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Like most places with a discernible culture – in this case stretching back a millennium – there are social norms and agreed ways of behaving that the prudent visitor takes a moment to consider. While no sensible traveller would deliberately put themselves in danger or offer an obvious target to the minority of ne’er-do-wells that inhabit all parts of the globe, it may not be as apparent to take care to observe a few social “rules” of the local environment that could well make an significant difference to their experience abroad.
Thailand is popularly known in mass tourism literature as the "Land of Smiles". Whatever the easy slogan might mean, it is certainly true that Thais are almost invariably tolerant and hospitable – and not just for the Occidental dollar. If you smile and favour discretion above outlandish behaviour, you can’t go far wrong, socially. A smile is an easy way to say “thank you" - particularly where language is a barrier - and can also be used to “excuse yourself” for small inconveniences.
A smile is the proper response to acknowledge the “wai” or greetings of small children and with hotel and restaurant staff. Beyond this ubiquitous sign of friendliness, here are a few additional considerations for your time in Thailand that might not fall into “obvious” aspects of polite behaviour in any society:
- Should you be invited into a Thai home, you are expected to remove your footwear before entering the door.
- When seated make sure your feet are not pointed at anyone as this is offensive to Thais.
- Thais regard the head as the highest (purest) part of the body, so refrain from touching or patting the head in a friendly gesture because it is considered impolite.
- It is not proper to lose one’s temper or show exasperation during a misunderstanding. "Jai yen", or a "cool heart" the Thais believe will solve the problem. Surely a great example in our “road rage” culture!
- Visitors are welcome to visit the many temples and discreet photographs may be taken. Again, shoes must be taken off before entering and, as would be polite in most religious settings, wearing shorts or other revealing clothing is frowned upon.
- And finally: remember that monks are the most important people in Thai society and must be treated with respect at all times. A monk’s vow of chastity prohibits him from touching or being touched by a woman. Women are usually advised to smile and slightly bow when encountering a monk and maintain enough distance to prevent any contact with the monk or his robes.
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