Thailand is a popular choice for those relocating in search of endless sunshine and a low cost of living, and the country offers a destination for everyone. From the concrete jungles of Bangkok and Nonthaburi to rainforests as far as the eye can see, and the idyllic beaches of the southern islands, Thailand is known as the ‘Land of Smiles’ – something that rings true for expats and locals alike.
Thai culture is warm and welcoming but also conservative. While people are keen to save face and avoid confrontations, there are a number of ordinary western habits that can be liable to cause offence. What should you expect from a relocation to Thailand, and what are the dos and don’ts of social etiquette? Here are a few things to keep in mind to make sure you feel at home in no time at all.
From head to toe, there are small notes on body language and behaviour that will help you to make a good impression wherever you are in Thailand.
In Thai culture the head is the most sacred part of the body, and your feet are considered the lowest or dirtiest part. As a result, pointing your feet at someone or raising them higher than someone’s head – for example, by putting them up on a chair – are considered very rude behaviours.
Removing your shoes before entering someone’s home or a temple is absolutely essential, but it isn’t necessary at every business – when entering restaurants and shops, check whether there’s a pile of shoes at the door and whether staff are wearing shoes to help you establish whether it’s okay to wear yours inside or not. As the weather is hot throughout the year in Thailand, wearing sandals or other easy-to-remove shoes is not just comfortable, but also makes it easier to quickly slip them on and off when entering buildings.
Other cultural customs
Other key customs to be aware of are the Wai, and respect for the king. The Wai is a traditional Thai greeting, holding your palms together in front of your face and making a small bow. If someone greets you with a Wai it is rude not to offer one back, and there are three different levels of respect you can pay with this gesture depending on where you hold your hands. One is for friends and equals, another is for elders and those in positions of authority, and the third and final version is reserved for Buddhist monks and the royal family.
The royal family are held in high regard in Thailand, and it is illegal to speak badly of the king. Though Thai people are very forgiving of cultural faux pas made by foreigners, openly disrespecting the king through jokes or questioning his authority can land you in prison and should be avoided.
Eating out and dining with friends
You could be forgiven for assuming that you’ll need to be an expert with chopsticks to get by in Thai restaurants, but this is not the case. Most meals are eaten with a fork in the left hand and spoon in the right, though chopsticks are often available for noodle dishes.
If you’re dining in someone’s home, note that finishing all of the food on your plate suggests you are still hungry. Leaving a few bites lets your host know that you are full, and that they don’t need to make you more food!
While it is perfectly usual to bring a gift if you’re invited to someone’s home, it isn’t mandatory. A host will usually not open a wrapped gift in front of the person who gave it to them, and if you are wrapping presents then avoid using blue, green or black paper – these are colours associated with mourning and saved for use at funerals.
Public health and services
Depending on where you’re relocating from, you may be used to public services that are more modern and well-funded than those you’ll encounter in Thailand. Cities tend to have a fairly reliable infrastructure, with regular bus and train services which are inexpensive to get you around quickly and without the need to haggle over price that can arise from taxis and tuk-tuks. Smaller towns and villages tend to have more sporadic offerings, but are also easy to negotiate by bicycle or moped – both popular forms of transport across Thailand.
Healthcare is more varied, with public services in cities like Bangkok still liable to use outdated equipment and have long waiting lists, while rural areas may lack anything more than a basic pharmacy. Your chances of finding an English-speaking doctor are also lower outside of the big cities, so bear in mind that you may need to put an international health insurance policy in place to ensure you can access good standards of care, and to avoid the need for a translator.
Business culture in Thailand is hierarchical and generally very formal. Punctuality is important, along with dressing conservatively and showing respect through the Wai.
When accepting business cards, do so with your right hand and be sure to look at the card before placing it safely away. The left hand is considered to be associated with cleaning oneself, and if you’re left handed you’ll need to remember to shake hands and to pass items like business cards or money using your right hand instead.
As saving face is important to Thai people in all aspects of life, be careful if there are disagreements within meetings. Patience and respect are paramount, and while interrupting someone or speaking over them is considered rude in most cultures, it is definitely something to avoid in Thailand. If you need to contradict something someone has said, it is best to do so gently and tactfully, ideally in private.
Other notes on lifestyle
Thailand is a country with a rich cultural heritage, and it’s one that local people are keen to share with newcomers. Take advantage of chances to see traditional dancing, try new foods (Isaan Food our own obsession) and explore treasured destinations like the ornate Buddhist temples that cover the country.
Though punctuality is cherished, the pace of life in Thailand is slower than in many western cultures and a simple lifestyle is encouraged. Family life centres around food, and in most areas there is a strong sense of community, with people getting together for meals with neighbours and helping each other with everyday tasks and chores.
While Thai customs such as showing the Wai, saving face, and not pointing your feet towards people can feel strict at first, overall this is a country which values positive relationships and is keen to welcome newcomers. The cost of living is so low that dining out on Thai cuisine and exploring markets, temples and museums won’t break the bank – so settling in should take no time at all.