A Mini Traveller’s Guide to Thailand’s Culture and Customs

Many people choose to begin their Thailand holidays in Bangkok, opting to witness the organised chaos of this fascinating city before moving on to the beautiful beaches of Phuket and Koh Samui. Despite the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, it’s important to remember that the Thai are deeply cultural and religious people and local customs should be respected.

Thai people rawing the boat

However, for the uninitiated traveller, these customs are often unknown. Some people may prefer to have their journey organised in advance and use Thailand holiday packages. However, they don’t include the kind of grass roots information that will help you to not only experience but take part in the local culture and customs in an authentic and respectful way.

Which is why we have set out to demystify Thailand’s most common cultural practices and customs.

#1 The Universal Greeting.

Thai people use a universal greeting known as the ‘wai’ to show respect or to say hello, goodbye or thank you. It also demonstrates reverence when used before an image of Buddha. It’s as simple as bringing your palms together at about chest or nose height and performing a slight bow of the head.

Everywhere you go in Thailand you will encounter this greeting as it is an important part of the Thai etiquette and the locals will be particularly impressed with visitors who make the effort to greet them in this way.

#2 Respect The Royals.

Thailand is ruled as a constitutional monarchy and as such, the royal family is highly revered. The King is particularly adored for being a humble ruler who has dedicated sixty years of his life to serving his public.

Thai girls wearing traditional Thai clothes
Thai girls wearing traditional Thai clothes

Images of the King are everywhere in Thailand, from photos on the dashboards of taxis to posters that cover the facades of buildings. As a sign of respect, the King’s anthem is played before all sporting events, concerts and movies and it is the height of disrespect not to stand while it is playing.

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Visitors should also never make negative comments about the royal family as Thailand operates under lèsemajesté law. Strictly enforced, any affront to the royals is a punishable offense and could even result in imprisonment.

#3 Patriotic Practices.

Whilst the Thai people revere their royals, it seems the government doesn’t feel its citizens are patriotic enough. In an effort to encourage nationalism amongst its people, the government has introduced a number of practices over the last decade.

One of the most obvious examples of this type of patriotism by institution is the broadcasting of the Thai national anthem twice a day. People are required to stand or stop whatever they are doing whenever the anthem is played.

Recently efforts to increase patriotism have been further boosted by a number of generals who are campaigning for traffic to also stop when the anthem is played. With the majority of Thai people already spending a fair bit of time in traffic jams, the generals argue it will cause little disruption.

#4 ColorByDay.

Inspired by legends from the Hindu religion that pre-dated the Buddhist movement, certain colors are positively associated with different days of the week. You’re most likely to notice this on a Monday when many Thai people honour the day the King was born by wearing yellow clothing.

a Thai man smiling
No wonder Thailand is called the Land of Smiles

Other colors that are worn include pink on Tuesdays and light blue on Fridays to acknowledge the day on which the Queen was born. More recently, political unrest has also given the color red a certain and less-favourable significance, associated with oppositional movements.

#5 A Problem-Free Philosophy.

Thailand has adopted the unofficial philosophy of ‘Mai pen rai’, a phrase that roughly translates to ‘never mind’. With a reputation for handling stressful or challenging situations with calm and composure, the Thai people prefer to see the ‘bigger picture’ and not worry about matters that have little significance in the grand scheme.

This laidback attitude complements the Thai people’s inherent sense of humour which is evident in all aspects of their daily life. Preferring not to take things too seriously, the Thai people believe that no matter what it is you’re doing it should involve an element of fun (sanuk).

A Thai cook in the kitchen
Any problems?

#6 LGBT – It’s Not A Sandwich.

Thailand is renowned for its transsexual entertainers who are a tourist attraction in themselves and although the country seems to have quite a liberal attitude towards this topic, it is mainly based on Thai people’s non-confrontational nature rather than a progressive attitude.

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In saying that, Thailand is a safe destination for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender travelers and the local ‘ladyboys’ as they are known, are not only prominent fixtures of mainstream society but also reach celebrity status for some of the higher profile performers.

