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Whoops! Avoiding cultural faux pas when visiting Thailand

Thais eating together
Thais usually eating together and share food

Thailand is a beautiful country with a rich cultural heritage that attracts millions of tourists every year, certainly as the daily tourist arrivals start to increase agin and airlines add more flights to their schedules.

Despite its popularity as a tourist destination, there are certain cultural differences that can be difficult for western or other foreign visitors to comprehend. Let’s explore some of the key cultural differences that may be challenging for visitors to Thailand to understand.

One of the most noticeable cultural differences is the concept of “face.” In Thai culture, as in other Asian cultures, maintaining face is extremely important. It refers to a person’s reputation, dignity and social status, and losing face can be seen as a major humiliation. As a result, Thai people are often more indirect in their communication, and they may avoid direct confrontation or criticism in order to save face on both sides of the conversation.

Visitors to Thailand should be aware of this cultural norm and should try to be sensitive to it when interacting with locals. Being direct, or overly vocal, with criticism of individuals will usually get a reaction that many foreigners will not understand.

Another important aspect of Thai culture is Buddhism, the country’s most popular ‘religion’ although there is very little comparison between Buddhism and western, theist religions.

Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist country, and Buddhism is deeply ingrained in its customs and traditions. For example, visitors may notice that many Thai people wear amulets or carry religious charms for good luck and protection. Temples and other religious sites are also considered sacred, and visitors should dress appropriately and behave respectfully when visiting these places. Additionally, visitors should avoid pointing their feet at Buddha images or other sacred objects, as this is considered disrespectful (the head being the most sacred part of the body, the feet the ‘dirtiest’ or lowest).

Food is another important aspect of Thai culture, and visitors should be aware of certain customs when dining in Thailand. For example, it is customary to share dishes and take turns serving one another. Visitors should also be aware that Thai food can be quite spicy, and they should be prepared for this when ordering dishes. Finally, visitors should not leave food on their plates as this can be seen as wasteful and disrespectful.

Thais will also be astonished if they find out that you’ve been eating alone as eating together is the cultural norm for workmates and families.

Visitors should also be aware that public displays of affection are not common in Thai culture, and they should avoid overtly romantic gestures in public. This may be in complete contradiction to what some foreigners see and experience in the country’s red light districts. Police may be warning foreign ladies about bathing topless on the beach but, 100 metres away in a bar there are Thai ladies pole dancing and ping pong shows being promoted – these contradictions are just part of the rich Thai cultural fabric, don’t get too stressed trying to figure it all out 🙂

Finally, visitors should be aware of the importance of the Thai monarchy in Thai culture. The Thai royal family is highly revered – and protected by Else Majesty laws . Any criticism or disrespect towards the monarchy can result in serious consequences. Visitors should be careful to avoid making any comments that could be construed as disrespectful towards the monarchy or members of the royal family.

There are plenty of other times you may walk into a cultural faux pas, completely unintended and, most of the time, Thais will laugh it off. But just be sensitive to the differences in Thai culture, acknowledge them and don’t feel inclined to criticise them.

By being respectful and mindful of these cultural differences, visitors can have a more enjoyable and rewarding experience in Thailand.

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