The Wai
The wai is a ubiquitous gesture of respect. The hands are placed together in a prayer-like gesture and raised to the chest or head: the higher it is raised, the higher the status of the other party. The status inferior always initiates the wai , and it would be extremely impolite not to acknowledge it. However, the rules about replying are not straightforward. Never wai a child: it's believed to take 7 years off their life! If in doubt, just nod and smile. Since you're obviously foreign, no more is expected, and you won't make any embarrassing mistakes.


Smiles may indicate amusement, but they have many other uses: they may sometimes express embarrassment, and the smile is a sufficient apology for almost any gaffe. If you think you have blundered, smile and nod.

Three characteristic phrases
There are three catchphrases which sum up a good deal of the way Thai society works:

Mai pen rai
"It doesn't matter". This has overtones of accepting one's destiny, and graceful submission when things go wrong.

Jai yen

"Cool heart". This epitomises the indirectness of emotional expression. To lose one's temper is to lose face and status. So criticism, where necessary, must be done indirectly. Blustering, shouting and asserting your rights will get you exactly nowhere when there's a disagreement.

"Fun" is the nearest English word, but it doesn't really do justice to the concept. With the right attitude, it's possible to extract fun from even the most menial of tasks. The Thai can on occasion also exhibit a very primitive sense of fun: one festival consists mainly of throwing water over unsuspecting passers-by.
Status is sometimes interpreted very literally. It is considered rude to be "high": to dominate someone else by standing above them. For a tall Westerner strap-hanging on a crowded bus, it is impossible to do otherwise, but you can symbolically become lower by gesturing a stoop. Similarly, when walking past seated people, try to go behind them: if you can't, stoop as you pass.

Hands, heads and feet
Another consequence of the literal interpretation of height as status is that the head is regarded as sacred, and the feet as unclean. Except in very intimate circumstances, you should never touch another person's head, or hold or pass an object over their head.

At the other end of the body, the feet are unclean. So, not surprisingly, when visiting temples or private houses you should leave your shoes outside. In temples your legs must also be covered. Less obviously, you should not use your feet for anything except standing or walking. This catches most Westerners out, as we unconsciously use our feet to push things around in many ways the Thai would find offensive. An example: if you drop money, our natural reaction would be to stand on it. Don't do this! Not only have you used your unclean foot, you have just defiled the King's head with it.

Pointing is also regarded as impolite: never point at people. (An extreme manifestation of this is in go-go bars, where the hosts/hostesses all wear numbers: this is so that you can ask for them by number, rather than having to point.) If you need to hail a taxi, make a downward beckoning gesture towards the ground in front of you.

And to combine the two, never point with your feet, even inadvertently. In temples you are expected to kneel or squat (in order not to be "high") when not actually walking from A to B. Take care that when you kneel, your feet point away from the Buddha image. Imitate the Little Mermaid for the most graceful posture.

The Thai, however poor, take pride in their appearance, and expect high-status foreigners to do the same. Laundry services are cheap, so you have no excuse for not looking smart. Except in the winter in the North, you won't need a woolly. Most tourist attractions are temples, where you are expected to cover your legs, so lightweight trousers for men and long skirts for women are the best choice.

some kind of wrap if you are not adequately covered. Short-sleeved open-necked shirts are perfectly acceptable. Except for labourers, you won't see many people wearing shorts, other than at beach resorts.

Most people are on Holiday and may like to let it all hang out so please do not let the following upset your style. Thais have great respect for people who dress well. The main immigration office in Bangkok bans the use of shorts and flip flops. It's also the same for some official palaces and Temples. Pay respect to their traditions and you will enjoy a ten fold increase in their respect.

The use of good quality shorts when matched to a shirts and shoes and socks will be acceptable but to really hit the mark the following advice will help. For men light cotton trousers and long sleeved shirts are excellent protective clothing against insect bites. Apart from this the Thai's will treat you with a lot of respect for always being neat, clean and tidy so a light pair of shoes with socks are also appreciated. This may not be the clothing for many men so if you want to wear shorts and Tee shirts please note the following:

  • Do not dress down when meeting a lady.
  • Do not dress down when going to places of respect such as the Palace and temples.
  • Thai's never really get upset about many things but they do appreciate a person who dresses neatly and carefully.