Thailand is a lovely country populated by very friendly people. It is fact populated by many different races of peoples, far more than in the UK or any other European country for example. However, they all seem to get on well together on the whole and generally share common traits. The overwhelming majority of the population is Buddhist and so everything below applies to them, but these points of etiquette are observed by all Thais – the Muslims, the Chinese, the Hill Tribes and the smaller groups.
If you go to Thailand, you will see many Wats (the Thai word for a temple). In fact, even every village has a Wat inhabited by monks. You are allowed into the Wats, but you must dress neatly, which means no running-style vests. It is best if your shirt covers your armpits. Short trousers are allowed, but not preferred and some Wats will refuse entry to people wearing shorts. You must also take your shoes off outside. Once, inside, remember that all Buddha images are sacred to such an extent that a foreigner may not take one out of the country – not even a 50c plastic Buddha from a market place. With that in mind, you should not pose for pictures in front of the Buddha inside the temple and don’t allow children to clamber over anything.
Women are welcome in any Wat, but women may not touch a monk and monks may not receive anything from a woman. If you want to give a gift, place it within easy reach of the monk; sometimes there will be a ‘receiving mat’ before him to place the gift on. Entrance to a Wat is usually free, but not always, especially in Bangkok. If there is no charge, it would be nice of you if you made a donation in one of the boxes available.
Never point your feet at a monk or a Buddha image. If you want to sit down, adopt the ‘mermaid’ posture, so that your feet are pointing backwards.
The traditional Thai greeting is the waai, which looks like the way children pray in infant school with their hands together just below the chin with the head very slightly inclined. However, many people shake hands with foreigners, especially in the larger tourist cities. I live in a village in the north and people do not waai each other every day. It is quite formal for everyday friends.
Head and Feet
The feet are considered dirty in Thailand and for most Thais, that is quite true. Most people wear open-toed sandals and Thailand is a hot, dusty country. People consider it a very serious insult to have feet, especially the soles of the feet (or shoes), pointed at them. Some men might consider it bad enough to hit you. It really is very bad – don’t take it lightly.
The head is at the opposite end of the body and is considered sacred. Never, ever touch anyone’s head or hair. I would never even ruffle a child’s hair, although you might get away with that. I am even very careful when I touch my wife’s head. I asked her what was acceptable years ago and she asked me not to touch her forehead. I once accidentally flicked her head with my finger tips because the bus took a corner violently, she was very upset all day and I got the silent treatment. I only found out why when she complained to her friend what I had done. So again, heed the warning.
Having said all this, Thais are extremely tolerant and put up with a lot from well-intentioned, but ill-informed foreigners. You shouldn’t worry about ‘putting your foot in it’ too much, but if you can remember the above advice, it would help a lot.