To most western tourists visiting Thailand, the Thai people are a friendly happy go lucky people. However, you have to bear in mind that they come from a culture that is very different to that of most western visitors to their country, and as such what may seem completely innocuous and harmless to a westerner can be perceived as rude and insensitive by Thais. Conversely what Thais can see as completely normal behaviour may seem by western standards as totally unacceptable. Most of these misunderstandings are due to cultural differences, and don’t forget that it is incumbent upon the visitor to adapt to the society that they are visiting – not the other way around, as the old saying goes “when in Rome ….”
Culturally as Buddhists, the Thai people view the human body very differently than westerners. For Thais, the head is the highest point in the body and the purest, and the feet are considered the lowest and the dirtiest. It is considered rude to use your feet for anything, as such do not point anything out with your feet, nudge anything with them, or even hold a door open with your feet. If you visit a temple do not sit with your feet towards the Buddha, instead sit with them crossed or with them tucked behind you.
If you have ever attended any Thai festivals such as Songkran, it may seem to you that Thailand is a completely open and free society; however, this is not quite true since culturally, it is still a very conservative country. As such, public displays of affection are frowned upon by most Thais. While it is acceptable to hold the hand of your other half in public, kissing and hugging should not be done; in temple grounds, everything, even holding hands, is considered quite improper.
The concept of face, and saving face or losing face is very common across most Asian countries, including Thailand. It is important when dealing with Thais to not lose face in front of them and not to pressure them into losing face in front of you. To do so may have negative consequences. While what causes someone to lose face is quite broad, most cases will fall into one of the following:
Losing your temper in public
Visibly showing annoyance or frustration in public
Being perceived to not know or understand something
Appearing to have failed at a task or an objective
Appearing to have made errors or mistakes
While this may seem unusual or benign to westerners, the Thai culture takes it seriously, so be polite and give people a way out to save face in front of everyone.
Religion plays an important role in Thai life, the vast majority of Thais are Buddhist and very reverential towards anything to do with the Buddha. As a result, it is important to show respect and due deference at all times to any images or symbols of the Buddha. It is actually considered a criminal offence to be sacrilegious towards the Buddha and Buddhism in general. Generally, when you visit a temple you should be highly respectful, never touch a monk or use flash photography.
Women temple visitors should wear long trousers or a long skirt, have their shoulders covered, and should also not wear sandals. If there are monks in the temple, then try and speak in a hushed voice or whisper and be respectful.
While you wander around on your travels around Thailand, you might find that perfect attractive stylish Buddha statue or figurine that would just make the perfect addition to your travel wall at home. Be very aware about this: while the shop owner may be happy to haggle with you and sell you the object, you can end up in hot water when you try to fly home. What most of these vendors do not tell you, is that strictly by the book it is illegal to take images of the Buddha out of the country, and whilst you might assume that this is an insignificant offence and minor risk to get your statue back home, if caught at the airport not only will you lose your statue, but you could be faced with a hefty fine or even worse depending how things go with the police.