Thailand is famous the world over for sugar-soft beaches, spicy street food, golden temples, and the hospitality of the Thai people. It’s called The Land of Smiles for a reason.
Still, to keep in those good graces, a little familiarity with local etiquette can go a long way as you explore Thailand. Jenn Saesue, the Bangkok-born restaurateur who just co-opened New York’s Fish Cheeks, recently served us a sampling of Thai etiquette for travelers—along with her family-style seafood.
Respect for Elders: “There’s a lot of emphasis placed on respect for one’s elders,” says Saesue. “Around older people, even when (or especially when) you don’t know someone, you should bow slightly and say ‘hello.’”
Bowing: When greeting someone as the Thai do, you don’t shake hands. “Our greeting is just your hands placed together, like you would in prayer,” says Saesue, “and then you just give a little head nod, bending very slightly at the shoulders. We don’t bow to the waist, like you might see in Japan.”
Gestures: The middle finger in Thailand is the same as the middle finger in America. “Other than that universally offensive gesture, we don’t have any particular hand signals that could be misconstrued to get you into trouble,” Saesue says.
Hands off Heads: “You should avoid touching anyone’s head. For Buddhists, the top of the head is represents your highest part, and it’s sacred,” she says. “For very young kids, it’s OK if you know them, but you would never touch another adult’s head.”
Watch Your Feet: If your head is your highest and most sacred point, your feet are your lowest. “Never, ever put your feet near someone’s head,” notes Saesue. Also, in a temple, you should not have the bottoms of your feet readily visible; be sure to sit with your legs crossed or bent underneath you.
Public Displays of Affection: You’ll find an easy-going, friendly culture in Thailand, as long as you keep your behavior discreet. According to Saesue, it’s fine to hug or to hold hands, but anything beyond that should be done in the privacy of a home or hotel room.
Dressing for Temples: While a V-neck top and knee-length skirt are appropriate for Thailand’s hot weather, that kind of attire can be off-putting to local worshippers. “You shouldn’t have anything shorter than a short-sleeve top, and no part of your chest should be showing,” advises Saesue. “Likewise, you should have capri-length pants or longer visiting any holy place.”
Respecting Royalty: “They do so much for our country,” explains Saesue. “The king’s created so many organizations for the impoverished; we really love him.” And Queen Sirikit, who turned 84 in August, has done her part as well, including commissioning the Museum of Textiles to help preserve traditional Thai artistry. Thai people wouldn’t desecrate a photo of the Royal Family, nor would they speak out harshly against them. “As a tourist, you should absolutely avoid doing so,” she says.
Haggling: “You should definitely bargain or haggle over a price, even if you are not Thai,” laughs Saesue. “Bargaining is a fun part of our culture. Now, in China, you might expect to get down to half-off of the first suggested price. But I’d say in Thailand, expect a seller to come down 30% at most.”
Chivalry’s Not Dead: “We have a similar discussion going on in now Bangkok as we do here in the U.S. between men and women,” says Saesue. “The equality conversation is there, but it’s still expected that men should act like gentlemen towards ladies—that’s a huge thing in Thai culture.” You heard it here, guys: Open a cab door or a hotel door, pull out a chair, and you’re likely to make an appealing first impression.