in public is a huge no no and is punishable by law. If you bad mouth The King, any members of his family, the government or any important person to the country where people can hear you and comprehend what you’re saying you could get thrown into a Thai prison, arrested or heavily fined. Just don’t do it. This also includes any posts on Social Media.
6. Don’t start a fight
As mentioned earlier; Thai people hate confrontation. Rather than address things directly, or mention things to your face Thai’s will go behind your back, go straight to your boss or gossip about you to their friends (something I find extremely annoying as it is so passive aggressive but it is simply their culture). You must respect this; don’t start a fight with a Thai person and don’t shout or be aggressive toward them for no reason.
However, having said that; I’m not telling you not to stand up for yourself. If you come across a scammer or someone is being extremely rude to you then of course you cannot take that lying down. Maybe just dilute your feelings a little, or let them go if you can. Angry Thai people can be a little scary.
If you plan to live in Thailand; you need to take this on board to the Nth degree. Thai’s love to gossip and if you’re seen being aggressive, your entire community will know and will lose all respect for you-respect is quite often all you have in this country.
7. ‘Mai Bpen Rai’
‘Mai Bpen Rai’ to me, is kinda like Hakuna Matata- it means no worries. Your classes will be cancelled with no prior warning, you asked for no sugar in your smoothie, your appointment was supposed to be 3 hours ago, your starters came 1 hour after your main course…’mai bpen rai’ and welcome to Thailand. The land where everything takes much longer than you anticipated, time doesn’t exist and locals do whatever they like. There is no point in getting agitated about any of the above, Thai’s will not understand your concern, you’re no longer in the west. After a while you too will embrace this mantra- who cares if you’re waiting a little longer, ‘mai bpen rai’- it’s very freeing.
(Hollie’s photo of her ‘Mai Bpen Rai’ tattoo- @happy_hollieday)
8. Respect Buddha
In Thailand; Buddhism is a very real religion and the locals, as you may expect, take it seriously. Farangs here to ‘find themselves’ may try and take on what they think Buddhism is- they’ll start yoga, maybe smoke a few joints, visit a couple of temples and then go on to think they’re now Buddhist and get a mandala or a Buddhist’s head tattoo, statue or souvenir. NO! Carrying symbols of Buddha is extremely disrespectful here, unfortunately you’ll have to find another symbol to get tattooed on to your body at 3am whilst drunk on Khao San Road.
9. Cover up
If you’re going to a place of worship or sacred place then you must cover up- meaning no knees, no shoulders, no cleavage. Some places will rent a scarf or wrap for you to use at a small fee but others (like the Grand Palace) won’t. Quite often, a wrap isn’t enough (again, like the grand palace) and you will get turned away if you’re not correctly dressed. If you’re planning on visiting some temples whilst here- which I would highly recommend you do, ensure you pack a t-shirt and a long skirt or trousers- a pair elephant pants will do.
10. No PDA
Holding hands around Bangkok is perfectly acceptable, however no snogging each others faces off in public-especially if you’re at a place of worship. Thai’s can be rather reserved so PDA is a big no-no here.
There you have it, a quick heads up on 10 things you should know before you fly out to this beaut of a country. There are SO many things in Thai culture that I didn’t know and I’m still learning myself, however you only really need to know about them if you’re going to move here- these 10 are important for any length of time. You can choose not to take my advice and ignore all of these things, but trust me they are very real and be prepared for some dirty looks, stares and whispers from Thai people as you do them.
Much love from wherever I am