Thai Culture

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Thailand Culture Overview:

Thai culture may seem similar to western culture on the surface, however a lot of people travel to Thailand and don’t realize the culture is vastly different here from that of western culture. There are exceptions to every rule of course but this guide has been designed for our trip leaders to best prepare them for their time in Thailand; whether on a U30X trip or personal time.

Thai Cultural Basics:

Greeting the Thai way
  • The wai, or pressing your palms together at chest or nose level and bowing your head slightly, is a gesture that you will encounter almost immediately upon arrival in Thailand. It denotes respect, or reverence when performed in front of a Buddha image, and can be used to express a hello, thank you, or goodbye.
Religious objects
  • You’ll see a lot of religious sites as well as small altars in homes, hotels, businesses, etc. all throughout Thailand, as the country is about 95% Theravada Buddhist. Avoid touching or disturbing these altars, that often contain fruit, food, garlands, or even money.
  • Many Thais worship Buddha images and don amulets for protection.  Some Thais can be highly superstitious, fearing disruption of harmonious balance if this items are disrespected.
Bodily conduct
  • In the Buddhist faith, the head is considered the most sacred part of the body while the feet are the lowest, as they represent base attachment to the earth, the cause of human suffering.  For those reasons, avoid touching someone on the head as it is considered highly offensive, and don’t raise or point your feet at someone or any religious objects. Also, don’t ever step over someone’s outstretched or crossed legs in Thailand – it’s more polite to walk around them.
  • Always remove your shoes before entering someone’s home or a religious site, leaving them by the front door.
  • Thai people pay extra attention to be dressed properly.  Please respect them for their effort and follow their example. Thai people may not mind as much in the touristy areas and beaches, however, once out of these areas please dress appropriately, especially at temples and religious sites.
Reverence for the Royal Family and National Pride
  • King Bhumibol (Rama IX) passed away in October 2016.  He was highly revered having served for more than 60 years.  Throughout Thailand this loss of the “country’s father” can still be felt.  His son, King Vajiralongkorn has since ascended to the throne.
  • Thailand is a constitutional monarchy and they take respect for their King and royal family seriously.  Royal family images are everywhere, from posters plastered on the exterior of buildings to photos displayed on taxi dashboards.  Travelers should also refrain from making disparaging remarks about the royals.
  • To encourage nationalism, the Thai government introduced several practices for all of its citizens, like broadcasting the national anthem twice a day. When the anthem is played at those times, everyone – workers, pedestrians, drivers in traffic, and students are expected to stop and stand. While it may not be required for foreigners to stop what they are doing in observance at these times, too, it would be polite.
Sabai-sabai and mai-pen-rai
  • Sabai-sabai is a universal Thai phrase that means something along the lines of “take it easy”, “relax”.  You will hear many Thai saying it as it serves as a friendly reminder of the best vibes Thailand has to offer.
  • Mai-pen-rai is the Thai phrase for “nevermind”.  It’s another way the people communicate the Thai philosophy of keeping cool, looking at the bright and humorous side of things, and letting worries slip away.

