Most people would agree that Thailand is a dream destination for all different kinds of travelers. It is cheap, safe and exotic but at the same time offers a lot of Western comfort. And because so many tourists have been coming to Thailand in the last decades, Thailand has developed a very good tourist infrastructure making it very easy to get around and to find suitable accommodation. In fact, Bangkok was the most visited city with 21.5 million visitors in 2016. Pristine beaches and delicious food are just a few more of many reasons that attract people from all over the world to visit the Land of the Smiles.
Most people would also agree that holidays are about enjoying life to the fullest. No matter if you value luxury travels or if you are a backpacker, you want to leave all worries behind when you board that plane taking you to a new adventure. And it is easy to comprehend that you want to feel good as you have been working or studying hard, saving up money for some time so you can have the time of the year where you do not need to have a single care in the world. Watching the sunset while sipping a cocktail at the beach, going on a jungle trek and spotting wild animals, eating fresh fruits every day… welcome to Paradise!
But while you genuinely deserve your holidays, there are a few things to consider to make your trip perfect. Keep in mind that you enter a world where other people work and live. Their customs might not be the same as yours and it is advisable to become familiar with local norms in order to avoid awkward or uncomfortable situations. Thai people are generally very forgiving and tolerant, but as a visitor you can also do your bits to ensure pleasant encounters.
In many parts of the world haggling is part of the culture and the daily life. Especially in touristy places local sellers will often suggest excessively high prices for their products or service and you will be expected to bargain (food is an exception). Most of the time it will be fun to negotiate. But there can also be times when you will feel taken advantage of, leading you to feel frustrated and to bargain as hard as you can. When you do, pause just for a second and ask yourself whether you really need to lower the price a few more squid? Or wouldn’t it be easier to just let it go, at least a little bit? Keep it the Thai way, stay calm and consider making a concession so neither you nor your counterpart loses face.
The Concept of Face
The abstract concept of 'face' plays an important role in Thai society. The face represents one’s social standing or reputation and is deeply connected to respect and politeness. You can easily lose your face by getting loud, rude or angry. In Thailand losing face leads to embarrassment and shame. Thai people usually keep calm and smile in most situations, not always because they are happy, but rather to save face - either theirs or yours. Sometimes Thai people would rather give you the wrong direction than admitting that they do not know the way. And even though the concept of face is also known to other cultures, it is oftentimes less emphasized than in Thailand. So remember not to raise your voice, to stay polite and not to embarrass anyone.
Thailand is a country with mostly hot and humid weather conditions. Accordingly, you will see a lot of skin. Many of the locals wear shorts, the girls often wear sleeveless tops which is no problem in most places. But at a temple you will be expected to cover your knees and shoulders. If you are not sure how to dress appropriately, take a look at the locals. Beachwear can be worn at the beach, but especially when you walk through a village/ town or enter a shop, make sure not to be shirtless or in a bikini. You will sometimes find old men sitting shirtless in front of their house, but they never walk around like that. Also naked or topless sunbathing (for women) is highly inappropriate and will make locals feel very uncomfortable. Unless you can’t be sure that you are on an deserted beach, stick to the norms. Courtesy and respect are worth more than a seamless tan.
If you look around, you will not find Thai couples showing their affection in public. Young people have started to hold hands in recent years, but kissing and hugging in public are an absolute no go in Thai culture. You might argue that in certain districts in Thailand more provocative behavior is openly advertised, but this is restricted to small micro worlds with their own rules and norms.
Head and Feet
The head is considered the most holy part of the body that shouldn’t be touched by others. And while the head is sacred, the feet are seen as the dirtiest part of the body. Therefore you need to take off your shoes before entering temples or homes. Never touch anyone with your feet, push something around with them or show the soles of your feet. And even if you feel exhausted, do not put your feet up. Also don’t walk over people laying on the ground or point at someone.
Respect the Royal Family and Buddhism
Never insult the Royal Family. Thai people are very friendly, but lese majesty is an official crime and will not be handled lightly. It can even land you in jail. Therefore it is advisable to avoid speaking about the Royal Family. More than 90% of the population in Thailand adhere to Buddhism. Many Thai people spend some time as monk or nun and incorporate their beliefs into their daily lives. As a tourist, it is important to understand that Buddhism is part of Thai culture and to respect the religion. As part of that, women should never touch a monk in Thailand.
Personal Grooming & Hygiene
Especially in cities like Bangkok people are very well groomed. They wear fashionable clothes (mostly not too revealing) and use many beauty products. But also outside of Bangkok where the sense for fashion might be less emphasized, people take care of their hygiene and wear clean clothes everyday. The same is expected from tourists. Dirty clothing, wholes and strong body smells are considered impolite. And even though it is hot and you might be on the road for some time, try to always look presentable and smell fresh. Cheap clothes and laundry services can easily be found everywhere in Thailand.
Thailand is a wonderful country to visit. It is beautiful and Thai people are well-known for their acceptance and tolerance. Thailand has a vibrant LGBT community and welcomes millions of tourists from all over the world every year. And even though Thai people don’t always share your habits and norms, they will forgive most faux pas without you even realizing it. Therefore, it is up to you not to overstrain the world-famous Thai hospitality. Become aware of cultural differences and accept them as much as you want to be accepted. Nowadays it is very easy to inform yourself about other cultures with so many different sources available, from travel guides to online blogs. Exploring new cultures is a very rewarding part of traveling. Learn a few words and phrases in the local language, connect with locals and embrace their culture through its food.