#7 Look But Don’t Touch.

The majority of the Thai population practice the Buddhist religion of the Theravada school however a number of animist practices have also been adopted into the local religion. Although religious teachings discourage attachment to material objects, many of the Thai people wear protection amulets and worship images or statues of Buddha.

Thai lady

Most houses, shops and offices feature some kind of spirit house or altar and offerings such as garlands and food are made to please the spirits the Thai people believe inhabit the land. Some Thai people are very superstitious so visitors should not touch religious displays as the local people believe this can disrupt harmonious balance.

# 8 Body Matters.

According to Buddhist principles, the feet are the least valued part of the body as they symbolise attachment to the earth, which the Thai people believe is the reason for human suffering. On the other hand, the most valued part of the body is the head. As such, it is highly offensive to touch someone’s head or to raise your feet to point at religious objects or people.

Although most types of clothing are tolerated in tourist areas, all tourists wishing to visit shrines and temples should cover up and be aware that short skirts, sleeveless tops and flip flops may prevent them from entering. Shoes should also be removed when entering religious structures or homes.

IMG 6967

Certain sacred places display signs that prohibit women from entering and visitors should not be offended by this practice. Women who would like to worship at these sites must do so from outside the building. It is also taboo for women to touch or pass things directly to a monk, however polite conversation is permitted.

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#9 Many Monikers.

Although Thai people generally address each other by their first names, this is always followed by the respectful title of ‘Khun’. Used when referring to both men and women, this title is used in place of western titles such as ‘Miss’, ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’.

More traditional Thai nicknames are inspired by fruit, colors and animals such as Lek (small), Daneng (red) or Moo (pig) however more modern monikers used by the Thai include values and virtues such as Money, Good and Benz (yes, as in the deluxe automobile).

#10 Hygiene Habits.

Often a delicate topic with travelers, it’s important to be informed about the toilet and hygiene basics of any country you intend on visiting, particularly in Thailand where the standards are very different. Although most public toilets and hotels in the larger cities offer more modern facilities, things change the further out you get.

Outside of the cities, squat toilets are the main options available and are ‘flushed’ by sluicing water from a bucket provided down into the hole. Unlike western toilets, used toilet paper is to be thrown in a bin that is also provided, not flushed. Most of the ‘plumbing’ for these squat toilets are not equipped to handle toilet paper, so do not make the mistake of attempting to flush it.

Rather than a shower or bath, traditional washrooms consist of just a water trough and bowl or ladle to pour water over your body. There are even some areas in Thailand where bathing outdoors is a normal practice and men will usually bathe in their underwear while women will wear a cotton wraparound or sarong.

The key to enjoying any holiday in a foreign country is to be prepared and forewarned.

Have you visited Thailand? If so, what was the weirdest custom you’ve experienced?


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Picture of Agness Walewinder
Agness Walewinder
Travel freak, vagabond, photography passionate, blogger, life enthusiast, backpacker, adventure hunter and endless energy couchsurfer living by the rule "Pack lite, travel far and live long!"
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49 thoughts on “A Mini Traveller’s Guide to Thailand’s Culture and Customs”

  1. Avatar of Kymee Martinak

    I love this, thank you for the heads up. I have to file this with my bucket list. Maybe I can share it with someone that will be able to go before me.

    I like the part where they wear different colors for the different days of the week. There really where really a lot of great traditions. Thanks again for sharing.

    Kymee ;o)

    1. Avatar of Agness Walewinder
      Agness Walewinder

      We certainly loved the idea of different colors for the different days. That made Thailand a very colorful place.

    1. Avatar of Agness Walewinder
      Agness Walewinder

      Are you heading to Thailand this spring? Awesome!! I would recommend Koh Phangan Island, it’s cheap, beautiful and not that busy :)x!

