We thought we would put together a page about Thai culture, customs, manners, etiquette, values and outlook to give you an insight whether you are going to Thailand on business, for a holiday or even hosting Thai friends or colleagues in your own country. Obviously this is just a quick overview and while we have tried to be as accurate as we can, some of the content below is subjective.
The Thai language is comprised of 44 consonants, 32 vowels and five tones in Thai pronunciation. The Thai language, belonging to the Tai family, is the main language in Thailand. The Thai script originated in India. Thai also has varying regional differences often influenced by other common languages in a particular region, which could include Chinese, Lao, Malay and Mon-Khmer. English is also being taught as a second language in secondary schools and universities in Thailand now as it is considered to be valuable in business and commerce, particularly in Thailand's vibrant tourist industry. Most Thai's in the larger cities and tourist areas can converse in English at some level although it is normally basic at best.
Thailand is a global centre for Buddhism and with over 90% of the population in Thailand being confirmed Buddhists it has a strong influence over everyday life. The easy going lifestyle and live-and-let-live attitude of most Thais is said to come largely from Buddhist beliefs. Unlike many other societies and religions, Buddhists do not believe that life begins with birth and ends with death, but rather that every person has several lives based upon the lessons of life not yet learned and that acts committed in previous lives will affect your path in a future life. This view is more commonly know as Karma. Through Buddhism many Thai's believe that selfishness and craving result in suffering and misfortune and that compassion, sharing and love will bring happiness, good fortune and well being. These beliefs are evident not only in daily life in Thailand but also in the way the Thai family structure works.
Thailand has a non-confrontational society, in which public dispute or criticism is to be avoided at all costs. Loss of face (or respect in western terms) is a disgrace of the worst order to a Thai and so they try to avoid confrontations and look for compromises in all social situations. Being openly critical or aggressive, whether in public or in private, is considered to be a form of violence by Thai people as it causes hurt and embarrassment to it's victim which is unacceptable behaviour in Thai society. Thais believe that to be willfully and openly hurtful toward someone might attract the wrath of the spirits, which could result in misfortune and bad Karma.
Family is the very cornerstone of Thai society and, as with all areas of society in Thailand, it has a clearly defined hierarchy with the parents at the top of the structure and their children below them normally ranked by age, achievements and material success. Thai children are taught that they must honour their parents and support them at all costs and throughout their lives. Thai families are generally more closely knit than can be found in western cultures. In many cases, and particularly amongst poorer Thais, the parents will support their children until they are of working age and then the roles are reversed and the children will support their parents as they get older.
The wai is the common form of greeting in Thailand and adheres to strict rules of protocol. The wai is performed through raising both hands, palms joined with the fingers pointing upwards as if in prayer, lightly touching the body somewhere between the chest and the forehead. The wai is both a sign of respect as well as a greeting. Respect and courtesy are demonstrated by the height at which the hands are held and how low the head comes down to meet the thumbs of both hands. The wai may be made while sitting, walking, or standing. The person who is more junior in age or status is the first one to offer the wai. The senior person then returns the wai, generally with their hands raised to somewhere around their chest. If a junior person is standing and wants to wai a senior person who is seated, the junior person will stoop or bow their head while making the wai. If there is a great social distance between two people, the wai may not be returned.
Thais generally use first names or nick names rather than surnames, often with the honourific title Khun before the name. Khun is an all purpose form of address that is appropriate for both men and women. In general, you should wait for your host and hostess to introduce you to their other guests. This allows everyone to understand your status relative to their own, and thus know who performs the wai (see above) and how low the head should be bowed.
Having visted around 47 countries, I have come to the conclusion that it is those quirky, differences in culture and thinking that usually make foreign countries so interesting. Thailand through foreign eyes is no exception. If I was to sum up my observations of Thai culture in two words they would probably be welcoming and contradictary! Don't get me wrong here, I love Thailand. If I didn't then I wouldn't have spent so much time here or have married my beautiful Thai wife.
As mentioned above, Thai's believe through their Buddist beliefs that selfishness and craving of material things will result in suffering and misfortune and that the road to enlightenment comes only through non material things like compassion, sharing and love yet in my experience most Thais I have got to know well are in fact very materialistic. They see value and honour in the status or 'Big Face' that material success can bring not only to them but also to their family. As a result they will do many things that westerners wouldn't even dream of doing in pursuit of material wealth and status.
Another thing that, in my opinion, demonstrates the contradiction in Thai culture is that Thailand is not in fact very foreigner or falang friendly. Again don't get me wrong here, if you are planning a short trip or holiday there are few places in the world where you will feel more welcome and accepted and I'm am sure that you will have a great time. However, if you decide to try and stay in Thailand for any considerable length of time then you will find that the Thai government are not going to make that easy for you! Thai visas and residence permits, foreigner owned bank accounts, property ownership and even marriage while achievable are not straight forward for foreigners at all. Worry not though, all these things are achievable for foreigners in Thailand provided that you have the patience, funding and determination to succeed.
This piece is already becoming longer than I expected so I will end it with one last observation for now and that is that foreigners in Thailand hold a lower status than Thais. That is just the way it is and while Thai people are very laid back and accepting of others there are situations where this becomes noticably evident - the difference between what a foreigner will pay for something and what a Thai will pay for the same thing is just one great example.
I'll leave you with this, I have had many a conversation and read many an article by foreigners who have spent extended periods of time in Thailand and they all seem to have one conclusion in common - the things that you'll love about Thailand when you first arrive will over time also be the things that drive you nuts occasionally! You can accept it and enjoy this wonderful country inclusive of it's quirky differences or you can leave because if one thing is gauranteed it's that it isn't going to change anytime soon! So, why not grab a drink sit back and enjoy.
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