Once I was traveling in Mexico, and I met a girl from Spain. Like me, she was backpacking around the country and we spent a few days hiking and sightseeing together. Then we both continued on our separate ways. When we said our good byes, she kissed me on the cheeks, and I hugged her. Both of us were a little surprised and uncomfortable.
In those days I did not know that kissing on the cheeks is a normal way of greeting in several European countries. And she did not know that hugging is quite a normal exchange among friends in the US. However in the US we do not kiss on the cheeks when we greet someone and in Spain people don’t hug casual friends. So I was a little surprised by her kiss and she was surprised by my hug.
Now I live in Thailand, and touching is an interesting subject here. Girls often walk around hand in hand, and men sometimes put their arm around the shoulder of an another man in a casual way. In social gatherings Thais often have body contact, but only in a casual way.
In America it would be considered quite strange to see two women walking around holding hands, or a man with an arm around the shoulder of another. In social settings we generally avoid body contact. Two touches are ok: hand shakes and sometimes a hug. Hugs can be a quick little slap on the back or can be really heartfelt among friends or in a situation where we console someone who is sad or grieving.
But in Thailand the casual touching does not include hugs. Actually hugging is not done here and is considered very inappropriate. Thais don’t hug each other at all and foreigners who hug in public draw disapproving looks. Men and women do not hold hands in public and kissing in public is seen as strange or even offensive. The casual touch is ok, more so than in the US, but any meaningful, heartfelt way of touching is not ok. Also touching of someone’s head is seen as very inappropriate.
Until western habits gained a foothold in Thailand, kissing amongst lovers did not exist either. Instead Thais smelled each other’s cheeks. Western-style handshakes are not appropriate either. Instead, Thais put the palms of their hands together and bow slightly, depending on their social status.
One way of touching is quite common in Thailand, and that is Thai massage. In the professional massage setting touch is enjoyed and appreciated. It is also quite common to see women give each other a little neck and shoulder massage during the work day. Men, however, don’t do that.
Like in many countries, massage is sometimes used as a come-on for sexual services, but most massage shops are clean and legitimate.
Keep in mind that touching habits in Thailand are quite different from our western ways. Some Thais who have spent a lot of time in the west are more comfortable with hand shakes or even a hug, but in general the best advice is to avoid touching Thais in any way. If you want to be touched here, treat yourself to a Thai massage or oil massage which is available everywhere for just a few dollars per hour. This is one of the great luxuries of living in Thailand.