- Download our Moving to Thailand Guide (PDF)
The people of Thailand are known all over the world for their friendly nature and rich cultural heritage, which they are incredibly proud of. As with any other destination, though, expats can expect a degree of culture shock in Thailand.
Meeting and greeting in Thailand
In Thai culture, greeting someone is an act of great significance. The manner of greeting is determined according to the social standing of both people, and making the wrong move could cause a Thai person to lose face – this is considered a bad look for both parties and should be avoided at all costs. That said, if correctly used, greetings are an opportunity to show deep respect for the Thai people.
For a traditional Thai greeting, palms are placed together in a prayer-like gesture somewhere between the chest and the forehead. They are held close to the body while a slight bow is made. The higher the hands and the lower the bow, the more respect is shown. This is called a wai.
The proper etiquette is for the subordinate party to offer a wai first, with the senior person then returning the wai. Thai locals won’t expect a foreigner to initiate a wai, but if offered one, not returning it would be an insult.
Dress in Thailand
Outward appearances are important to Thai people. Here, the old saying ‘dress for success’ holds true. Thai locals appreciate foreigners who try to maintain a professional and reserved appearance. T-shirts and shorts are acceptable for going just about anywhere, but pants and skirts should be of a modest length. Women should keep their chests and shoulders covered.
For office jobs in Thailand, expats will be expected to wear reasonably formal attire. Men are expected to wear dress pants and shirts with a collar. Ties aren’t mandatory but are recommended for formal gatherings.
In beach towns like Phuket, Hua Hin and Krabi, Thai locals are more accustomed to foreigners wearing bikinis and swimming attire at the beach, but when going for lunch or a stroll around town, expats should cover up.
Language barrier in Thailand
Thai is a tonal language with five different tones. The tone of a word is used to distinguish its meaning. If an expat correctly pronounces a word but uses the wrong vocal tone, it may have an entirely different meaning from what they intended to say. The upside is that Thais are extremely forgiving when foreigners try to speak their language, and once they understand what a foreigner wants, they will teach them how to say the word correctly.
Religion in Thailand
Most of the population in Thailand are Buddhists. Buddhism plays a vital role in the cultural background and outlook of the local population. The country is also crammed with beautiful Buddhist temples known as wats. Other religions do exist in Thailand, and everyone’s right to the faith of their choice is protected.
Cultural dos and don’ts in Thailand
- Do show great respect to the Thai royal family. The local population highly reveres them.
- Do take the Thai national anthem seriously. It is broadcast twice daily over television and radio – when the flag is raised every day at 8am, and when it’s lowered just before sunset. When the anthem is being played, everyone must stop what they are doing and stand to attention out of respect.
- Don’t ever touch the head of a Thai person or pass any objects over someone’s head. The head is the highest part of the body and is considered sacred in Thailand. It must be treated with the utmost respect.
- Don’t use your feet for anything other than standing or walking. It is unacceptable for people to put their feet on a table or desk, and expats should avoid pointing them at people. It is also considered impolite to touch one’s feet in public.
- Do keep your cool. The Thai phrase jai yen, meaning ‘cool heart’, is a way of life. It refers to the ability to stay composed, calm and patient in tense situations. Thai people go to great lengths to avoid confrontation and remain diplomatic.
►Find out more about Living in Thailand.
What do expats say about local Thai culture?
"They’re very welcoming to well-behaved foreigners. My only strongly-suggested advice is to respect the local dress code. Gents, it’s not a beach town. You may be treated less sincerely in a muscle shirt. Ladies, that goes double for you. It’s important to respect their culture as a guest of their country." Read more about Mike’s Thailand experiences.
Are you an expat living in Thailand?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Thailand. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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