Before moving to Thailand, it’s good to learn a little about Thai culture so you know what you’re getting yourself into. You might find that many aspects of life over here work much differently than you’re used to. Knowing something about Thai culture will make the transition more smooth. There are many good reasons to learn about the local culture, but probably the top three are: to avoid offending Thai people, to make new friends easier, and to understand more of what you see going on around you.
Culture is a huge topic, and I’m intending this to be an epic post on the subject, but I certainly can’t cover everything there is to say about understanding Thai culture in one article. So I’ll just start by laying the foundation for Thai culture and traditions then go on to cover some of the most interesting points that you’re likely to notice or be affected by during daily life in Thailand.
3 pillars of Thai society and culture
Thai schoolchildren are all taught that there are 3 pillars of Thai society, and this would be a good place to start the discussion of what Thai culture is all about. The 3 pillars of Thai society as taught in every Thai school are:
Of course, these aren’t the only factors that affect Thai culture, but it’s safe to say that the majority of Thai people feel these 3 pillars are what make Thailand unique. Let’s look at each one in more detail, including how they might affect yourself as a foreign resident.
In the case of Thailand, we can say that the nation is defined by a people, land, and language—namely the Thai people, speaking Thai language, living in Thailand. But the nation of Thailand is a fairly recent creation. Up until 1932 the country was known as Siam. The change of name to “Thailand” was part of a nationalization push that also gave birth to “Thai people” as an identity and the “Thai language” as a national tongue.
A super-brief history of Thailand
Up until very recent times, countries in Southeast Asia were not defined by lines on a map. Many different kingdoms rose to power at various times. Each one would be centered around a capital city with a number of satellite cites under direct control and weaker neighboring kingdoms under indirect control. Weak local rulers paid tribute to the dominant regional ruler and their land might be said to be part of that kingdom. Before any Thai kingdoms emerged, most of modern Thailand was controlled by the Khmer Empire centered at Angkor. The first Thai kingdoms to develop were the Sukhothai Kingdom in the lower north and the Lanna Kingdom, with its capital Chiang Mai, in the upper north.
By the 15th century, the Sukhothai Kingdom had been swallowed up by the Ayutthaya Kingdom based in Thailand’s central region. Ayutthaya grew to become the largest city in Southeast Asia, and its kingdom—also known by the name Siam—had control over the central and southern regions of Thailand. The city was sacked by the Burmese army in 1767, and a new capital for Siam was eventually built in Bangkok. In the late 18th century, Siam took over the Lanna Kingdom to add Northern Thailand, and it also gained control of the Lao Kingdoms based in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. The French later came along and took much of the Laotian land away, but Siam was able to keep about half of it, which became Northeast Thailand.
As you can see from the above history, the modern nation of Thailand is composed of land that formerly belonged to several independent kingdoms and countries. Changing the country’s name from Siam to Thailand was a way to include people of the North and Northeast regions under a new national identity.
The Siamese ethnic group makes up the largest portion of The Thai population, but there are many other, closely related peoples as well. Siamese-Thai are just one member of the Tai ethnolinguistic group, which also includes the Northern Thai, Lao people of Laos, Shan of Myanmar, and Dai of Southwestern China. The population of Thailand contains a large mix of different Tai peoples.
The Thai population also contains unrelated groups such as ethnic Malay, Mon, and Cambodian people. In some areas, particularly in the North, there are large minorities of hill-tribe peoples as well. In addition, a large number of Chinese immigrants have integrated and mixed with the Thai people. It’s estimated that up to 40% of the Thai population has some Chinese ancestry. In particular, Thai-Chinese make up a large portion of the wealthy class in Thai society.
The use of the phrase “Thai people” (khon thai) has created a unity where one didn’t previously exist.
What we know as “Thai language” is actually the dialect of the central region or the main dialect of the Siamese ethnic group. The North, Northeast, and South all have different dialects that can be difficult for someone who only studied the Central Thai dialect to understand. There are also smaller variations and local dialects whose use is mainly limited to a single province. All of these are different branches and sub-branches of the Thai language family, which is believed to have originated in Southern China. By teaching the Central Thai dialect in schools as “Thai language” (phaa-saa thai), a national tongue has emerged.
As a foreign visitor to Thailand you should be taught standard Thai because it’s understood by everyone. Once you get the basics down, then you might decide to try picking up a regional variation.
Like Chinese and Vietnamese, Thai is a tonal language. Standard Thai has 5 tones (mid, low, falling, high, and rising), so that a change in pitch will change the meaning of a word completely. Some foreigners have a hard time getting the hang of this, but for others it’s not much trouble at all.
The Thai script may just look like a bunch of squiggly lines, but it’s actually an alphabet composed of 44 consonants (technically an abugida). There are 32 vowels which are written by appending extra marks above, below, or on either side of the consonants. Additionally, there are 4 tone marks, a native Thai numeral system, and a few rarely used punctuation symbols. Sentences generally require no punctuation and, in fact, no spaces between words.
Many people are intimidated by the seeming complexity of the Thai language, but it’s actually not that hard to learn to speak, read, and write if you just put in some effort. The alphabet may have more letters than English, but at least in Thai there is no ambiguity over what sound a letter makes. You also don’t have thousands of individual characters to memorize as in Chinese and Japanese.
As for the spoken language—it has the tonal aspect and some sounds unfamiliar to English speakers, but in other ways it’s actually quite easy to pick up. In particular, the grammar is simple to grasp. There is no conjugation of verbs as in most other languages. Vocabulary words never alter their form. To change the tense of a sentence you simply add in other words that will affect the meaning.
Learning Thai language will be the number one thing you can do to increase your understanding of Thai culture. By learning the way people speak, you’ll pick up on the way they think and conceptualize the world.
