THAILAND CUSTOMS AND HABITS
THE HEADS AND FEET
Taboos exist on some parts of the body that have little significance in Western culture. For example, the head is regarded as the highest part of the body and you should never touch another person on the head.
By contrast, the foot is regarded as the lowest part of the body and you should take care never to point your foot towards anyone. This is an extremely insulting gesture! Try to get into Thai habits of sitting with your feet on the floor or tucked away under you. Even moving objects around with your feet is seen as very uncouth.
Among other actions that might seem harmless to you, passing things in front of people (instead of behind) or stepping over a sitting or lying persons legs (even in crowded places) are considered very offensive. If you have to pass between two people, you should lower your head slightly as a mark of basic politeness.
THE PHYSICAL CONTACT
Thai and Western ideas about what constitutes acceptable physical contact in public are fundamentally different! While people of the same sex can often be seen holding hands on the street, you will rarely see a man and a woman being so shameless as to do so. In stark contrast to the image some tourists have of Thailand as a kind of sexual theme-park, probably the majority of Thais have ideals of modesty and appropriate behaviour between the sexes that most Westerners would regard as nineteenth-century. On the negative side this can extend to a certain level of hypocrisy and an insidious sexism.
While attitudes are changing among the urban young, public displays of physical affection such as hugging and kissing are still generally regarded as coarse and distasteful. On the beach you will notice that most Thais prefer to wear brightly-coloured pyjama-style clothing rather than revealing swimsuits.
Thais have a more starkly contrasting idea of what is appropriate or not appropriate in certain contexts than the average Westerner and can behave very differently – to Western eyes, inconsistently – in different situations. You would be wrong to assume, for example, that what happens in the enclosed fantasy bubble of a girl- or boy-bar in any way represents some underlying ideal of sexual freedom.
With their cultural preference for avoiding confrontation, most Thais choose to turn a blind eye to what goes on in the sex-industry that mushroomed in their country in the wake of the Vietnam War. Few take any pride whatsoever in the fact that so many of their fellow countrymen and women are still forced through extreme poverty to make their living in this way.
THE DRESS IN THAILAND
In Thailand you will always be judged on appearances! You will rapidly notice that, no matter who they are, all Thais put a great deal of effort into being well dressed and well groomed. If you want to fit in, you will need to do the same. To Thai eyes, if you wear the casual dress beloved of Western holiday-makers, you look like youve crawled out of an old laundry basket.
In particular, the standards of dress expected of a teacher are very different from those in Western countries. If you are a male teacher, you should always wear a shirt and tie, a belt on your trousers and formal shoes. If you are a woman, you should dress smartly and never wear anything that exposes your shoulders.
Wearing the kind of casual clothing that teachers tend to see as a welcoming gesture in the West will only earn you ridicule and disrespect in Thailand. If you turned up to teach in a T-shirt and jeans, your students would regard you much as you might regard someone who turned up to teach you in an old bathrobe and slippers – more deserving of a psychiatrist than a salary!
THE EXPRESSION OF EMOTION
Thais admire serenity and regard overt expressions of emotion as immature and unsightly.This is especially true in the case of anger or impatience. If you show anger, you will immediately lose the respect of Thais. Their first reaction will be to laugh at you, in the hope that you too will remind yourself of the absurdity of trying to solve anything in this way. You still have time to smile off your momentary lapse.
If you persist in being angry, Thais will simply disappear – in order to leave time for the childish hothead to cool off and grow up.
This can be hard to adjust to. In general, Western cultures are prepared to accept that if someone has become angry, they may have a point to make and should at least be listened to. In Thailand this simply isnt the case. If you have a point to make, you will have to make it with quiet non-aggressive eloquence and show potential goodwill to the person you are talking to throughout.
THE WAI IN THAILAND
One of the most distinctive Thai customs is the wai, which is similar to the Indian namaste gesture. Showing greeting, farewell, or acknowledgment, it comes in several forms reflecting the relative status of those involved, but generally it involves a prayer-like gesture with the hands and a bow of the head.
The Physical demonstrations of affection in public are common between friends, but less so between lovers. It is thus common to see friends walking together holding hands, but couples rarely do so except in westernized areas.
A notable social norm holds that touching someone on the head may be considered rude. It is also considered rude to place one’s feet at a level above someone else’s head, especially if that person is of higher social standing. This is because the Thai people consider the foot to be the dirtiest and lowest part of the body, and the head the most respected and highest part of the body. This also influences how Thais sit when on the ground — their feet always pointing away from others, tucked to the side or behind them. Pointing at or touching something with the feet is also considered rude.
It is also considered extremely rude to step on a Thai coin, because the king’s head appears on the coin. When sitting in a temple, one is expected to point one’s feet away from images of the Buddha. Shrines inside Thai residences are arranged so as to ensure that the feet are not pointed towards the religious icons — such as placing the shrine on the same wall as the head of a bed, if a house is too small to remove the shrine from the bedroom entirely.It is also customary to remove one’s footwear before entering a home or a temple, and not to step on the threshold.
There are a number of Thai customs relating to the special status of monks in Thai society. Because of their religious discipline, Thai monks are forbidden physical contact with women. Women are therefore expected to make way for passing monks to ensure that accidental contact does not occur. A variety of methods are employed to ensure that no incidental contact (or the appearance of such contact) between women and monks occurs. Women making offerings to monks place their donation at the feet of the monk, or on a cloth laid on the ground or a table. Powders or ungents intended to carry a blessing are applied to Thai women by monks using the end of a candle or stick. Lay people are expected to sit or stand with their heads at a lower level than that of a monk. Within a temple, monks may sit on a raised platform during ceremonies to make this easier to achieve.
