Thai culture and customs, 202

More Thai Cultural Differences

Shoes stay outside. Many of your usual habits will need to be re-thought on your first visit to Thailand. This page (and the preceding "Thai Customs 101") will help you gradually make sense of them.


Related pages:

Thai customs 101

Gay life and customs

Thailand's social hierarchy

Basic travel facts

Things to try...

The Thai language

Making yourself understood


Gay tour of Thailand


Complete site index 

In Thai Culture 101, we looked at some of the biggest differences between Thai and western cultures. That page covered the differences that should be your top priority to understand and remember. Ignoring them could cause great embarrassment for you, or for a Thai friend.

This page looks at other differences that are good to understand, but needn't be quite as high a priority. Some of these pertain to how you should behave; others will merely help you to better understand what you observe.

  • Use your right hand to pass an object to someone, and for most other purposes. We won't go into details on the origins of this custom. But did you know that toilet paper was only recently introduced into Thailand, and many people still prefer traditional methods?
  • Hats go on heads, shoes go on feet. You already knew that. But here in Thailand, those facts have new connotations. A hat, being associated with the head, merits respect. Shoes, like feet, have a much lower status. Hats and shoes shouldn't even touch each other.
  • Rice gets respect, too. It's the staff of life. No need to wai your bowl of rice, but do treat it with respect.
  • Do remove your shoes when entering a home or temple, or any place where you see other shoes left at the entrance.
  • Don't overdo the thank-you's. In the U.S., it's fine to thank a doorman who opens a door for you. In Thai culture, it seems awkwardly excessive to those around you.
  • Thais avoid conflict. That attitude ingrained in the culture, part of the mai pen rai attitude. If you put a Thai in a confrontational situation, chances are he or she will disappear at the first opportunity. To get results, avoid conflict.
  • Do not clean your plate. That's right, forget what Mom told you. Leave a little food; to do otherwise implies that you weren't given enough. This advice is most important if you're dining at someone's home, but is fine to follow even in a restaurant.
  • Do not ask for chopsticks to eat Thai cuisine. Only a few Thai dishes are eaten with chopsticks, in which case they'll be provided. The standard utensils are fork and spoon. Use the fork to push food onto the spoon (the pushing motion should be toward yourself, if you really want to get this right), and the spoon to eat. Knives are unnecessary; everything's already bite-size.
  • Do be generous. It's expected that the person of higher social status and wealth will pick up the check and show generosity in other ways. Generally, that would be you. (If a Thai clearly issues an invitation to you to go out to dinner, then picks up the check, that's fine.)
  • Don't expect to go Dutch. Dividing up the bill just isn't done. Someone is generous and picks up the bill. Generally, that would be you. This applies to movies, bus fares, and other group excursions, as well as dining out.
  • Gift-giving is common, and comes with its own customs and expectations. An attractive wrapping counts. Don't expect a gift to be opened in front of the giver; the recipient typically sets it aside, to be opened in private. And it's not just the thought that counts; while your gift needn't be expensive, it shouldn't seem too cheap, either. An appropriate item brought from the U.S., showing that you made an extra effort, would mean more than something purchased at a local Thai market.
  • Don't be too tall. That can be difficult for a westerner! But height is associated with superiority. In a setting such as a temple, standing tall suggests that you fancy yourself superior to the monks and others who are kneeling. Be as unobtrusive as possible; bending over a bit, as you walk in or out, will help maintain suitable appearances. If you enter a temple where others are seated, you should also sit down — and remember to point those feet back, nor forward.
  • Thai life centers around the family. You'll find Thai's far more devoted to their family life than are most Americans. Parents and elders are respected, and even in adulthood, "making my parents proud of me" remains a driving goal for most Thais. As for terminology, don't be surprised if a new friend says he's an only child; then later refers to his "brothers". Terms like brother and uncle are often used to indicate an affectionate but non-biological relationship.
  • Do not be surprised to see many people picking their noses in public. It's okay here. However there's no need for you to adopt every differing Thai custom that you encounter!

This site is provided by Alyson Adventures, which offers active vacations and adventure travel for gay men, lesbians, and friends. We hope the information here will be useful to those traveling with us, and to others planning an independent tour or researching Thailand. We invite you to also explore our trips in Australia, New Zealand, and other destinations.

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