One critical way that Thai language relates to culture is the use of different words for different levels of politeness and to refer to different levels of status. Respect for elders and those seen to hold an elevated position in society is incredibly important in Thai culture, and the language reflects this.
Respect for the Thai nation
As a foreigner in Thailand, the one time you would be expected to show respect for the Thai nation is when the national anthem is played. The national anthem is played twice each day—at 8am and 6pm—in public places such as government buildings, schools, bus stations, and parks. If you’re walking when you hear the anthem start, you should stop and stand still until it’s finished. If you’re seated, then you should stand up. You’ll see all the Thai people around you doing the same thing. The Thai national anthem is quite a short song, so you’ll be back going about your business again in no time.
Over 95% of Thais follow Theravada Buddhism. There is a sizable Muslim minority, especially in the southern provinces, but when Thais speak of Religion as a pillar of Thai society it is Buddhism that they’re talking about.
Theravada Buddhism is the most conservative of the major schools of Buddhism. It’s the form mainly practiced in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia.
The main texts of Theravada Buddhism are preserved in the Pali language, an ancient Indian spoken dialect closely related to Sanskrit. Many vocabulary words in the Thai language originate from Pali and Sanskrit. Yet very few Thai people can understand Pali, and so when they chant prayers they will often not know the meaning of the words.
A super-brief summary of Buddhism
The Buddha lived about 2500 years ago. He was born into the royal family of a small kingdom at the border of modern day India and Nepal. He had a sheltered childhood, but eventually came to see that material comforts could not save anyone from the inevitable fate of sickness, old age, and death. So he left home at the age of 29 in search of answers.
The Buddha spent six years living in forests and learning what he could from the meditation masters of his day, but all of their teachings ultimately fell short of his goal, which was to find an answer to the question of human suffering. So he went off on his own, and finally saw the light while meditating under a tree at a spot now called Bodhgaya. His Enlightenment and teachings can be summed up in the Four Noble Truths:
- The Truth of Suffering
- The Truth of the Cause of Suffering
- The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering
- The Truth of the Path to the Cessation of Suffering
(1) Nothing in life is ultimately satisfactory, and so we always suffer to various degrees. (2) The root cause of this suffering is craving and clinging to impermanent phenomena. (3) Eliminating the cause of suffering—craving and clinging—will eliminate suffering. (4) And the path to achieve the elimination of craving is an 8-step process that begins with having proper views and moral conduct and culminates in using meditation to gain insight and understanding of our true condition—that our “self” or ego is an illusory construct.
The Buddha spend 45 years wandering around Northern India to spread his message. His most dedicated followers became monks—shaving their heads, wearing simple robes, and eating only food offered to them. A set of 227 rules of conduct evolved for monks in order to provide a structure for morality that would be most conducive for progress in meditation. For example, celibacy was put in place not because sexuality is “sinful”, but rather because it is distracting. I think we can see from modern advertising that this is true.
Buddhism in Thailand
Buddhism eventually spread out from India to become the dominant spiritual tradition in many Asian countries, including Thailand. As it spread to new areas, the living traditions of Buddhism came to be colored by existing local beliefs. In Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia, animist concepts of spirit and ancestor worship coexist with Buddhism to such an extent that most Thai people don’t make a distinction between them.
Nearly every Thai home has a small spirit house on the property where offerings are given to the local spirit who is the “landlord” of that spot on earth. Similarly, many businesses will have a small shrine set up that serves as a place to make offerings to various gods or spirits known to grant prosperity, such as the boy-ghost Kuman Thong.
Participation in these aspects of Thai religion are not actually in conflict with the Buddha’s teaching. It just has very little to do with his central message. Maybe the spirits can help you grow more rice or sell more T-shirts, but in the end you still have to die. People tend to consider this more the older they get, and so it’s usually the elderly you’ll see hanging out at village temples.
There is no rule that “once a monk, always a monk”. While some Thai men become lifelong monks, temporary ordination is even more common. Traditionally, a man would ordain for a short amount of time before starting a career and family. This could be one rainy season, but nowadays is often much shorter. In some parts of Thailand it’s a tradition for boys of a certain age to ordain as novice monks during the summer school holiday. It’s also common for a man to temporarily ordain following the death of a close relative (especially his mother) in order to make merit on their behalf.
“Merit making” is the primary Buddhist practice for the vast majority of Thai people. Giving various offerings and donations of one form or another are seen as a way to build up positive karma. Most people figure that they’re not in a good enough situation in this life to dedicate their time to meditation. So they make merit in order to have better circumstances in the future, including in their next life.
Temples are not only places for monks to meditate and laypersons to make merit. In small villages, the temple is often the center of activity during festivals. Many temples also have a school.
The largest building at a Thai wat (“temple”) is usually the wihan, or assembly hall. It will typically house a large, primary Buddha image, and may have any number of additional statues. The bot is a similar structure where ordinations take place. A kuti is the name given to a monk’s small bungalow. There are usually a dozen or so kuti set off in one area of the wat. There will typically be a bell tower, drum tower, and manuscript storage hall also. And finally, the most eye-catching structure at most temples is the chedi, which is a cone or bell-shaped mound containing relics. These may be relics of an important monk, a king, or possibly even those of the Buddha himself.
Respect for Thai religion
When visiting a temple, you should dress modestly. It’s best for either sex to wear clothing that covers up your shoulders and thighs. Fashion has evolved in recent years, and it’s more common now to see Thai women wearing short shorts these days, even at temples. But as a foreigner, you’re better off erring on the side of caution. Also remember to remove your shoes before entering any temple building, just like you would in any Thai home.