What you should know

Keeping your cool
  • Raising your voice is unacceptable in Thailand and considered an act of losing control.  Quiet and humble is always the best approach.
  • Losing one’s emotions or coming to anger easily are very bad indicators of character in Thailand and therefore, disrespectful.
  • Two thai phrase come into play here:  jai-yen which means cool heart and jai-rawn which translates to hot heart.
Take risks on the food (sometimes)
  • A huge part of the allure of Thailand is the food. I mean, who doesn't love Thai food?
  • You'll hear a lot of warnings about food consumption before you go to Thailand. While you should tread a bit lightly at first to let your stomach adjust, don't let the fear of Bangkok Belly take away from your experience! The street food in Thailand is amazing.
  • You can get a big dinner for about one to two dollars at a street stall, and that's where you'll taste the real Thailand.
There are lots of stray soi (alley) dogs
  • You’re going to run into at least a handful of these homeless dogs. Lesions, fleas, rashes: these are just some of the conditions street dog are suffering from. Caring locals provide food and water for a great number of these dogs, but many are still neglected.
  • Do not attempt to pet a stray dog.  Best practice is to let it be, unless you are certain who the owner is.
  • Do not walk alone after dark down small alleyways.
Bargain responsibly
  • Bartering in Thailand can be fun. There are few places in the Western world that allow you exchange numbers back and forth with a merchant until you both agree on a price. That being said, there is always a time and a place to fight for a discount.
  • If something doesn’t have a visible price tag, you should definitely suggest a merchant go lower for an item than what they originally say. If you’re blatantly making a merchant uncomfortable or bartering is no longer friendly banter, move onto the next shop.
  • Remember, a dollar or two most likely means more to the market vendor than it does to you.
Bring your own toilet paper
  • You'll definitely be able to find your fair share of western-style toilets in Thailand, but you'll also encounter a ton of Asian squat toilets, which essentially are tiny holes in the ground you must aim for when using the bathroom. (all accommodations on U30X trips will have western-style toilets)
  • Toilet paper is a rare thing in most of the bathrooms in Thailand.
  • Many of the public bathrooms in Thailand consist of only squat toilets, Many restrooms have bum guns (essentially hoses used in place of toilet paper)
  • Recommend carrying a small packet of tissue or wet wipes with you at all times.
Sexual tolerance
  • Thailand has long enjoyed a reputation for sexual tolerance, based more on non-confrontational (as opposed to progressive) attitudes.
  • Transsexuals, also known as kathoeys or ladyboys, are highly visible in mainstream society, they represent a widely accepted and recognized subgroup in Thai society that greatly contribute to the culture.
  • The country is very safe for LGBT travelers.
Photo Ethics
  • We encourage our travelers to try their best to make connections and truly experience the moment before beginning to take photos.
  • Thai people tend to be more passive and less confrontational than westerners. When taking pictures, you must respect personal space and ask for permission. Try and have a conversation with a stranger before taking their photo.
  • When photographing monks or Buddha relics in a temple, one must take a knee or simply lower oneself to shoot the photograph. Always ask permission before you take photographs of a prayer ceremony.


*Note on politeness:  Men always end their sentences with “krap” and women always end with their sentences with “ka”.  So a man would say “sa-wat-dee krap” as a greeting, and a women would say “sa-wat-dee ka”.

Common Phrases and Everyday Language in Thai:

Hello -- sa-wat-dee

Thank you -- khob khun

How are you? -- sabai-dee mai

I am fine. -- sabai-dee

Sorry / Excuse me -- khor toat

No, I don’t want -- mai ow

Bathroom -- hong nam

Eat rice -- gin kow

Nevermind -- mai pen rai

Relax / take it easy -- sabai sabai

Spicy -- phet

Delicious -- aroy

How much does it cost? -- ah nee tao rai

Can you discount? -- lot ra ka hai noi

Having fun? -- sanook mai

Good luck -- chok dee

Numbers in Thai (helpful for bargaining):

One -- nueng

Eleven -- sip et

One hundred -- nueng roi

Two -- sawng

Twelve -- sip sawang

Two hundred -- sawng roi

Three -- saam

Thirteen -- sip saam

Three hundred -- saam roi

Four -- si

Twenty -- yi sip

Four hundred -- si roi

Five -- ha

Fifty -- ha sip

fifty four -- ha sip si

Six -- hok

Sixty -- hok sip

Sixty six -- hok sip hok

Seven -- jet

Seventy -- jet sip

Seventy one -- jet sip et

Eight -- baat

Eighty -- baat sip

Eight hundred -- baat roi

Nine -- gaow

Nineteen --  sip gaow

Ninety nine -- gaow sip gaow

Ten -- sip

One Thousand - nueng paan

One Million - nueng laan