THE THAI SMILE
Newcomers to Thailand are sometimes shocked when Thais convey bad news, such as the death of a parent, with their faces wreathed in broad smiles. For Thais, showing a smiling face to other people, no matter what your personal problems, is a basic kindness and a mark of emotional maturity. They are made very uneasy by what they see as the curiously miserable or scowling faces of Westerners.
This doesnt mean Thais dont have the same sorrows and sensitivities as the rest of us. If you take an interest in the language, you will hear plenty of hope and heartbreak in the words of luuk thung songs, for example, the haunting indigenous popular music that started life as the music of the displaced. But you wont see any pain on the beautifully smiling face of the singer. When they constantly tell you not to think too much about your problems, behind that ear-to-ear beam they have the same awareness of the wishful impossibility of this as anyone else.
If you decide to stay here, you may pass through a phase where you feel this is not so much the Land of Smiles as the Land of Grinning Lunatics. But you will soon find yourself developing an admiration for flood survivors or victims of the economic crash, for example, relating tales of deep personal tragedy whilst struggling bravely to preserve the Thai ideal of a face yim yaem berk baan jaem sai – smiling like a flower in full bloom or a clear day.
THE MARRIAGE IN THAILAND
Thai marriage ceremonies are generally divided into two sections: a Buddhist component, which includes the recitation of prayers and the offering of food and other gifts to monks and images of the Buddha, and a non-Buddhist component rooted in folk traditions, which centers on the couple’s family.
In former times, it was unknown for Buddhist monks to be present at any stage of the marriage ceremony itself. As monks were required to attend to the dead during funerals, their presence at a marriage (which was associated with fertility, and intended to produce children) was considered a bad omen. A couple would seek a blessing from their local temple before or after being married, and might consult a monk for astrological advice in setting an auspicious date for the wedding. The non-Buddhist portions of the wedding would take place away from the temple, and would often take place on a separate day.
In modern times, these prohibitions have been significantly relaxed. It is not uncommon for a visit to a temple to be made on the same day as the non-Buddhist portions of a wedding, or even for the wedding to take place within the temple. While a division is still commonly observed between the “religious” and “secular” portions of a wedding service, it may be as simple as the monks present for the Buddhist ceremony departing to take lunch once their role is complete.
During the Buddhist component of the wedding service, the couple first bow before the image of the Buddha. They then recite certain basic Buddhist prayers or chants (typically including taking the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts), and light incense and candles before the image. The parents of the couple may then be called upon to ‘connect’ them, by placing upon the heads of the bride and groom twin loops of string or thread that link the couple together. The couple may then make offerings of food, flowers, and medicine to the monks present. Cash gifts (usually placed in an envelope) may also be presented to the temple at this time.
The monks may then unwind a small length of thread that is held between the hands of the assembled monks. They begin a series of recitations of Pali scriptures intended to bring merit and blessings to the new couple. The string terminates with the lead monk, who may connect it to a container of water that will be ‘sanctified’ for the ceremony. Merit is said to travel through the string and be conveyed to the water; a similar arrangement is used to transfer merit to the dead at a funeral, further evidence of the weakening of the taboo on mixing funerary imagery and trappings with marriage ceremonies. Blessed water may be mixed with wax drippings from a candle lit before the Buddha image and other ungents and herbs to create a ‘paste’ that is then applied to the foreheads of the bride and groom to create a small ‘dot’, similar to the marking sometimes made with red ochre on Hindu devotees. The bride’s mark is created with the butt end of the candle rather than the monk’s thumb, in keeping with the Vinaya prohibition against touching women.
The highest-ranking monk present may elect to say a few words to the couple, offering advice or encouragement. The couple may then make offerings of food to the monks, at which point the Buddhist portion of the ceremony is concluded.
Not mentioned here already is the Thai Dowry system, known as the ‘Sin Sodt’. Traditionally, the groom will be expected to pay a sum of money to the family, supposedly to compensate them and to demonstrate you are financially capable of taking care of their daughter. Sometimes, this will be returned to the bride and groom after the wedding has taken place. Unfortunately, some families may abuse the Sin Sodt when a westerner is involved and may demand unreasonably high sums of money. The unwitting westerner might pay such a sum and later realise his mistake when he gains a better understanding of Thai culture. In other cases, the Thai family might not ask for any dowry to be paid, in an effort to build bridges and understanding across cultures (as many western men will express their distaste at paying a dowry).
With cross cultural marriages involving westerners, a great deal of misunderstanding can arise. The issue of the Sin Sodt will often lead to the breakdown of a relationship as he may feel that he has been taken advantage of, when in fact he hasn’t. Examples of Sin Sodt payments and comments from expatriate couples can be found here… Sin Sot Intricacies
THE FUNERALS IN THAILAND
Traditionally funerals last for a week. Crying is discouraged during the funeral, so as not to worry the spirit of the deceased. Many activities surrounding the funeral are intended to make merit for the deceased. Copies of Buddhist scriptures may be printed and distributed in the name of the deceased, and gifts are usually given to a local temple. Monks are invited to chant prayers that are intended to provide merit for the deceased, as well as to provide protection against the possibility of the dead relative returning as a malicious spirit. Often, a thread is connected to the corpse or coffin which is held by the chanting monks during their recitation; this thread is intended to transfer the merit of the monks’ recitation to the deceased. The corpse is cremated, and the urn with the ash is usually kept in a chedi in the local temple. The Chinese minority however buries the deceased.