Some of the most popular temples for tourists to visit now charge admission fees to non-Thais. The vast majority, however, are completely free to enter. It’s customary to leave a small donation during your visit. You’ll usually see one or more donation boxes in the wihan for this purpose. Often different boxes will be labelled to show what the donation goes towards, such as “electricity”, “monks’ education”, “medical supplies”, etc.
Since feet get dirty and dusty, they’re considered an unclean part of the body. It’s therefore considered extremely rude to sit with your feet outstretched in front of you pointed at a Buddha image, a monk, or anybody else for that matter. Most other proper temple behavior is just common sense. If you need someone to tell you that climbing up into Buddha’s lap to pose for a photo is a bad idea, then I can’t help you much.
The third pillar of Thai society is the institution of the monarchy. Historically, Thailand has always been ruled by kings—even going back to the days of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya. In modern times, the monarchy continues to play an important role in the life of the country. When the previous king passed away in October 2016, he had been on the throne for 70 years. Many Thai people are wearing black (or black, white, and gray) for a one year mourning period.
You have to be very careful when speaking about the monarchy in Thailand. It’s not like in Britain where the royal family is regularly featured in tabloids. In Thailand, the institution of the monarchy is protected by a Lèse majesté law, which makes it illegal to “defame, insult, or threaten the king, queen, heir-apparent, or regent”. Punishment for breaking this law is 3-15 years imprisonment, and there is no definition of what constitutes an instance of defamation, insult, or threat. So saying or writing the wrong thing could get you in a lot of trouble. Foreign news websites can get blocked for reporting unfavorably on the monarchy, and even some Hollywood movies featuring historical Siamese kings are banned in the country.
Comments posted online could also be considered a violation of this law. You could even get in trouble for comments that other people leave on your Facebook posts or for sharing an unfavorable foreign news article. To be on the safe side, it’s better to just avoid getting in any conversations with Thai people about the monarchy and avoid any online communication on the subject.
On a somewhat related topic, I would also advise all foreigners to avoid getting into discussions of Thai politics. The country is currently ruled by a military government. Before the coup in 2014 there were many years of fierce political division and instability. Political protests often turned violent, with shootings, arson, and bombings taking place. The situation has been much more calm in the past few years, but certain sectors of the population still strongly side with one group or another. Expressing a strong political opinion to the wrong person could easily lead to an argument that you’d probably rather avoid.
Respect for the monarchy
The one time that you will be expected to show respect for the monarchy is when you go to the cinema. The royal anthem is played before each screening, and all members of the audience are supposed to stand. Not standing could possibly get you in a lot of trouble.
Another thing to be aware of is that all Thai currency contains the image of the previous king. As such, any action that involves defacing or damaging Thai currency would be considered an insult to the monarchy.
Now that we’ve got some idea of how Thai people self-identify, let’s dive into various individual topics on Thai culture. The first one that we’ll look at is greetings because this will come up early and often. You may even be greeted in Thai before you leave your own country as you’re stepping onto the plane.
The standard greeting in the Thai language is “Sawat-dii”. It can be used at all times of the day when greeting someone. A polite particle is attached to the end of the phrase according to the gender of the speaker. Male speakers use “khrap”, and female speakers use “kha”. So the full phrase for a male speaker is “Sawat-dii khrap”, and a woman would say “Sawat-dii kha”. In case you’re wondering, transgender individuals will use whichever version they prefer.
A Thai greeting is often accompanied by a gesture called a wai. The hands are pressed together and held below the chin while bowing the head slightly. To show a greater level of respect, the hands can be held higher, with the fingers sometimes touching the nose or forehead. The proper protocol when two people meet is that the one who is younger or with lower status is supposed to wai first. The second person can then wai back, but they may not depending on the circumstance.
Many foreigners make the mistake of wai-ing too much. There is no need to return a wai when someone is greeting you because it’s part of their job. Service personnel such as airline hostesses, waitresses, and hotel doormen all wai to customers as part of their job duty. Wai-ing to them makes you look silly and probably makes them feel uncomfortable.
On the other hand, when meeting an older Thai person—such as being introduced to a friend’s parents—you should not only wai, but you should wai first.
For those you’re very familiar with, common greetings are bpai nai (“Where are you going?”), bpai nai maa (“Where have you been?”), and gin khao rue yang (“Have you eaten yet?”). When you hear this last one, don’t worry, they aren’t trying to invite you to dinner. It’s just a casual ice-breaker when bumping into someone.
Family ties are very important to Thai people. The tendency in the West to set out as an individual is quite alien to their culture. People still move away from their hometown for work, but they’ll return as often as possible and may talk on the phone with their parents several times a week.
In Thai culture there is an obligation to take care of one’s parents. The oldest sibling often has the double responsibility of helping out their parents while also sending their younger siblings to school. It’s not unusual for people working away from their hometown to send money back to their parents each month.
Extended families can be very large. If you go to visit a Thai village, almost everyone will seem to be a relative of some sort. If a Thai friend takes you back to their hometown, you may end up meeting a dozen of their “brothers” and “sisters”, many of whom are actually second or third cousins, or they may not actually be related at all.
Seniority and status play a large role in Thai life. As mentioned above, when two people greet each other the one who is younger or has lower social status should greet the older one first.
Relative age to one another is indicated in speech through relationship terms. The most commonly used ones are phii and nong, which mean “elder” and “younger” sibling. They get attached to the front of someone’s name, so that Phii Mark means “older brother Mark” and Nong Jenny means “younger sister Jenny”. These terms are used not only with actual brothers and sisters, but also friends, acquaintances, and even when talking about celebrities.
