Tourist literature has marketed Thailand as the “Land of Smiles” so successfully that a lot of farangs arrive in the country expecting to be forgiven any outrageous behaviour. This is just not the case: there are some things so universally sacred in Thailand that even a hint of disrespect will cause deep offence.
It is both socially unacceptable and a criminal offence to make critical or defamatory remarks about the royal family. Thailand’s monarchy might be a constitutional one, but almost every household displays a picture of King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit in a prominent position, and respectful crowds mass whenever either of them makes a public appearance. The second of their four children, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, is the heir to the throne; his younger sister, Princess Royal Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, is often on TV and in the English-language newspapers as she is involved in many charitable projects. When addressing or speaking about royalty, Thais use a special language full of deference, called rajasap (literally “royal language”).
Thailand’s lese-majesty laws are among the most strictly applied in the world, increasingly invoked as the Thai establishment becomes ever more uneasy over the erosion of traditional monarchist sentiments and the rise of critical voices, particularly on the internet (though these are generally quickly censored). Accusations of lese-majesty can be levelled by and against anyone, Thai national or farang, and must be investigated by the police. As a few high-profile cases involving foreigners have demonstrated, they can be raised for seemingly minor infractions, such as defacing a poster or being less than respectful in a work of fiction. Transgressions are met with jail sentences of up to 15 years.
Aside from keeping any anti-monarchy sentiments to yourself, you should be prepared to stand when the king’s anthem is played at the beginning of every cinema programme, and to stop in your tracks if the town you’re in plays the national anthem over its public address system – many small towns do this twice a day at 8am and again at 6pm, as do some train stations and airports. A less obvious point: as the king’s head features on all Thai currency, you should never step on a coin or banknote, which is tantamount to kicking the king in the face.
Almost equally insensitive would be to disregard certain religious precepts. Buddhism plays a fundamental role in Thai culture, and Buddhist monuments should be treated with respect – which basically means wearing long trousers or knee-length skirts, covering your arms and removing your shoes whenever you visit one.
All Buddha images are sacred, however small, tacky or ruined, and should never be used as a backdrop for a portrait photo, clambered over, placed in a position of inferiority or treated in any manner that could be construed as disrespectful. In an attempt to prevent foreigners from committing any kind of transgression the government requires a special licence for all Buddha statues exported from the country (see Customs regulations).
Monks come only just beneath the monarchy in the social hierarchy, and they too are addressed and discussed in a special language. If there’s a monk around, he’ll always get a seat on the bus, usually right at the back. Theoretically, monks are forbidden to have any close contact with women, which means, as a female, you mustn’t sit or stand next to a monk, or even brush against his robes; if it’s essential to pass him something, put the object down so that he can then pick it up – never hand it over directly. Nuns, however, get treated like ordinary women.
The Western liberalism embraced by the Thai sex industry is very unrepresentative of the majority Thai attitude to the body. Clothing – or the lack of it – is what bothers Thais most about tourist behaviour. You need to dress modestly when entering temples (see City of angels), but the same also applies to other important buildings and all public places. Stuffy and sweaty as it sounds, you should keep short shorts and vests for the real tourist resorts, and be especially diligent about covering up and, for women, wearing bras in rural areas. Baring your flesh on beaches is very much a Western practice: when Thais go swimming they often do so fully clothed, and they find topless and nude bathing offensive.
According to ancient Hindu belief, the head is the most sacred part of the body and the feet are the most unclean. This belief, imported into Thailand, means that it’s very rude to touch another person’s head or to point your feet either at a human being or at a sacred image – when sitting on a temple floor, for example, you should tuck your legs beneath you rather than stretch them out towards the Buddha. These hierarchies also forbid people from wearing shoes (which are even more unclean than feet) inside temples and most private homes, and – by extension – Thais take offence when they see someone sitting on the “head”, or prow, of a boat. Putting your feet up on a table, a chair or a pillow is also considered very uncouth, and Thais will always take their shoes off if they need to stand on a train or bus seat to get to the luggage rack, for example. On a more practical note, the left hand is used for washing after going to the toilet (see Vegetarians and vegans), so Thais never use it to put food in their mouth, pass things or shake hands – as a farang though, you’ll be assumed to have different customs, so left-handers shouldn’t worry unduly.
