Dec 20 2011

Faux pas and proper etiquette in Bangkok

Published by at 2:33 pm under Culture


Bangkok can seem to be a world within itself; but although the British pubs and ice skating rinks may suggest otherwise, the capital city is, indeed, still in Thailand. Hoards of Westerners, known as “farang” in Thai, travel in and out of the city daily, and many have made Bangkok their permanent residence. Farangs are a fixed part of the urban landscape, and Bangkokians are accustomed to foreigner gaffes and snafus. However, it is important to remember that proper etiquette is appreciated in Thai culture, and Thais will often be too polite to point out if you are offending them. On the other hand, any small gesture, even a misguided one, to pay respect to Thai culture will probably be well-received. Faux pas can generally easily be avoided; in a nutshell, here’s how.

Yes, that is in fact a tourist walking into a temple in a bikini.

Smiles: When in doubt, smile! Smiling is a universal language, and a bit of a cultural habit in Thailand.

Wais: Foreigners are not always expected to initiate a wai, but you can return one by slightly bowing with your hands pressed together sort of like a prayer. Status is a very important (and complicated) component of Thai culture, but in the most blunt terms, one should only offer wais to those of equal or greater social status.

Keep it cool: Mai pen rai is an expression that pretty much sums up the Thai cultural temperament. Don’t worry, no worries, never mind. Even with the hot days, hordes of people and tourist scams, it is never okay to yell or show anger in public. You will embarrass yourself and everyone around you.

Your head: The head is sacred, even in Bangkok. Never touch or pass something over someone’s head.

Your feet: Feet are considered unclean. Do not ever use your feet to point or to move an object. Be careful to never point your feet at someone else or show them your soles. Be particularly careful in temples and do not point your feet towards any Buddha images.

Your shoes: Leave those smelly things at the door. In someone’s home and even in many stores and massage parlours, you should take off your shoes before entering. Look for a shoe rack or follow the lead of patrons before you so you know what to do.

PDA: Public displays of affection are not encouraged in public. If you look closely, you will barely see Thai couples in public even touching hands. Be careful touching someone of the opposite sex, even if you are on friendly terms. As for lovers, save your naughty business for your hotel room.

Dress: What to wear in Bangkok is easier to figure out than you think. Dress for summer in the city, if you were planning to meet your in-laws for the first time. By some miracle of hairspray, ironing, and makeup, Thais manage to look dressed to the nines and always fresh despite the traumatically humid weather. For women, skirts and shorts are generally fine, but having your shoulders or cleavage exposed will be met with some uncomfortable glances.  Remember, Bangkok is not the beach, so cover that bikini top right up.

Temples: Temples, such as Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Rachabophit, have strict dress codes that must be followed. Cover your arms and your legs. Take off your shoes. Never touch a monk. As we mentioned already, don’t point your feet at or touch any religious statues. Use your best judgment and follow the lead of any Thai visitors.

Photographs: This might seem obvious, but it needs to be said. Something about tourists looking at the world through a camera lens can make them forget all sense of courtesy and ethics.  Do not take pictures of people without asking. It is rude. You would not want your photograph taken by a stranger without permission. You would probably never go up to a group of children on the street or a food vendor in your home country and just snap a shot. Will the photograph ever be worth making someone feel like a spectacle?

The Royal family: Pay your respects; it’s the law. At movie theatres, BTS stations or even Chatuchak Market, you must stop what you are doing and stand up when the Song for His Majesty the King or Thai national anthem is played. Never ever damage or draw on his picture.

At the BTS: Public transportation in Thailand is a very civil affair. People form small queues on the platform while waiting for the next train to arrive. Like most cities, people (hopefully) get up to offer their seats to pregnant women, the elderly, and those carrying a lot of shopping bags after a big day at Terminal 21.

Tipping: While tipping is not mandatory for any service, you can certainly tip for a job well done. In touristy areas and in the hospitality industry, there seems to be a general expectation for some kind of tip, but it’s still up to your own discretion. Now more than ever, restaurants are including a service charge in the bill, so watch for it before you add on more.

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4 Responses to “Faux pas and proper etiquette in Bangkok” ...

  1. fondoon 20 Dec 2011 at 3:13 pm

    Nice picture … I’m so glad I wasn’t there!

  2. What Thais Want Tourists to Knowon 14 Nov 2012 at 3:16 am

    [...] shorter hemlines since a few years ago, but(!) that doesn’t mean you can look like you are sauntering down sandy beaches everywhere you [...]

  3. David Bon 17 Nov 2012 at 2:37 pm

    Gross, yes, but not so much “Thai culture”? It’s a Chinese temple!

  4. […] shorter hemlines since a few years ago, but(!) that doesn’t mean you can look like you are sauntering down sandy beaches everywhere you […]

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