Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Social Etiquette - do's and don'ts and some useful tips...

This is going to be a long one. I really should have posted something like this right at the start of the blog, to make it somewhat more useful for visitors to Thailand.
The Thai people are well known for their tolerance, hospitality and cheerfulness. They will ignore the small blunders of social etiquette that you are certain to make. For the average tourist it’s very difficult to go wrong. Just smile a lot, avoid confrontation, and don’t insult the religion or monarchy of the country. Here are a few specific do’s and don’ts worth pointing out.

I've modified and added to the text and included photos, but I thank www.thailand.com for the inspiration and much of their original article.

Firstly, some explanation of the photo below. Fashion-wise, yellow was the new black in Thailand in 2006 when this photo was taken, and wearing of yellow shirts has continued until now, mainly on Mondays. Yellow shirts honour the country's beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej on the 60th anniversary of his ascension to the throne.

Ordinary Thais, showed their allegiance to the king by heeding a government-encouraged 2006 campaign to wear yellow shirts. Yellow is the king's birth color, traditionally corresponding to the day he was born, a Monday.

The King recently left hospital dressed in a pink blazer. Within hours, pink polo shirts emblazoned with the royal insignia were available on practically every street corner in Bangkok. Pink, however, has so far failed to replace yellow as the preferred royalist hue.

  • All members of the Royal Family are held in the highest reverence in Thailand and visitors should show similar respect. Negative remarks about the monarchy may be considered lese majeste, an offence carrying severe punishment in Thailand. When the national anthem is played, at 8.00 am and 6.00 pm everyday and at public events or in cinemas, for example, you are expected to stand. The best guide is to check what other people are doing and follow suit.
  • Do not insult religion in any way, whether it be the majority religion, Buddhism, or any of the minority faiths. It is an offence to commit any act that may be considered insulting to a religion. For the traveler, this means respectful conduct in temples or any location containing religious images.

  • All Buddha images, large or small, are considered sacred. Don’t climb atop or pose for photos in front of images of the Buddha. Adopt a comic pose in front of a Buddha image and you risk arrest. Always dress neatly in temples – shorts and sleeveless or strappy tops are considered inappropriate. Do not wear shoes inside the main chapel of a temple where the principal Buddha image is kept. It’s OK to wear shoes in the temple compound.

No matter how far you've traveled, posing in front of a Buddha image is a no no.

In Samui and big cities such as Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Western customs are well known and widely accepted. Upcountry, traditional customs and social behaviour are still used. Here are a few customs to keep in mind.

  • Thais greet each other with a wai, a prayer-like, palms-together gesture with fingertips touching in front of one's face or chest, not a handshake. The wai is a greeting, and a way of showing respect or thanks. But it's more complicated than that. If you return a wai to a child or someone of much lower social status, for example, you may feel you're striking a blow for equality; actually you're just embarrassing the person. Generally, a younger person wais an elder or senior person, who may then return the gesture. If you're unsure whether to return a wai or not, you might be better off just smiling instead. Even though most Thais are familiar with the Western handshake, a wai is always appreciated.

  • Thais regard the head as the highest part of the body, literally and figuratively. Don’t touch Thais on the head, even playfully. If you accidentally touch someone’s head, offer an apology immediately.
  • Similarly, the foot is considered the lowest part of the body. Don’t use your feet to point at either people or objects. Don’t touch anyone with your feet. Don’t rest your feet on tables or chairs. Don’t step over people – always walk around or politely ask them to move. When sitting on the floor, try to tuck your feet underneath and to the side so they’re not pointing at anyone.
  • When handing objects to people, use both hands or the right hand only. Do not slide or toss objects across the room. Get up and pass them in person, no matter how inconvenient this may seem.
  • Public displays of affection are frowned upon. Some Thai couples may be seen holding hands, but this is the extent of public affection in polite society. Kissing in public is not acceptable behaviour.
  • In Thai society, losing your temper or even speaking loudly is a sign of poor breeding. Keeping ‘face’ is of paramount importance. Never raise your voice or show anger, it will get you nowhere. Keeping cool, hiding your emotions and smiling is far more productive.

  • The Thais place great importance on personal cleanliness and appearance. Tank tops, singlets, shorts and the like are considered inappropriate dress everywhere except at a beach resort. Going topless or nude at the beach (or anywhere else) is seen as disrespectful to the local people. It’s also illegal.

  • Closer to home, Speedos should not be worn on the beach or in public areas of Baan Bophut - Lucy has banned them. Want to test the system? Go ahead, wear your budgie-smugglers and open yourself up to public ridicule.