If someone is clearly much older than you, the terms for “aunty,” “uncle,” “grandma,” and “grandpa” may be used instead. As with the terms phii and nong, there is no need to be physically related to the person. It’s as if all Thai people were one big family.
Thai society can be very segregated by social status. If somebody has the right family name or right connections they may receive very lenient punishments when breaking the law.
Many problems that foreigners encounter with Thais are due to not understanding the idea of “face”. Thais want to keep up a good image in public, and anything that tarnishes their image damages their “face”.
One common example of this is when giving out criticism. A boss should not criticize an employee in front of that employee’s peers because it makes the employee lose face in the eyes of the others. Instead, the boss should talk to the employee in private. Basically, you should try to avoid signaling someone out in a way that could be embarrassing for them.
Another aspect of face is making a show of wealth and status. Somebody who is well off will gain face by picking up the tab for a large diner party. This is one reason why it’s unusual to split the bill when eating at a restaurant, unless it’s a group of equals.
When making a large donation to a temple, a Thai person would not do so anonymously. They want everyone to see how much they are giving in order to gain face in the community. One traditional form of donation is to make a little “money tree” from sticks of wood with many currency bills attached to form the leaves. During a temple fair, there might be a parade that includes donors each carrying their tree to the temple. Onlookers can easily see from the color of the bills what denomination they are and get some idea of how much is being donated by that individual.
As an unfortunate result of face, Thai citizens have one of the largest ratios of household debt to GDP. A typical office worker might purchase a house or condo, car, and the latest phone all on credit, with the payments eating up 60-80% of their monthly salary.
The Thai language has a phrase that you’ll hear very often—”Mai pen rai”. It can be roughly translated as “It’s no problem” or “Don’t worry about it”. The mai pen rai attitude can spill over into many aspects of Thai culture. Sometimes this is a very good thing. It encourages you to not get bent out of shape over minor incidents and disappointments in life. Punctuality is not so important. If someone shows up 5 or 10 minutes late for dinner it’s not the end of the world. Losing your cool and throwing a temper tantrum in public is not acceptable.
On the other hand, sometimes this mai pen rai attitude leads to complacency. There can be an unwillingness to change things that need to be changed. A lot of pollution and traffic accidents could be avoided if people said “Mai pen rai” less often.
Thai people will judge you by your appearance. Much of this comes down to your personal grooming habits and how you dress. For example, Thailand is a popular destination for young backpackers, and backpackers have a reputation for not washing frequently enough and trying to get everything for as cheap as possible. So if you dress like a dirty backpacker you’re likely to be treated like one especially when dealing with government officials such as at Immigration.
Thais have a phrase farang khii-nok which is used to refer to a poor, grubby, and undesirable cheapskate foreigner. Thais usually think that all foreigners have lots of money, so a farang khii-nok is a bit of a mystery to them.
In general, a shirt with a collar looks more proper than one without, long pants look more proper than shorts, and regular shoes look more proper than sandals. Of course, it’s hot in Thailand and there’s no need to dress for success all the time. But if you know when to dress smart, you’ll get a lot more respect.
Thailand is a tropical country, but some foreigners seem to think the entire country is one giant beach. Men shouldn’t be running around topless in the middle of the city. It makes you look like a clueless lowlife.
Actually, you may be surprised at how Thais tend to dress when they are at the beach. Bikinis are starting to become more common, but the majority of Thais stay very covered up. At beaches popular with Thai families, such as Cha-Am, you’ll see tons of people playing in the water wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Partially this is due to modesty, but the other main reason for covering up is to protect their skin from getting any darker.
Thai people, despite their naturally tan skin, have a preference for light skin. Most of the actors and actresses on TV are either Thai-Chinese or half-Western (luk-khrueng) with relatively light skin. But just to make sure that everyone on screen is glowing white, advertisers and TV producers run the image through a heavy filter to lighten everyone’s skin tone. The end result that the entire scene can have an angelic glow, with shadows completely washed out.
In stores you’ll find all sorts of skin whitening products. Many Thai women will avoid the sun at all costs. They will wear a jacket when riding a motorbike to keep the sun from hitting their skin, even in 40 degree heat (100+ F).
Darker skinned Thai women will teasingly be called a “foreigner’s wife” (mia farang) by their friends. This is because Thai men are known to prefer women with lighter skin, while foreign men have a reputation for preferring dark skinned women (much to Thai people’s bewilderment).
If you have facial hair, don’t be surprised if Thais are put off by it. Most Thai men have trouble growing much facial hair, and anyways a beard in the tropics can be uncomfortably hot, so they’re not too common. The one place that you do often see facial hair is on TV villains. So there’s a perception that mustaches are for for bad guys.
Tattoos, on the other hand, are not uncommon. There is a long tradition of protective magic tattoos (sak-yan),and many older men have these. Done properly, the person getting the magic tattoo would have to follow some rules to keep the magic active. Even with this tradition of spiritual tattoos, many Thais would find a tattoo of the Buddha to be disrespectful. This is especially true if it were located below the waist, such as on your leg.
Thais take personal hygiene very seriously. It’s not unusual to shower multiple times per day, especially during the hot season and the humid rainy season. The most important time of day to bathe for Thai people is before going to bed. They want to feel clean and free of sweat as they go to sleep. Bath tubs are very uncommon, and the shower may not be divided from the rest of the bathroom, so the floor will get wet. For this reason you’ll see many people using special rubber slippers or flip-flops for the bathroom. The traditional method of bathing is to scoop water up from a large basin and pour it over your body. If you stay in a rustic village home you might still see this in use.
