Rules of Conduction and Taboos in Thailand

Updated 2009-08-26 09:15

There is an English proverb "In Rome you must do like the Romans do". For the Farang in <place w:st="on"><country-region w:st="on">Thailand</country-region></place> it is by no means necessary to fully adapt to Thai customs and traditions, but he should strive to know the main rules of taboo, to be observed when dealing with Thais. The Thai culture is shaped by Buddhism, who as the national religion presents a connecting element of all Thais. But to understand the everyday culture, it is also important to take into account the great importance of animism in the daily activities of the Thais

The Farang may strive as much as possible to observe the multitude of small and large taboos, but nevertheless a mistake will always happen due to his general misunderstanding of how things are in Thai culture. When entering a house or even a temple one will put the feet on the threshold, not incline the head when walking past a sitting person, not greet a monk with a respectful Wai, place a Buddha statue lower than the head of the largest Farang coming along, at the Hua Lamphon Railway Station in Bangkok remain seated and not stand up when the national anthem at 8 am and 6 clock sounds from the loudspeakers, become loud when one has the impression to be seen as stupid, and many other things. One sometimes thinks that simply to be a Farang is already a violation of that what the normal Thai holds for decent.

Despite all efforts, a Farang in <place w:st="on"><country-region w:st="on">Thailand</country-region></place> will act contrary to rule or to violate a taboo. But Thais are relatively tolerant against small violations of taboo by the unknowing Farang, and will ignore it with a smile. A smile helps to survive any problematic or unsafe situation, as well as the frequently used formula "may pen rai" (it does not matter). One should strive nevertheless as much as it is possible to observe the politeness forms usual for Thais. These comprise the following things:

As a basic principle one should respect the religion of other people, and in <country-region w:st="on">Thailand</country-region> respect must be paid to all Lord Buddha images and to the royal family who in <place w:st="on"><country-region w:st="on">Thailand</country-region></place> enjoys almost religious devotion. That one must behave decently when visiting a temple and should not go to the <place w:st="on"><city w:st="on">Temple</city></place> in shorts or transparent blouses. One can safely go into any temple and take photographs of everything, with the exception of the Emerald Buddha in Wat Prah-Kheo, the Thai National Sanctuary. The Thais will not be disrupted in their worship and their prayers, at least as long as one does not show any sort of disrespect to a Buddha statue, no one should ever climb on a statue to get a photo as a souvenir. One should be very cautious not to take photographs of strange people because many Thais believe that with every photo the rightful owner will be deprived of a small piece of his soul. If visiting a temple, one should crouch on the ground opposite of the Buddha statue, but always so that ones feet are directed away of Buddha. The Thais sit with their feet bend to the rear under their bottom, a position which an overweight Farang cannot keep up long time

A monk may absolutely have no physical contact with women. Under no circumstances can a woman touch him; that would bring him serious trouble. This is true even for school boys, donning for a short time, sometimes just one day the, or even just one week the saffron yellow robe in order to make "tam boon"(merit) for a deceased family member. When the grandmother of my wife died, 2 of her grandchildren, just 11 years and 12 years old, went for two weeks as "Nen" in the temple, to pray for the soul of their grandmother. Every afternoon, their mother went to the monastery and brought each of them one a bottle of cocoa, so that their boys would not be starved in the afternoon, because the monks are not allowed to take solid food. She could not place the bottles in the hands of her children, but had to place them to a yellow cloth on the ground before them.

It is also considered unbecoming for laymen to touch a strange person of the opposite gender, even if it is only a friendly gesture as touching the arm. It is also unethical to exchange signs of affection in public, even if it is just a kiss as among spouses. You will often see two young girls or two boys walking hand in hand on the street, but for people of different sex it is considered unseemly to maintain hands in public.

In the head of humans resides their soul. It should therefore not be touched, even if it is the head of a small child. This rule goes so far as to avoid passing things over the head of people - this might be very aggravating in some situations. One gives and takes something with the right hand, while touching with the left hand the right forearm, as wanting to support it. When walking close to sitting people, one should bend the head to indicate that one feels not higher than the others. With persons to whom one shows respect, one will even bent the knees a little bit, or bow the upperparts of the body.

The feet should be used with caution. They are the lowest part of the body, and it is impolite to point with your foot towards something. In public one should even avoid to move things with the feet. When coming from shopping with both arms full, it was difficult for me to open the door, and one piece fell to the ground. As I had no free hand, I pointed with my foot on the fallen part and asked my wife to pick it up. I was then surprised to get only a shake of the head. The disregard of feet appears however particularly funny to the Farang, in a country where the national sport consist of two fighters in the ring are trying to knock out another with their feet.

Even the ignorant tourists would know that before entering into a temple one takes of their shoes. But it is also important to take the shoes off each time before going into a house. This is not only in order not to soil the floor, but because it is an insult to the residents, to enter a house with shoes. Thais usually have no chairs, everybody sits on the floor, and even the food is usually served on the floor. For this reason, great importance is attached to the cleanliness of the soil, and it is a gross discourtesy of the Farang to walk with street shoes into the house. In our village, even every customer takes of his sandals before entering a small supermarket.

Thais have an instinctive aversion to speak about unpleasant things or developments. If I sometimes want to discuss what to do if something negative or even an accident would occur, I always get the answer "puht yah' (don't speak about that). I do not know whether this reluctance to speak about unpleasant things is due to the superstition, that by talking about such things the misfortune will be self-fulfilling, or simply to avoid unpleasant thoughts, according to the motto: "if I shut my eyes, than the evil will go away". Probably both are the case.

Minor errors or misshapes will be put aside with a "mai pen rai" (it doesn't matter). For this one can find the roots in Buddhism. What happens must happen; we can not do anything about it. Why should we then agonize about this? It is fate, karma, probably the reasons had been founded in a previous life. This cannot be corrected, but we will try to do everything in this life properly, so that the next time such a mishap will not happen again.

Something that a Farang must also avoid is too getting loud or to yell when he gets in trouble. For a Thai yelling is aggressive and offensive. To strongly assert one's rights, will often prevent any possibility to obtain this right, especially when dealing with policemen.

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