Bangkok can seem to be a world within itself; but it is, indeed, still in Thailand. Hoards of foreigners, 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.
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, at best, or get seriously hurt, at worst. Yelling at a Thai causes them to lose face, which often yields a far more aggressive reaction than you would expect in the West.
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. Even sitting back on the skytrain with your feet pointed outwards on the floor is considered rude. Be particularly careful in temples and do not point your feet towards any Buddha images or monks.
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: Thailand has a reputation for hedonism, but in fact the culture is more conservative than Europe or America and public displays of affection are frowned on. 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. Save your kisses for the 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, makeup and evolution, 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. As a rule of thumb for both women and men, shirts (yes, you have to wear one) must cover the shoulders and pants/skirts must go down at least to the knees. 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 Thai visitors. You wouldn't think it appropriate to wear a bikini top and short shorts into a church or mosque at home either, right?
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: At movie theatres, parks, 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, leaving room for outgoing riders to leave the train. 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 the mall.
Tipping: While tipping is not mandatory for any service, you're generally expected to leave a small tip for taxi drivers, masseuses, tour guides, bellhops and restaurant servers. If you overdo it (Americans: 18 to 20% is too much here), chances are you'll get some confused looks. Now more than ever, larger restaurants are including a 10% service charge in the bill, so watch for it before you add on more. At street eateries, leaving 20 baht on the table is plenty, even if you've had a big meal. If you've just had a 30-baht bowl of noodle soup, a tip is not expected.