Traveling to the Kingdom of Thailand and experiencing Thailand culture for the first time can seem a little daunting. There are many new customs to learn, a unique language and system of writing, the food is different (i.e. Thai cuisine is typically hot and spicy), and the country is heavily influenced by the Buddhist religion. The performing arts including Thailand dance are grounded in a long tradition.
Indeed, if you are of European or even Chinese ancestry, these cultural differences can become very apparent when you first walk along the streets of Thailand, and try to order food or catch a taxi. Fortunately, if you visit the more tourist orientated parts of Thailand some English is spoken and understood so catching transport and booking a hotel is generally not a problem.
If you are of European ancestry the Thai's have a term which applies to you which you may hear used occasionally, called 'Farang'. This term is typically used for a person with white skin and blue eyes.
One of the fundamental elements of Thailand culture is that the country has a constitutional monarchy with King Bhumibol Adulyadej (King Rama IX) being the head of state.
The King of Thailand is revered in Thai society and is at the top of Thai hierarchy, thus it is unlawful and impolite to say anything negative about the king or the Thai royal family whilst visiting in Thailand. Indeed, you can be imprisoned for speaking out regarding any member of the Thai royal family.
I first noticed this deep respect for the Thailand's King when I visited a movie cinema back in 2005. Prior to the commencement of the feature film, everyone stood up from their seats when a short documentary film reflecting upon the Kings life was shown. This 2 minute film is screened prior to all feature films at all SF Cinema's, and Major Cineplex Cinema's throughout Thailand.
Thailand is a democratic country and its government is led by an elected prime minister. However, Thailand has had a series of coup's since 1933 and in August 2014 after 12 months of political turmoil, military leader Chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha became prime minister after he seized power in yet another coup.
Prior to this event, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (who came into office in July 2011), who was Thailand's first female prime minister (see image below) had been in power since 2011.
However, Thailand culture with its distinct set of traditions, customs, social norms and cultural beliefs is the result of several hundred years of development.
Like all societies Thailand, has a set of cultural norms or behaviors that give Thai people purpose and meaning to their lives, and these values are unique to their country.
The Siam culture (i.e. the brown people as they were apparently referred to) or the Kingdom of Thailand was first noted as a distinct social or ethnic group on a 12th Century A.D. inscription within a Temple at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
In fact, according to Thai history, their people are said to have migrated from southeastern China several thousand years ago, while their customs and beliefs have been influenced by countries including India and Cambodia. Almost everywhere you visit in Thailand you are confronted by elements of traditional Thailand culture including their Buddhist beliefs.
For example, watching Thai monks within the community collecting food while being clothed in their bright orange garments is an outward expression of the Buddhist religion in Thailand and the training that many Thai men will undertake at one time during their lives.
Some 94.6% of the Thailand population actually identify as Buddhists although Islam has a footing in in the south in the provinces of Songkhla, Yala and Patani where there are a large number of Muslims. Everyday Thai life is influenced by their Buddhist beliefs including visiting their temples and giving offerings to Buddha, and burning incense. More common ceremonies such as those related to weddings and funerals are also influenced by their Buddhist belief system.
This belief system permeates from their King to their government and schools and into their family homes. In October 2013, this system was reinforced by the King of Thailand who asked all people to mourn the death of their Buddhist leader, the 100 year old Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara
Thai people are very family orientated and have a close kinship structure which has been maintained relatively unchanged for centuries is an important element of Thailand culture. As Thailand has a hierarchical system within the family, the oldest male in the home generally takes the role as the patriarch.
Respect and obedience are taught to the children with the youngest daughter and her husband being bequeathed the family home, in return for looking after the parents in their old age.
It is not uncommon in Thailand even today to have several generations of a family living in the same house, and with a hierarchy in place the eldest members of the family receive the most respect. It is a Thai tradition that a groom is to meet the brides entire family and gain approval before he can marry. Even as a foreigner I experienced this aspect of Thailand culture before I married my Thai wife.