Thanks to itravelnet.com for the pic: We're not the only hotel in Bophut to ban Speedos

  • When visiting someone’s home or at certain offices and shops, it’s polite to remove your shoes at the entrance. If you see shoes arranged on the floor at the door, don’t wait to be asked– remove your shoes before entering.
  • Monks are forbidden to touch or be touched by a woman. A woman wishing to present something to a monk or novice should put it directly into the bowl or place it on a piece of cloth that can be retrieved by the monk. Alternatively, she can give the offering to a male who would pass it to the monk.

  • By all means visit a mosque, Muslims will welcome your interest. Men should cover their head and women should be well-covered with slacks or a long skirt, a long-sleeved blouse buttoned to the neck, and a head-scarf. Shoes or sandals must be left at the entrance and the mosque entered barefoot. Worshippers should wash their feet, hands and face in the prescribed manner. Non-muslim visitors need not.
  • Tipping is customary in Thailand, although perhaps not to the extent or magnitude that is practised in many western countries. Other than in Koh Samui, public taxi rates are metered, and both Thais and local expats commonly round off the fare upwards as a tip. Koh Samui taxis operate a cartel and have agreed have minimum charges between towns, making it advisable to agree the price before your journey.
  • High-end tourist oriented restaurants and major hotels may include a ten percent service charge in the bill. At all restaurants except for soup shops and roadside food stalls, Thai people will leave a tip of coins left over from paying a bill. If a restaurant is more upscale, with professional waiting staff, a cash tip - perhaps less than ten percent - is usually offered.

  • For hotels in busy tourist areas, it's customary to tip hotel staff. Upcountry hotel staff may not expect tips, but of course they always welcome a few baht in appreciation of their efforts. For example, it is customary to tip the bellboy 10 or 20 baht for carrying a load of heavy baggage up to your room, and this is practised by Thai guests even at smaller upcountry hotels and resorts.
  • Bear in mind that the majority of workers in the hospitality and service industries in Thailand earn very little, so a small tip goes a long way. Of course, if the service is unacceptable (which is unlikely) then don't tip. It doesn't hurt to give a little. And the smile of appreciation will light up your day.

  • The temperature in Samui can sometimes reach 40 degrees with high humidity. If you’re sightseeing, take along plenty of bottled water to avoid dehydrating. Sunglasses and sunscreen are a must at all times.
  • Be wary of the ice in cold drinks outside of resort areas. We've never had a problem with outsourced ice on Samui, but upcountry ice can be 'homemade' or come from unhygienic sources and is best avoided. Commercially produced ice cubes with holes through them are generally OK.
  • When you’re eating out in the evenings, watch out for mosquitoes. Ask the waiter to put a mosquito coil under the table to discourage them. Wearing pale coloured slacks and DEET based mosquito repellant will also keep the varmints at bay.
  • Sightseeing or shopping in the heat all day can be exhausting, physically and mentally. It's a good idea to rejuvenate yourself - all of you, or just your feet - with a traditional Thai massage at one of the many shops close to the hotel. A two-hour massage costs less than ten dollars at one of the massage parlors in the Fisherman's Village. Upcountry and in Bangkok it costs even less. It's a good idea to select a masseuse that displays a certificate from the school of medicinal massage at Wat Pho, Bangkok.

  • A good way to escape from the heat for a while is to go in a barber's shop and get a haircut. Most places will include a soothing shampoo and scalp massage. The cost? About five dollars. Visit Jo in the village, just past 7-11 and, for a bit more, you can also get a manicure or pedicure.
  • If you're approached you on the street by someone offering to sell you something, particularly gems or jewelry, just smile, say 'Mai auw khap' (or ka) - a polite 'I don't need' and walk away. Go to a shop and buy them instead. They’re more likely to be genuine and you’ll probably get a better price.
  • Don’t get angry if someone on the street shouts 'Hey you!' to attract your attention. They don’t realize they’re being impolite. 'You' is translated from the Thai word 'khun' which is a normal and polite form of address in Thai.
  • Don’t be surprised if someone addresses you by your first name, like Mr John or Miss Jennifer, or the by the Thai version. Thais normally address one another using first names only, usually with the title 'Khun' in front. Surnames are not commonly used as a mode of address and, so difficult is it alter this mindset, that we've given up trying to persuade our Receptionist. Inevitably, guests are booked into the hotel by their first name.
  • You’ll notice after a short while in Thailand that Thais have three names—a first name, a surname and a nickname. The nickname, usually something short and catchy like Noi or Lek, is given at birth and is used universally among family members and friends. These diminutives are frequently unflattering. At Baan Bophut the nicknames of our three housekeeping girls - Som, Moo and Gluay translate to Orange, Pig and Banana.

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