It’s easy to make cultural faux pas when you’re in a different country. But armed with a little knowledge, it’s also easy to glide through your visit knowing you’re doing things exactly right to protect that country’s culture, economy and environment.
Here are my easy ways to be a socially-conscious traveller in Thailand. A heavily edited version of this article was published on the Matador Network as Dear travelers to Thailand: please don’t come until you’ve understood these 10 things
Six easy steps for being a socially conscious traveler in Thailand
Thailand is called the Land of Smiles. But when visiting, you want your Thai hosts to smile with pleasure, not just because Thais are so polite. Here are six easy things to do to show respect for Thailand and its people, and to not leave the country worse than you found it.
- Be modest, just like Thais
- No public displays of affection (even handholding is frowned upon).
- Keep your voice down — no loud conversations please.
- Don’t take up too much physical space, such as when walking down the sidewalk.
- Dress modestly. Yes, it’s hot, but you’re being disrespectful by wandering around with too much skin showing. Bathing suits at the pool and beach are fine, but cover up everywhere else. Don’t show too much leg. If you’re male, wear a shirt. If you’re female, cover your belly, shoulders, and cleavage, at a minimum. If you plan to visit a temple, wat or monastery, women should cover their elbows and knees too.
- Treat feet and shoes as unclean (literally and figuratively)
- Take off footwear before entering homes and temples. There’s likely a rack where you can leave your shoes, or perhaps just an area off to the side of the entrance. It’ll be obvious if you look for it.
- Don’t show anyone the soles of your feet (yes, it’s ok during a foot massage).
- Don’t point your feet at the Buddha or at a person. When sitting on the floor, tuck your feet underneath you (bent to the side or cross-legged). Don’t sit on the floor with your legs and feet straight out in front of you. If someone is sitting across from you, say on the subway, angle your feet away from them slightly.
- Don’t gesture with your feet. If you’re shopping and the goods are displayed on a tarp on the ground, bend down and use your hands to gesture toward the object you’re interested in.
- Keep your hands to yourself
- Don’t touch anyone’s head. Just as feet are unclean, heads are considered sacred in Buddhist countries like Thailand. This means don’t tousle the hair of a cute kid, and certainly don’t touch the head of any Buddha statues.
- Women should never touch a monk or his robes. Be especially careful in crowded areas.
- Thai women are very conservative; it is culturally inappropriate for you to touch them, even casually.
- Know the wai rules
- You’ll see the traditional Thai greeting — wai — as soon as you arrive at your hotel. It’s a lovely gesture of a sight bow, with the hands in prayer position at chest or chin level. You’ll be tempted to echo it in response. By all means do it when you’re meeting someone formally (the higher your hands, the more respect you show), but it is unnecessary in most occasions a tourist will encounter.
- If you wai a housekeeper or waiter, they’ll be embarrassed and not sure how to respond. Kids will think it’s bizarre that you’re showing them the respect reserved for their elders.
- Show respect for Thailand
- Don’t say anything against the king and the royal family. Thais revere their elderly king and his family. Not only will you offend Thai people if you insult them, but you could get arrested too.
- Stand at attention for the national anthem. At 8:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. the national anthem plays in public places like shopping malls and parks. The first time you hear it you may not realize that it is the national anthem or even notice that every Thai around you is standing perfectly still.
- Don’t ask for chopsticks. Thais pride their history, including using the fork since the 19th century. The King of what was then called Siam, seeing his neighbours colonized by the French and English, decided that he would make his country so modern and western that invading Siam would be unthinkable. Fictionalized in the movie Anna and The King, Siam adopted western practices like the fork and spoon, improved education and women’s rights, and implemented new business and military strategies. They did indeed escape colonization. Chopsticks are fine for street food and noodle dishes, but otherwise use your fork to push food onto your spoon, and put the spoon — not the fork — in your mouth.
- While no one expects you to become fluent, it is easy to learn a few Thai phrases:
- Sa-wa-dee = hello
- Kup khun kaah = thank you (if you’re female)
- Kup khun krup = thank you (if you’re male)
- There is no word for “please” in Thai, instead you add a “kaah” (if you’re female) or “krup” (if you’re male) to the end of your sentence to be polite. Stretch out the “kaah” a bit to sound really authentic.
- Choose your activities carefully
- Don’t go see the “long-necked women”. While there are a few hill tribe tours that promote human interaction, most are exploitative and create human zoos. Karen women traditionally wear metal rings around their necks to push down their shoulders, and are beautifully photogenic. However, Karens are refugees from Burma and, fearing the effects on tourism, the Thai government won’t allow them to seek asylum elsewhere. Don’t support this.
- Research your elephant encounter:
- Never ride an elephant — the howdah seat on their back damages their spines.
- Don’t support organizations that make elephants do unnatural things like perform tricks or paint.
- Make sure your elephant “sanctuary” isn’t bringing in wild and young elephants to cater to tourists’ desire for encounters with this amazing animal. Elephants go through a horrific process called phajaan (crushing) so that their wild intelligence is tamed enough for human interactions like being fed and bathed by tourists.
- However, some elephant sanctuaries provide much needed care for rescued animals whose former lives were in logging camps or being led on a chain through city streets helping their owners make an income. Your admission fee helps pay for the elephants’ expensive food and medical care.
- Don’t go to tiger temples. The tigers are drugged so that they won’t attack tourists who pose for photos with them. Participating means supporting the illegal trade and breeding of an endangered species. When the tigers get too big or aggressive to control, they’re slaughtered and their bones are used for traditional “medicines”.
- Be aware of human trafficking. Bar-girls and -boys abound in Bangkok’s Patpong Road and other red-light districts, but prostitution is technically illegal in Thailand (though it contributes three percent to the country’s economy). Some have chosen to work in the sex industry to build a better life for themselves. But it is not uncommon for children from poverty-stricken families to be trafficked into prostitution and the sex trade.
- Buy local and fair trade. Not only do you help build the local economy, you prevent human trafficking by helping people earn a living wage:
- Choose locally-owned hotels, restaurants and shops and buy local products.
- Give tips directly to your guide, hotel housekeeper or restaurant server.
- Buy meaningful souvenirs, such as OTOP products, where the money goes to the maker.
- Use ChildSafe-certified taxis and tuktuks — the drivers are on the lookout for kids in trouble and refuse the fare of tourists travelling with local children.
- Keep kids in school.
- Don’t give children gifts, don’t buy from them and don’t volunteer with them.
- You want to do everything you can to make sure kids go to school to stop the cycle of poverty. If a poor family can make money from kids selling postcards or reselling the candy or book you give them, they will. Cartels often employ kids to beg for handouts.
- Schools or orphanages need to be places where children’s welfare is put first, not where well-meaning tourists rotate in and out just as kids form a bond with them, and not where unscrupulous people can gain a profit from encouraging parents to put their kids in care.
- Be conscious of your consumption. Especially on Thai islands, fresh water is a limited resource and waste disposal is challenging. Use less and dispose of your garbage carefully, whether you’re on a Thai island or not.
With these tips, your holiday in Thailand will leave both you and your Thai hosts smiling.