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Although it’s not difficult to ingratiate yourself in one of the most welcoming countries in the world, there are ways of eliciting even more in the way of positive vibes from the Thais.
Blessed with long sunny days, landscapes of outstanding beauty, deep Buddhist spirituality and one of the world’s greatest cuisines, Thais have lots to be thankful for. And they generally show it by being among the most laid-back people you’ll meet. Nevertheless, painful cultural exchanges can occur if you aren’t properly prepared. Some simple words and gestures of greeting – particularly the “wai”, the nation’s traditional salutation – will work wonders on the ground.
If you want to prove that you are in Thailand for more than just sunbathing and shopping, then learning how to greet the Thais in their own language should be at the top of your to-do list upon arrival. Thankfully, the most basic of salutations barely take any time to master. The standard Thai greeting is “sawatdee” (sa-wat-dee) followed by the appropriate (masculine or feminine) closing participle. In fact, before you learn any other words in Thai, the first thing to understand is the two participles “ka” and “krub”. The words are added to the end of sentences and phrases to make them sound polite. The important thing to remember is that women say “ka” and men say “krub”. Remember the participle applies to the person speaking, not the listener. If you are a woman, always say “ka” even if you are talking to a member of the opposite sex.
Thai people don’t, as a matter of course, shake hands by default. When they do so it is often to make westerners feel more comfortable. To return the gesture you can show respect by learning the traditional hand gesture for greeting and thanking. This is called the “wai” and is done by putting the hands together in front of your chest and bowing your head forward until the index fingertips touch the tip of your nose. Conclude the wai by raising your head back up, smiling, while keeping your hands together at chest level. Other rules to keep in mind include refraining from eye contact during the wai. The wai is used as part of greetings, for goodbyes, to show respect, gratitude, acknowledgement and during sincere apology. Don’t be too liberal with your wais. For instance, it’s not proper to wai anyone who is younger than you. A good rule of thumb is to return a wai only when it is given to you first.
As we’ve already mentioned, Thais are a pretty chilled out bunch in general. There are, however, a few absolute no-nos for visitors to keep in mind. First off is to avoid talking about the Thai monarchy in anything but the most effusive terms. The country has the toughest lese-majeste laws in the world and even a passing negative comment about the royal family can land you on the wrong side of the law. Thailand’s deeply Buddhist culture can also cause problems for westerners unaware of its nuances. The head is revered as the most sacred part of the body. Therefore, touching someone’s head (even ruffling a child’s hair) is frowned upon. Conversely the feet are considered the lowest and dirtiest part of the body. Avoid pointing your feet at someone, raising your feet higher than someone’s head or simply putting your feet on a desk or chair.