The Thai language that is spoken today is said to be a sub-group of the Tai Kadai language family. This group of languages are spoken from parts of southern China to the Indonesian Archipelago to the north of India; thus these respect languages are mutually intelligible to some degree.
While Thai is the predominant language used in everyday life in in Thailand, English is also widely understood in many parts of the country especially by the younger generations of Thai's who are taught English in school. English is also more widely used in the more popular tourist destinations such as Bangkok city, Chiang Mai, Phuket, Koh Samui etc.
Thailand culture is even evident when greeting the shop attendant at the local seven eleven store. When you enter a store you may see the shop attendant clasp their hands together (a unique Thai custom called the wai), like in prayer and bowing the head with a smile (used during both greetings and farewells) and they will say:
sa-wa-dee khrap if they are male and;
sa-wa-dee ka if female.
You can simply repeat the same phrase using either the male or female term depending upon your own gender.
This cultural greeting is used as a sign of respect within the Thai hierarchy system and therefore is to be used with caution by the foreign visitor.
ARTS AND CRAFTS
Thai people are well known for their decorative arts and crafts industry which has been evolving for several thousand years. Their skills have been manifested in a wealth of materials including gold, ceramics, wood and textiles including Thai silk. Most products typical of the country are made in the north and northeast of Thailand. Utilitarian objects made by the mountain peoples as well as their traditional costumes often attest to a distinctive feeling for forms and colours. These products which are often entirely handmade reach Bangkok via the night markets in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.
Jewellery made of Thai gold is famous. For those who find it to heavy and the gold to yellow, the fascinating jewellery produced by silversmiths provides a viable alternative.
Graceful pieces are made in the ancient niello technique of decorating gold or more frequently silver- in more recent times also copper and bronze with a black inlay on which patterns of figures are engraved. The grooves thus created are filled with a past of powdered copper, silver, lead and sulphur with a flux and the whole surface is then polished.
Another highly developed craft is making lacquer-ware (black lacquer with gold decoration and classical red lacquer). Another extraordinarily fine ware is celadon, stoneware or porcelain coated with a translucent greenish glaze that develops a finely reticulated crackled texture in firing.
Thailand food and and cooking, is also another element of Thai culture that has continued relatively unchanged for hundreds of years despite the more recent European influences. The flavors and techniques used in cooking Thai food have become world famous which is why Thai restaurants are opened in many different countries around the world.
Rice has been the
staple of Thai cooking since the 13th century A.D. although in the north of Thailand this can be sticky
rice and it is served with most meals. Forks and spoons are the implements Thai
people use to eat as opposed to knives. Pork, fish, chicken, seafood, and
vegetables are widely incorporated within Thai cooking and are flavored by
various curries, spices, coconut milk and chillies and
Thailand massage is also a traditional cultural practice in Thailand and forms an important part of both traditional Thai health and medicine. Massage parlors are very common across Thailand especially within the tourist destinations of Chiang Mai, Phuket and Bangkok.
However, Thai People enjoy other forms of recreation and sports including football, Muay Thai (i.e. Thai Boxing), basketball, volleyball, Thai chess and visiting the cinema.
Learning some basic information about Thailand culture can greatly enhance your Thailand vacation experience whilst preventing any potential embarrassment by inadvertently breaking any Thai social rules. A few Thai cultural norms are noted below.
Thai people show very little physical affection towards each other whilst in public such as kissing or hugging although some friends do hold hands when walking.
Pointing is considered rude in Thailand culture so refrain from pointing when in social situations.Touching a person on the head is also considered rude because the head is understood to be the most respected part of the body.
In the same way it is not polite to point your feet at Thai people because the feet are considered as being dirty and the lowest part of the body. Thus, when sitting, care should be taken not to point your feet at the person sitting opposite you.
Conflict and anger are to be avoided in Thai culture so refrain from exhibiting such emotions with Thai people as this may cause them embarrassment or worse to lose face.
By following these simple rules you can ensure that you won't offend anyone and you will find it easier to interact with Thai people.