Don’t be surprised if Thais that you’ve just met ask you personal questions that would be rude to ask in your culture. One example would be asking you your age. If you’re a man, you’ll likely have near strangers ask if you like Thai women or if you have a Thai girlfriend. If you speak Thai reasonably well, people will assume it’s because you have a Thai wife, not because you studied the language. Other common questions that might seem inappropriate include “How much money do you make?” and “How much is your rent?”
Despite the probing nature of these questions, Thais are not trying to be rude. They may just genuinely be curious about you or trying to make small talk. Though they also may be trying to learn where to put you in the social hierarchy. This is especially true when asking your age. They need to know if you should be addressed as phii (“senior”) or nong (“junior”).
Thais rarely use their actual names in daily life. Everyone has at least one nickname, which is the name they’ll usually introduce themselves as. Nicknames are given by parents when the child is born. Thai nicknames are typically short—one or two syllables. Many popular nicknames are English words that sound strange to use as names for English speakers: “Golf”, “Benz”, “Bird”, “Pancake”, “Ball”, “Beer”, “Oil”, “Guitar”, “Arm”, “Ice”, “Bank”.
Traditional gender roles predominate in Thai society. When going out on a date, it’s expected that the man pay for everything. “Going Dutch” would be quite unusual. Female students wear skirts and blouses, while male students wear a shirt and slacks. The same is true for many in the working world. Thai women tend to take pride in taking care of their husband rather than seeing it as a form of oppression.
One unique aspect of Thai society is the high visibility of transgender individuals. In Thailand, transgender women are usually called “ladyboys” in English and kathoey in Thai. Unlike in the US, there is no controversy in Thailand over public bathroom usage. Kathoeys all use the women’s room.
ON the other side of the spectrum are “toms”, which comes from the English word “tomboy”. Toms are lesbians with a masculine appearance, though I don’t think they would be considered transgender since they’re not actually trying to be men. For example, toms also use the women’s bathroom. The feminine lesbians that toms date are called “dees”, which comes from the last syllable of the word “lady”.
While homosexuality is widely accepted in Thai society, there is no such thing as gay marriage—at least not legally. On the other hand, a gay couple may still hold a marriage ceremony with friends and relatives invited—they just simply don’t register the union afterwards.
In popular media, gay and transgender actors are still reduced to stereotypes. Many TV dramas have a clownish kathoey thrown in among the cast for comic relief.
Thai students are easily recognizable by their school uniforms. Until recently, hairstyles were strictly enforced for elementary and high school students, with boys not allowed hair longer than 5cm and girls required to wear their hair no longer than to the base of their neck. Though no longer mandatory by law, these short hairstyles are still the most common for schoolchildren.
Thailand is one of the few countries in the world in which university students wear uniforms. For most Thai universities, female students wear a white blouse with black skirt and male students wear a white button up shirt with black slacks. Occasionally some students will complain about the requirement to wear a uniform, but for the most part students seem to enjoy wearing their university uniforms as they can be a sort of status symbol, especially if they attend one of the more prestigious schools.
Thai schools are often criticized—not for enforcing uniform dress, but for encouraging uniform thinking. There is an emphasis on rote memorization and studying simply to pass examinations rather than the development of critical thinking skills.
Rice is the staple food of the Thai diet. The term for “eating a meal” (gin khao) literally means “eating rice”. Many Thai people will tell you that eating a sandwich or hamburger for lunch leaves them feeling unsatisfied because they didn’t eat rice for that meal.
In Thai cities, many people living in small apartments don’t have kitchens, so they’ll eat out nearly every meal. This can be very affordable due to the abundance of street food stalls and simple restaurants serving a variety of pre-made dishes and food to your order.
Thai food has a reputation for being spicy, but skillful Thai cooking involves creating the proper balance of spicy, sweet, sour, salty, and bitter flavors. The Thai food served in overseas restaurants is often altered to fit the assumed preference of foreigners. This is the case in Thailand too, at many restaurants that cater almost exclusively to tourists. For the best and most authentic Thai food you should head to restaurants that have many Thai customers. Iglu has produced a helpful mobile app about Thai food for those who want to learn more about Thai cuisine and explore the large variety of dishes available.
When eating in a group, several dishes will be placed in the center of the table. Each person takes food from the center plates to their own plate and eats it with rice. You should just take a little bit at a time from the center dishes—2 or 3 spoons at most. Scooping up half the food from a center dish and plopping it all on your plate would appear rude.
Thais mainly eat with a spoon and fork. The spoon is held in your right or dominant hand and is used to carry food to your mouth. The fork is held in the other hand and simply serves to help you push food onto the spoon. Chopsticks are generally only used when eating noodle soups.
The main alcoholic drinks consumed in Thailand are beer, whiskey, and rice whiskey. The domestic market is dominated by the mass-produced beer brands Singha and Chang. Local “Thai whiskey”, such as Sangsom, is actually rum since it’s distilled from sugar cane. Scottish whiskey brands such as Johnny Walker and 100 Pipers are very popular. They are usually drank mixed with soda and/or Coke. Local rice whiskey is called lao khao. Home brewed versions of lao khao are not always safe to consume, so it’s better to stick with the professionally bottled variety found in stores.
When drinking beer at a restaurant, the staff will keep coming around to top up your glass from the opened bottle. At many places, girls wearing skimpy uniforms sponsored by one of the big beer companies will be doing this task. They will also keep adding ice cubes to your glass unless you tell them otherwise. For Thai drinkers, having a cold beer is more important than having a beer not watered down by ice cubes.
A decent selection of wine is available from certain supermarkets and liquor stores, although be warned that wine is taxed heavily, resulting in high prices. Many restaurants also serve wine, though a good number don’t seem to have any knowledge about storing it at the proper temperature. When an open air restaurant is storing their wine in a simple rack exposed to 30 degree heat you’d be right to question how good it’s going to taste.