  2. Avatar of Kle

    Ohhh i love Thailand! after 5 months in a secluded village i smiled whilst reading each point! i’ve had so many diplomatic incidents because i didnt know their culture very well! And i should add to the list.. if you become friend with thai people you should refrain from hugging them an kissing them like we do. They are very private when it comes to show their affection and you may let them. feel uncomfortable :) I didnt know that and, as Italian we hug and kiss everyone! you should have seen the almost scared faces of the poor Thai people!!

    ting tong Klelia :) ( meaning crazy!)

    1. Avatar of Agness Walewinder
      Agness Walewinder

      Hahaha, you are crazy!! I know how much you loved to be and travel in Thailand. These 5 months must have been a great adventure for you. I admire you a lot, you know that? As for Thai people, thanks for sharing. That’s something I have not noticed when in Bangkok.

  3. Avatar of Grace

    A great read! I always love your travel stories – it makes me feel like I’m actually there. Thailand is high up on my list of places to visit :)

  4. Avatar of Rachel M

    I have noticed Thailand happens to be a very popular destination among travel bloggers.

    Excellent guide nevertheless, one to go by in the event i ever get a chance to visit Thailand.

  5. Avatar of Mike | Earthdrifter

    The wei is my favorite greeting on earth.

    In any monarchy, just don’t use the word king, queen and royalty. Avoid the subject. I find it’s safest to not talk about a country’s politics, even if the native person you’re talking to is a genuine friend.

  6. Avatar of Heather

    Fabulous tips! Given Thailand’s “anything goes” reputation, I was surprised by how conservative the country actually is. Visitors should respect that by dressing appropriately at temples and important sites. Also be sure to stand for the national anthem at movies and other events!

  7. Avatar of Sand In My Suitcase

    Great tips! The Thai people are lovely – so warm and welcoming. We love the “wai” greeting. We should import that custom to North America and have it replace the handshake – would help avoid passing along bugs during flu season :-).

  8. Avatar of Jennifer

    I love thailand and i think its great how much they respect the king. We went to the cinema twice in bangkok and before each screening everyone stands up to sing the kings anthem. Its amazing :)

  9. Avatar of Franca

    When we heard the Thai national anthem being played loud in the streets and we saw everybody stopping to pay respect, we felt kind of weird. I didn’t really like the act itself, but we did the same of course, we stopped and waited for the music to finish to respect the local traditions.

  10. Avatar of Earl Moorhouse

    You deserve a pat on the back for this article! As a veteran traveller, I have observed how rude some travellers can be, intentionally or unintentionally, when visiting countries that are foreign to them. Sometimes this is purely due to ignorance. Travellers should always respect the customs and traditions of whatever country they are visiting. Your piece about Thailand should be essential reading for those about to visit for the first time . . . or even for those who think they know the country! Well done.

    1. Avatar of Agness Walewinder

      Hey Earl! Thanks for stopping by. Unfortunately some tourists and backpackers can be extremely rude to locals and it’s not only about Thailand. Yes, I agree that the ignorance is the main reason of this problem. We do should respect the customs and traditions of every single country we travel to!

  11. Avatar of Mike

    So, I would be addressed as Mike Khun, correct? I love your posts like this that explain each step to be aware of ahead of time, Agness. Sorry, but I can’t get past the squat toilets. That would not work for me as my adventuresome side does have SOME boundaries. I like how you explained the greeting with the palms together. I’ve heard so many wonderful things about Thailand my entire life…maybe someday. Just not a fan of humidity. The Phuket beaches have always been on my bucket list :)

    1. Avatar of Agness Walewinder

      In this case China is a big NO to you. Squat toilets are here everywhere! Never been to Phuket, but spent amazing time on Koh Phangan Island :). That was a heaven on Earth!! <3

  12. Avatar of Stefania - the Italian Backpacker

    Very interesting. I always try to learn about the local culture when I travel. I don’t like people who go to countries like Thailand and don’t make the effort of getting to know habits and traditions.

    Thailand is high on my list of places to visit, by the way. I’m daydreaming of a solo trip there sometime soon!

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