The idea first comes to you on a lazy Saturday afternoon when you’re sprawled on your couch slurping Thai food out of a white to-go container: “This food is amazing. I should go to Thailand sometime.” What starts as just a passing thought in between binge-watching episodes on Netflix soon takes root in your brain, and before long, a Thailand vacation is all you can think about. Reading about stunning ancient temples and luxurious white sand beaches only re-enforces the plan to jet off to one of Asia’s best-loved countries.
No need to panic if you haven’t done as much research as you planned to on etiquette and cultural norms to follow as you travel the country. Follow these tips and you’ll fit right in with the locals in no time:
Don’t Make Jokes
If the rest of the world was ranking North America’s reverence for sacred and sensitive things on a scale from one to 10, we could probably count our final score on a single hand. Nothing is off-limits to us when it comes to humor, and while this approach may make our buddies fall off the couch laughing, it’s not going to make you any friends when you travel.
Thailand has its fair share of religious and traditional rituals that may seem silly or odd to a visitor, but you’re not going to break the ice by giggling at them. As a general rule, don’t make fun of the Thai religion, traditions, or royal family, even as a silly joke. What may seem like a harmless one-liner to you could be deeply offensive to a local.
Try to Smile, Thai Style
If that last section made you think you were about to spend two weeks with a bunch of constantly-offended cranks, let’s set the record straight on that. Thai people are some of the friendliest in the world. They love showing off their English, recommending great tourist places, and helping you hail a taxi. If anything, they think we’re the cranky ones!
Some of us are cursed with that phenomenon known as — well, its actual name is a little too crass to use in polite company, so let’s call it “chronic grump face.” It means that our natural resting face looks perpetually pissed off, like we just finished watching the fourth “Indiana Jones” movie. We’re not actually grumpy or angry, but we sure don’t look happy.
One of Thailand’s nicknames is “The Land of Smiles,” and the moment you step off the plane you’ll see that it’s aptly named. When you approach people, do it with a friendly smile, which is considered both polite and kind. Even if you just want directions, your natural “grump face” may unintentionally come across as angry or aggressive to a local, so show off those pearly whites.
Keep Cool in Hot Weather
While we do recommend you pack light, airy clothes for your stay, we’re not really talking about the Thailand weather when it comes to keeping your cool. Thai culture is one of the least confrontational ones you’ll ever encounter. In some big cities like New York or Dublin, shouting matches between locals are almost par for the course, and speaking sternly and directly gets results when the waiter brings you the wrong dish or someone cuts you off in traffic.
Conflict is avoided at all costs in Thailand, so if you make a scene or get assertive, you’ll be a leper. You may get your problem fixed because Thai culture is also very accommodating, but you won’t be making any friends or get to experience genuine Thai hospitality. If something’s bothering you, stay calm and be as polite as you possibly can about it — we’re talking “visiting Grandma” polite. Don’t worry, everyone will end up happy, and you’ll feel surprisingly Zen when just a few moments ago you were fuming.
Sure, visiting temples, beaches, and local restaurants is fun, but if you’re not mingling with the locals too, you might just as well grab some cheap Thai food and go to a lake. Embrace the Thai way of life while you explore the country, and you might just find that their calm, friendly attitude sticks around even when you’re back home.
Have you ever committed a cultural faux pas during your travels?