Legally, alcoholic beverages can only be sold between the hours of 11am-2pm and 5pm-midnight. Supposedly, the prohibition of alcohol sales between 2-5pm was put in place to limit children from accessing alcohol during the hours directly following the end of the school day. One would think simply enforcing the minimum age requirement to buy alcohol would be more effective. In any case, you can forget about picking up some beer or wine to enjoy with dinner when doing afternoon shopping at the supermarket.
Alcohol sales are also prohibited on certain Buddhist holidays during the year. In addition to this, alcohol is also banned on election days. Presumably, drunk people can’t be trusted to vote.
Despite their popularity with the backpacker crowd, marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms are illegal in Thailand. Undercover police have been known to make arrests at the famous full moon party on Koh Phangan. There have also been rare occasions where police will clear out an entire nightclub and subject patrons to drug tests. Those showing traces of marijuana in their urine could be arrested—the fact that they may have simply used the substance legally in another country within the past month or so is irrelevant.
The largest drug problem in Thailand by far is addiction to methamphetamine pills (yaa baa). The Thai name yaa baa literally translates to “crazy drug.” It was originally sold at gas stations, where it was popular with long-haul truck drivers, until 1970 when it was finally made illegal. These days, the majority of yaa baa pills in Thailand are smuggled into the country from Myanmar, and young club-goers have replaced truck drivers as the primary consumers.
Coffee in Thailand is generally quite good and relatively inexpensive. Thai style iced coffee can be quite tasty, but it also packs a lot of calories due to the addition of both sweetened condensed milk and syrup. It’s safe to leave stuff on your table while going to use the bathroom without fearing it getting stolen. I’ve never heard of someone’s laptop going missing at a coffee shop in Thailand. Getting a seat in a coffee shop can sometimes be difficult in areas with many students. Students sometimes claim tables for long periods of time by leaving their books and stuff there—sometimes even leaving the coffee shop to eat lunch and come back an hour later.
If you have a palette for good quality coffee, specialty coffee culture has been been on a steep rise recent years, especially in Chiang Mai. Thais clad in hipster threads opening artsy, architecturally well-designed cafes is a constant growing trend. It’s not hard to find a coffee shop nearby where you can order a pour over or cold brew coffee from the menu as standard issue. This free specialty coffee shop map shows the best locations throughout Thailand and is frequently updated with the latest cafes that open.
Casinos and most forms of gambling are illegal in Thailand, including playing cards with friends for money. Every once in a while you’ll hear about an underground gambling den getting busted. Gambling on card games is still quite common in Thai villages, though, and a good number of people have put their family in hopeless debt because of it. Those wasting their money through gambling become targets for loan sharks that can charge up to 20% interest compounded monthly.
The only legal form of gambling in Thailand is the state lottery, which holds drawings twice a month, usually on the 1st and 16th. Lottery tickets consist of a 6 digit number, and they are all printed out ahead of time. Individual vendors sell lottery tickets in random locations such as shopping malls, roadsides and bus depots. The tickets sell for 80 baht, but are actually a pair of 40 baht tickets. So if you matched one of the winning numbers you’d get double the listed prize amount. Matching the grand prize with an 80 baht ticket would give you 6 million baht.
A lot of people choose to play the underground lottery instead of the official one. It’s played by picking the last 2 or 3 digits of the state lottery correctly. To try to discourage illegal gambling, the state lottery added prizes for matching 2 and 3 numbers a few years back, but the underground lottery persists due to its higher payout.
Thailand is generally not a tipping culture. In restaurants it’s OK to leave either no tip or a small tip. Many people just leave the coins that come back with the change while picking up any bills. Others may leave a more substantial tip, but you’ll not see anyone using a calculator to find out what 15 or 20% of the bill is like they do in the US.
No tip is needed for taxis and hotels, although you may chose to round up the taxi fare just to make things easy. The one area where tipping is more common is for a personal service such as from a massage therapist or hair stylist.
In a regular market, a little bit of bargaining can be expected, but the difference in price will not be much. It is more of a way to make the interaction friendly. Normally, after asking the price for an item you’d ask the seller how much lower they’ll sell it for. They might then quote a price 5-10% lower than the original price, and you accept it with no further bargaining.
In a market that is targeting tourists exclusively, not bargaining strongly means you’ll be overpaying. A seller’s first price may be more than double what they’d be willing to part with the item for. If, however, an item at the market has a fixed written price, that means you shouldn’t try to bargain it down.
One aspect of Thai culture that gets under the skin of many expats is “dual pricing”. This is where one price is charged to Thai people for a product or service, while a higher price is charged to foreigners. You will most often encounter this in admission fees. Thai national parks, for example, often charge 400 baht admission for foreigners but only 40 baht for Thais. Sometimes Thai citizens get in for free at a place that charges admission to foreigners, as is the case at the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
The main objections to dual pricing are that it’s racist and deceptive. In the case of national parks, foreign residents who work and pay taxes in Thailand reason that they should be allowed in at the same price as locals. The deceptive part comes into play when the signboard displaying prices lists foreigner prices in English and hides the Thai prices by writing them in Thai, including the use of Thai numerals.
The argument for dual pricing is usually that foreigners have more money to spend. This may be true in general, but there are plenty of Thais driving luxury cars to national parks and only being asked for the low local fee.
You can occasionally get the Thai price somewhere by showing your Thai driving license or work permit, but this is becoming increasingly rare. Overall, this is just one aspect of Thailand that you have to get used to if you live here.
