In Thailand politeness and a respect for another person’s standing, high or low, are absolutely essential; this is very much appreciated and the reward for your efforts will undoubtedly be a warm and genuine smile. Thailand is the land of smiles, after all, and you’ll find that after a while it becomes infectious - one of the benefits of which incidentally is a great daily facial workout.
Thailand, the land of smiles
Probably the most important thing to remember is that the Thais have a profound love and respect for the monarchy and any insult or disrespect shown towards the King and royal family, or their images can result in very severe penalties. Standing up in the cinema or public parks while the national anthem is played is another obligatory gesture of respect expected of the foreign visitor.
Likewise, Buddhism, the religion of the majority of the population, is taken very seriously, and respect for the sanctity of temples and shrines, monks and Buddha images is a must. You should dress modestly and cover up when visiting any place considered holy by Thais.
Needless to say, Thais are very proud of their country and any representation of its sovereignty, national flag, currency (indeed, anything bearing the King’s image) and symbols should be shown due respect. Thais are very tolerant of visitors to their country and understand that most will only have a limited knowledge of the culture, religion and language, and all that is really required to win them over is a modicum of politeness and respect.
Religion is taken very seriously in Thailand
Now that we have got the serious no-nos out of the way, here are a few tips to help you blend in more easily with the Thais you may meet on your travels. Remember to smile, and above all try not to lose your temper. Thai people like to keep cool no matter how dire the situation or how desperate the problem. To have a jai yen (cool heart) is to be Thai, while a jai rorn (hot heart) is often synonymous with the angry foreigner.
Thais rarely express anger openly in public and find it extremely upsetting when foreigners berate them in loud outbursts of rage and frustration. And, to make matters worse, Thais will often smile in an attempt to calm the angry farang (foreigner/westerner) down. Unfortunately, to the uninitiated tourist, this is like a red rag to a bull. You will find, however, that if you are able to control the urge to let rip and crack a smile instead, no matter how rigid and frosty, every effort will be made to find a solution to the problem at hand.
The heat, humidity, traffic, noxious smells and exhaust fumes, noise, crowded streets, motor-cycle taxi rides and food so spicy you are reduced to tears will test your patience to the limit, but… smile through gritted teeth if needs be and eventually things will sort themselves out. It’s worth keeping in mind that all these things bother the Thais too – and they have to deal with them every day of the year - so, much like a simmering volcano, when they blow it can get very hot indeed.
Typical traffic jam in Bangkok
It’s also worth remembering that in Thailand and in Southeast Asia in general, westerners are often thought of as being ‘rich’, and by Thai standards, most are, which is not a problem, but behaving like someone who is rich and spoiled is very unattractive in Thai eyes, and you will very soon witness how quickly the politeness Thais are famed for disappears like morning dew in the desert.
Feet can be a problem in Thailand if not used properly. They are not to be used for pointing at things or perched on tables, and when sitting try to tuck them behind you or cross your legs. The wide, sprawling leg-spread of many a happy foreign guest is not appreciated in Thailand. Touching another person’s head is also considered impolite, although patting a cute child on his or her noggin is acceptable.
Thais eat with a spoon and fork for most meals – chopsticks for Chinese dishes - , the fork being wielded in the left hand and the spoon in the right. To do otherwise won’t see you turfed out of the establishment for breach of etiquette, but it will be noticed, so if you’re sensitive to opprobrium from your peers eat as the Thais do.
You will notice a big difference in the way rural and city people behave, and the way urbanite Thais behave when they return to their home towns and villages. What passes for politeness in the urban centres of Thailand would not be considered up to par in the more traditional and conservative countryside, so when you are there ratchet up the politeness dial and you’ll fit right in.
Transport in Thailand is of every kind, from the basic pick-up truck taxis, which are by the way generally clean and tidy, to air-conditioned coaches and limousines, but the traffic can be a nightmare and the Thai awareness of road safety a tad on the minimal side. There is a certain fatalism about the way Thais drive in that they believe one’s destiny is very much determined by Fate’s fickle favour, and therefore how one drives seems irrelevant. But, despite the certainty that it is pointless, they will always comply with any (polite) requests the crazy farangmight have to slow down, etc.
Travel in Thailand is relatively cheap for the most part and efficient. The tuk-tuk, the ubiquitous three-wheeled, open-sided vehicle, is a common sight throughout Thailand, and a quick and easy way to get about with the breeze in your hair, as long as the traffic is moving, of course. Taxis are found everywhere and are clean and the drivers generally have a very good knowledge of the city and at the very least just enough English to make communication possible.
Tuk-tuk is a nice way to get around
Motorcycle taxis are a relatively recent innovation and not for the faint of heart. Hop on, hold on (for dear life) and watch (if your eyes aren’t clamped shut) incredulously as these skilled riders weave a magic path through the seemingly impenetrable clog of motionless cars, buses and trucks, all their engines merrily pumping out exhaust fumes that contribute to Bangkok’s unique cocktail of fragrances that waft by on the humid, cloying air.
Long distant buses and coaches run to almost every part of the country and are popular and relatively cheap. There are six major international airports in Thailand and a number of smaller ones. Traveling by plane in Thailand is one way to avoid avoid long bus, train or taxi rides, but it is more expensive of course. Most of the airlines’ tickets are reasonably priced and they often offer special deals. The best way to look out for them is to check their websites.
One of the great delights of Thailand is of course the food, a unique fusion of local and foreign influences that has made it one of the world’s favourite cuisines. From roadside-stalls to the five-star splendour of its international hotels it is fresh, spicy and subtle, and in its many regional forms, it is not only delicious but beautifully presented. Thais, very much like the Japanese, have a great appreciation for the visual aesthetic and this extends to their food and its presentation. Skilfully carved vegetables, artfully arranged around a buffet spread, although largely passed unnoticed by the diners, nevertheless makes it a quintessentially Thai experience.
Northern cuisine at all its variations
There is a huge number of vegetables, herbs and spices found in Thailand, almost all of which have found a place in the culinary repertoire, as well as nuts, roots, flowers and leaves, edible fungi and algae.
Fruits in Thailand are exotic, colourful and delicious. Durian, known as the ‘King of Fruits’, Rose Apple, Mangosteen, Bamboo Shoot, Mango, Rambutan, Guava, Pineapple, Lychee, Pomelo, Dragon Fruitand many more are the perfect, healthy end to any meal.
Durian, the King of Fruits
Staying healthy while in Thailand is largely a matter of common sense. In terms of safety and hygiene Thailand is very reliable and awareness of health matters is generally good. It is best not to drink tap water, even though it has been treated, and instead stick to bottled water, which is found everywhere in Thailand, especially in the omnipresent seven-eleven stores.
Although there are a number of dangerous snakes and scorpions, they are seldom encountered and of course if not threatened will stay well clear of humans. The most dangerous insect is the mosquito, the carrier of a number of unpleasant diseases, but if adequate precautions are taken the risks are minimal, especially in the tourist areas.
You will notice a huge disparity in the lifestyles of Thais, where the gap between rich and poor is wide and getting wider. In Bangkok, the splendid and squalid often sit cheek by jowl, and its incongruity can seem quite stark initially. But, the Thais are a stoic, tolerant and above all optimistic people, and you will undoubtedly hear the word ‘sanuk’ mentioned in this regard. In its simplest interpretation it is an attempt to make everything one has to do, pleasant or unpleasant as much fun as possible.
As a visitor, if you adopt a similar approach during your stay in this fascinating and beautiful country life will be all smiles.