Thai people have a history and culture as rich and textured as any around the world. In general, their traditions and beliefs stem directly from Buddhist principles, but Hinduism has also had a large influence on the development of Thai culture through the ages.
With almost 70 million people in Thailand, approximately two-thirds are from Thai ethnic groups, with the remainder primarily being either Chinese or Chinese descendants. This blend of cultures and traditions, together with a unique developmental history, has set the stage for a unique set of Thai taboos and social rules.
The following list of Thai taboos is intended to help you steer clear of controversy during your visit. You’ll have a much smoother and better experience in Thailand if you follow these guidelines:
1. Don’t touch the heads of other people
Thai people consider the head to be a high and holy part of the body. Touching another person’s head is a form of disrespect. Touching an elder person’s head should be avoided entirely. It is acceptable in some situations to touch a much younger person’s head. To avoid the risk of a problem, we recommend avoiding this action entirely.
2. Don’t raise your feet to a high position
As the head is a high and holy part of the body, the corollary is also true: the ‘low’ or dirty part of a person is their feet. Pointing your feet at someone, or raising them up near a person’s head, is considered to be a form of disrespect – and one of the major Thai taboos to avoid.
3. Don’t wear shoes inside the house
For similar reasons, shoes are to be kept outside when you are entering a person’s home. Shoes are typically taken off before entering a temple, as well. Most of the time, you will see a group of shoes close to the door of a temple; just feel free to store your shoes there before going inside.
4. Don’t disrespect sacred Buddhist items or Thai currency
Many Thai people wear Buddhist amulets as part of their necklaces. Treat these amulets well, as they almost always have emotional value for the bearer. Defacing Thai money is also disrespectful, as each coin or bill has the face of a royal family member on it. Stepping on money that is on the floor will also be considered inappropriate behaviour. So, if you dropped a coin and it is rolling on the floor, let it finish rolling. Just follow it until it stops, and then pick it up; don’t try to stop it with your feet.
5. Don’t walk or sit when the national anthem is playing
The national anthem of Thailand is very important to Thai people. If the song is playing, it’s best to just stand still. The national anthem is often played in public spaces at 8 am and 6 pm, and before events like sports matches. The king’s anthem is almost always played before movies at the cinema. After the national anthem or the king’s anthem has finished playing, give a small bow towards the movie screen, the Thai flag, or any image of the king or a royal family member should one be nearby.
6. Don’t insult another person’s parents
Thai people hold their parents in high regard. An insult to a person’s parents can have a bigger impact than a direct insult to the person, even if made in the heat of the moment or in jest. But the reverse is true as well; since Thai people maintain a high level of respect for their parents, compliments toward their parents will be very well received.
These cultural sensitivities are an inevitable side effect of a country that has a long and intricate history, and its own story to tell. As always, it’s worth taking the time to learn about other cultures, embrace the new discoveries you make, and do your best to make a good impression on the country you are visiting.