Thai Dating and marriage
The modern Western style of dating has become common in Thailand, but there is a large segment of society that still holds on to a more conservative ideal of a woman having just one partner for life. When dating someone new, it is completely normal for the woman to have a friend tag along for the first couple dates until she is comfortable going alone with the man. If you’re looking for a serious relationship it’s actually a good sign that the woman does this, as it means she’s careful about who she chooses to spend time with.
Twenty years ago it would be unusual to see a couple holding hands in public. This isn’t so uncommon now, but strong public displays of affection, such as kissing, are still pretty much taboo.
Meeting a girlfriend’s parents or visiting her hometown indicate an intention to get married soon. Not realizing this can be a source of tension in the relationship. If a women takes a foreign man to meet her family, and then the man shows no interest in marrying (or worse yet breaks up with her afterwards) she will lose face big time.
Weddings in Thai culture traditionally involve the groom giving a monetary gift to the brides family. The payment, called sin sod, is given in cash arranged on an offering tray during the wedding ceremony. It’s intended to be a way to show appreciation for the parents of the bride having raised their daughter right, as well as compensation for them losing someone who could help around the house.
The amount of the sin sod can vary widely, but needs to be agreed upon before the wedding can take place. For the daughter of a working class family, the parents might expect something in the neighborhood of 100,000 baht. If they belong to Bangkok’s elite high society, then the amount may be in the millions of baht.
There is no set-in-stone rule for sin sod. Some families won’t ask for one at all, especially if they are a little more modern thinking. Other times, the money is used for show during the wedding ceremony and then partially or fully returned to the young couple afterwards. And then in other cases, the in-laws will ask for a large sin sod and quickly spend it all on whiskey and a new TV, motorcycle, or pickup truck for themselves.
Disagreements over sin sod can sour a Thai-foreigner marriage before it even gets a chance to blossom. The foreigner often feels uncomfortable with what he perceives as buying his wife off her parents. In some villages, the parents risk losing face in the community if they’re seen to give their daughter away without a sin sod. Sometimes the sin sod is just for show and promptly returned, but this is by no means the case all the time. Some foreign son-in-laws really do get played for the fool and get pressured into paying a sin sod far higher than market value by greedy Thai parents. They fail to realize that creating an air of resentment at the start of their daughter’s married life doesn’t bode well for long term success of the union.
Thailand has one major recording label that pumps out nearly all of the pop music. As you might expect with this arrangement, most of the pop music is fairly unoriginal and uninspiring. Nevertheless, there are lots of popular artists, and Thais especially enjoy singing along to karaoke versions of the videos. Singing along to Thai pop music can be a good way to improve your Thai language skills. If you search on YouTube, you’ll find an endless supply of songs.
American pop music is more popular for playing as background music at cafes, restaurants, and shopping malls. At restaurants that feature live music, the bands play mostly American pop tunes. It’s far more common to hear a cover band than a band playing original compositions. There isn’t much of an indie music scene as in some other countries.
Both Thai and Hollywood movies are popular. Some theaters will play two versions of foreign movies—one has the original soundtrack and Thai subtitles, and the other version will be dubbed into Thai. Make sure you get the one you want when buying a ticket.
At the cinema, all of the seats are reserved, and there are different prices for different sections. The seats closest to the screen are the cheapest. Some theaters will have VIP sofa seats in the back row. At the time of purchasing the tickets, you select your seats from a computer screen. It makes it nice to know exactly where your seat is, especially if you stumble into the theater after the lights have already been turned down.
Movies always start at least 20 minutes later than the listed show time. There’s a long series of commercials and trailers for upcoming films. In addition, the royal anthem is played before each show begins, for which the audience must stand up.
Some locally produced Thai movies can be quite good. If you’ve seen how terrible Thai TV programs are, it’s really surprising how entertaining some of the movies can be. Comedies, romantic comedies, and ghost movies seem to be the most popular genres.
Thai television can be difficult to watch for those who value their sanity. The two most popular types of programs are serial dramas (lakhon) and comedy variety shows.
TV dramas run in blocks, airing several days a week for a few weeks until the story ends. Lakhon tend to follow predictable storylines. There will be a lead male character, a lead female character, and an evil, jealous female character who tries to get in the way of true love. TV dramas are full of shouting, bad acting, and violence towards women—including rape. Often it’s the lead male character who does the raping. The lead female character has to appear pure and virginal, and she has to feign disinterest in the lead male character. At some point, he’s so overwhelmed by desire for her that takes her by force, and afterwards she falls in love with him. They get married in the final episode, and it’s a happy ending. If you get involved with a Thai significant other who is addicted to watching lakhon, you have my deepest sympathy.
Comedy shows are unbearable to watch for a completely different reason. They contain a constant barrage of cartoon sound effects—think “Boing!”, “Zing!”, etc. I assume it’s because the writing is so bad that the audience needs a cue to know when to laugh. They probably do have genuine humorous moments, but you’ll feel like you’re in a time warp watching vintage Loony Tunes characters rather than live human actors.
Censorship on Thai TV can be a bit ridiculous. It’s perfectly fine to show a cigarette or a gun on screen, but as soon as someone takes a drag of a cigarette or points a gun at another character you’ll see the object blurred out. Prudish TV censors have even been blurring out women’s cleavage recently, as happened to the host of the 2016 Miss World pageant.
Muay Thai, or Thai kickboxing, is considered Thailand’s national sport. You’ll find Muay Thai gyms in towns and cities all across the country, and they aren’t used only by competitive boxers. Many people—including foreigners—train at Muay Thai gyms purely for the physical fitness and conditioning benefits. If your goal is to get a six-pack, training in Muay Thai would be a good way to start.
A typical night at a boxing stadium might have half a dozen fights on the bill. Don’t be surprised if some of the fighters look rather young. It’s common for Muay Thai fighters to begin training as elementary school students.