Thais rarely shake hands, instead using the wai to greet and say goodbye and to acknowledge respect, gratitude or apology. A prayer-like gesture made with raised hands, the wai changes according to the relative status of the two people involved: Thais can instantaneously assess which wai to use, but as a farang your safest bet is to raise your hands close to your chest, bow your head and place your fingertips just below your nose. If someone makes a wai at you, you should generally wai back, but it’s safer not to initiate.
Public displays of physical affection in Thailand are more common between friends of the same sex than between lovers, whether hetero- or homosexual. Holding hands and hugging is as common among male friends as with females, so if you’re caressed by a Thai acquaintance of the same sex, don’t assume you’re being propositioned.
Finally, there are three specifically Thai concepts you’re bound to come across, which may help you comprehend a sometimes laissez-faire attitude to delayed buses and other inconveniences. The first, jai yen, translates literally as “cool heart” and is something everyone tries to maintain: most Thais hate raised voices, visible irritation and confrontations of any kind, so losing one’s cool can have a much more inflammatory effect than in more combative cultures. Related to this is the oft-quoted response to a difficulty, mai pen rai – “never mind”, “no problem” or “it can’t be helped” – the verbal equivalent of an open-handed shoulder shrug, which has its basis in the Buddhist notion of karma (see The spread of Buddhism). And then there’s sanuk, the wide-reaching philosophy of “fun”, which, crass as it sounds, Thais do their best to inject into any situation, even work. Hence the crowds of inebriated Thais who congregate at waterfalls and other beauty spots on public holidays (travelling solo is definitely not sanuk), the reluctance to do almost anything without high-volume musical accompaniment, and the national waterfight which takes place during Songkhran every April on streets right across Thailand.
Although all Thais have a first name and a family name, everyone is addressed by their first name – even when meeting strangers – prefixed by the title “Khun” (Mr/Ms); no one is ever addressed as Khun Surname, and even the phone book lists people by their given name. In Thailand you will often be addressed in an anglicized version of this convention, as “Mr Paul” or “Miss Lucy” for example. Bear in mind, though, that when a man is introduced to you as Khun Pirom, his wife will definitely not be Khun Pirom as well (that would be like calling them, for instance, “Mr and Mrs Paul”). Among friends and relatives, Phii (“older brother/sister”) is often used instead of Khun when addressing older familiars (though as a tourist you’re on surer ground with Khun), and Nong (“younger brother/sister”) is used for younger ones.
Many Thai first names come from ancient Sanskrit and have an auspicious meaning; for example, Boon means good deeds, Porn means blessings, Siri means glory and Thawee means to increase. However, Thais of all ages are commonly known by the nickname given them soon after birth rather than by their official first name. This tradition arises out of a deep-rooted superstition that once a child has been officially named the spirits will begin to take an unhealthy interest in them, so a nickname is used instead to confuse the spirits. Common nicknames – which often bear no resemblance to the adult’s personality or physique – include Yai (Big), Oun (Fat) and Muu (Pig); Lek or Noi (Little), Nok (Bird), Noo (Mouse) and Kung (Shrimp); and English nicknames like Apple, Joy or even Pepsi.
Family names were only introduced in 1913 (by Rama Vl, who invented many of the aristocracy’s surnames himself), and are used only in very formal situations, always in conjunction with the first name. It’s quite usual for good friends never to know each other’s surname. Ethnic Thais generally have short surnames like Somboon or Srisai, while the long, convoluted family names – such as Sonthanasumpun – usually indicate Chinese origin, not because they are phonetically Chinese but because many Chinese immigrants have chosen to adopt new Thai surnames and Thai law states that every newly created surname must be unique. Thus anyone who wants to change their surname must submit a shortlist of five unique Thai names – each to a maximum length of ten Thai characters – to be checked against a database of existing names. As more and more names are taken, Chinese family names get increasingly unwieldy, and more easily distinguishable from the pithy old Thai names.