One colorful aspect of watching a Muay Thai fight is short the wai khru (“bowing to the teacher”) ritual that the fighters go through before the fight begins. Boxers wear a ceremonial headband as they enter the ring and perform the wai khru, or ram muay (“fight dance”) as it’s also called.
Muay Thai may be the national sport, but football (or “soccer” as it’s known to Americans) is by far the most popular sport in Thailand. English Premier League teams have the largest following. Very few Thais will have any interest in, or knowledge of, American sports such as NFL football, NBA basketball, or Major League baseball. As far as national sports teams go, the Thai women’s volleyball team has probably seen the most success.
There’s also an interesting local sport called takraw, which is a bit like volleyball played with the feet. The ball is made from woven rattan and is kicked back and forth over a net. The matches can be quite exciting to watch, as you’ll see players perform acrobatic flips and spins to spike the ball.
Thai Festivals and Holidays
The biggest and most important festival of the year is Songkran. The official holiday lasts 3 days from April 13-15, but in practice many people take a full week off from work for what is often called Thai New Year. Songkran is celebrated by several countries in the region, and has origins in Hindu astrology. Although it’s called the Thai New Year, you’ll never see anyone using a calendar based on this.
Songkran is a time for Thai people to visit their hometown, pay respect to their elders, and make merit at temples. Outside of Thailand, however, Songkran is simply known as the world’s largest water fight. During the days of the celebration, you cannot step outside your home and expect to come back dry. Playing with water goes on for different lengths of time in different parts of the country. In Chiang Mai, you’ll see some people throwing water at passers-by already by April 11. The 3 main days of the festival are all-out water warfare, especially around the moat of the old city.
Songkran can be fun, but it can also be incredibly dangerous. Tons of people drink and drive, and all the water on the road makes a slick surface for motorbikes. You also have a very good chance of someone on the side of the road throwing a bucket of ice-water in your face as you’re trying to drive. If you want to stay in town and join in the celebration, it’s much safer to walk. Keep your phone in a zip-lock bag, and don’t even think about leaving the house with your laptop. For some expats—such as myself—Songkran can get very old after you’ve done it a couple times, making it a good time to take a vacation somewhere else in the region where it’s not celebrated, such as Vietnam, Malaysia, or Bali.
Loy Kratong is a holiday that usually takes place on the night of the full moon in November. It’s a time when Thai people pay respect to the river goddess as a way to say thanks for using water throughout the year. The word loy means “to float”, and a kratong is a small ornamental offering vessel containing flowers, candles, and incense. Kratong are traditionally made from a round slice of banana stalk that is decorated elaborately with folded banana leaf. During the 1980’s and 90’s styrofoam kratong became popular, but have now largely fallen out of use due to the obvious environmental impact. In recent years, kratong made from bread have become increasingly popular since they can be eaten by fish and won’t clog up waterways.
On the night of Loy Kratong, people make their way to the country’s rivers to release kratong at the riverbank. It’s also a tradition to release floating lanterns into the night sky. These are essentially tiny hot air balloons made from paper with a small burning disk suspended below the opening to provide heat, and thus lift. Although beautiful to see in the night sky, the floating lanterns are obviously not great for the environment, and can actually be quite hazardous for aircraft. In recent years there have been restrictions on the release days and times for sky lanterns to mitigate the danger to airplanes.
New Year Day (January 1) is one of the largest holidays in Thailand. For most people, work stops on December 31 as well, and including a weekend, they might take a total of 5-7 days off from their jobs. There is a mass exodus from Bangkok as people leave for their hometowns upcountry. Unfortunately, the New Year holiday (along with Songkran) is known as one of the most dangerous times to be on the road in Thailand. There is always a spike in alcohol related auto accidents resulting in death, which is never what a family wants to experience over the holidays.
It’s common to give gifts to family members on New Year, much like Westerners do during Christmas. However, the gift giving is far more modest and sensible. Thai people don’t stress out over holiday shopping like Americans do.
Chinese New Year
The Chinese Lunar New Year usually falls in late January or February. It’s a major holiday for Thailand’s large ethnic Chinese community. It’s also a huge travel season for tourists from China. Thai people all know the animal of their birth year according to Chinese astrology. The main difference in the Thai system is that the local serpent-god naga takes the place of the Chinese dragon. Each year is designated as a bpii-chong, or “unlucky year” for those of certain birth years. When your bpii-chong comes up, it’s recommended that you put extra effort into making merit to avoid ill-fortune.
To end this article on Thai culture and customs, I’m going to go over a few taboos or cultural no-no’s that may not have fit in any of the other sections.
Kissing in public
I mentioned it before, but it deserves repeating because you’re going to really make your Thai date feel uncomfortable if you try to kiss while out in public.
Feet are dirty and so are your shoes. Always take your shoes off when entering a Thai home or any business where you see other shoes by the entrance. By extension, walking around the city barefoot like a hippy causes a big problem because the bottom of your foot will become black and caked with dirt, which defeats the purpose of removing shoes indoors to keep floors clean. Never use your foot to point at something.
Death and ghosts
Most Thai people believe in the existence of ghosts. They also believe that talking about something makes it more likely to happen in real life. For these reasons, making jokes about death or ghosts will not get a good reaction.
A final word
As stated at the beginning of the post, Thai culture is a huge subject, and I can’t possibly have covered everything there is to say on it. Still, I hope you’ve gained some insight to make your transition to life in Thailand more smooth. When talking about the culture of a society, one is always dealing in generalities, so please understand you’re going to run into exceptions. I’ve included the negative aspects of Thai culture to keep your expectations realistic, but make no mistake—I love living in this country and enjoy calling it my home.