When outsiders speak of ‘Thai culture’ they’re referring to a complex of behavioural modes rooted in the history of Thai migration throughout South-East Asia, with many commonalities shared by the Lao people of neighbouring Laos, the Shan of north-eastern Myanmar and the numerous tribal Thais found in isolated pockets from Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam, all the way to Assam, India. Nowhere are such norms more generalised than in Thailand, the largest of the Thai homelands.
Practically every ethnicity in Thailand, whether of Thai ancestry or not, has to a greater or lesser degree been assimilated into the Thai mainstream. Although Thailand is the most ‘modernised’ of the existing Thai (more precisely, Austro-Thai) societies, the cultural underpinnings are evident in virtually every facet of everyday life. Those aspects that might be deemed ‘westernisation’ – eg the wearing of trousers instead of a ‘phaakhamaa’ (wrap-around), the presence of automobiles, cinemas and 7-Eleven stores – show how Thailand has adopted and adapted tools originating from elsewhere.
Such adaptations do not necessarily represent a cultural loss. Ekawit Na Talang, a scholar of Thai culture and head of the Thai government’s National Cultural Commission, defines culture as ‘the system of thought and behaviour of a particular society – something which is dynamic and never static’. Talang and other world culture experts agree that it’s paradoxical to try to protect a culture from foreign influences, realising that cultures cannot exist in a vacuum. Culture evolves naturally as outside influences undergo processes of naturalisation. From this perspective, trying to maintain a ‘pure’ culture is like breeding pedigreed dogs : it eventually leads to a weakening of the species. As Talang has theorised, ‘Anything obsolete, people will reject and anything that has a relevant role in life, people will adopt and make it part of their culture’.
The Thais themselves don’t really have a word that corresponds to the term ‘culture’. The nearest equivalent, ‘watanatham’, emphasises fine arts and ceremonies over other aspects usually covered by the concept. So if you ask Thais to define their culture, they’ll often talk about architecture, food, dance, festivals and the like. Religion – obviously a big influence on culture as defined in the western sense – is considered more or less separate from ‘watanatham’.
Nevertheless there are certain aspects of Thais society that virtually everyone recognises as ‘Thai’ cultural markers.
The Thais word ‘sanuk’ means ‘fun’. In Thailand anything worth doing – even work – should have an element of ‘sanuk’, otherwise it automatically becomes drudgery. This doesn’t mean Thais don’t want to work or strive, just that they tend to approach tasks with a sense of playfulness. Nothing condemns as activity more than the description ‘mai sanuk’, ‘not fun’. Sit down beside a rice field and watch workers planting, transplanting or harvesting rice some time while you’re in Thailand. That it’s back-breaking labour is obvious, but participants generally inject the activity with lots of ‘sanuk’ – flirtation between the sexes, singing, trading insults and cracking jokes. The same goes in an office or a bank, or other white-collar work situation – at least when the office in question is predominantly Thai (businesses run by non-Thais don’t necessarily exhibit ‘sanuk’). The famous Thai smile comes partially out of this desire to make ‘sanuk’.
Thais believe strongly in the concept of ‘saving face’, that is avoiding confrontation and endeavouring not to embarrass themselves or other people (except when it’s ‘sanuk’ to do so). The ideal face-saver doesn’t bring up negative topics in conversation, and when they notice stress in another’s life, they usually won’t say anything unless that person complains or asks for help. Laughing at minor accidents – like when someone trips and falls down – may seem callous to outsiders but it’s really just an attempt to save face on behalf of the person undergoing the mishap. This is another source of the Thai smile – it’s the best possible face for almost any situation.
Status & Obligation
All relationships in traditional Thai society – and virtually all relationships in the modem Thai milieu as well – are governed by connections between ‘phuu yai’ (big person) and ‘phuu nawy’ (little person). ‘Phuu nawy’ are supposed to defer to ‘phuu yai’ following simple lines of social rank defined by age, wealth, status and personal and political power. Examples of ‘automatic’ ‘phuu yai’ status include adults (vs children), bosses (vs employees), elder classmates (vs younger classmates), elder siblings (vs younger siblings), teachers (vs pupils), miilitary (vs civilian), Thai (vs non-Thai) and so on.
While this tendency towards social ranking is to some degree shared by many societies around the world, the Thai twist lies in the set of mutual obligations linking ‘phuu yai’ to ‘phuu nawy’. Some sociologists have referred to this phenomenon as the patron-client relationship’. ‘Phuu nawy’ are supposed to show a degree of obedience and respect (together these concepts are covered by the single Thai term ‘kreng jai’) towards ‘phuu yai’, but in return ‘phuu yai’ are obligated to care for or ‘sponsor’ the ‘phuu nawy’ they have frequent contact with. In such relationships ‘phuu nawy’ can, for example, ask ‘phuu yai’ for favours involving money or job access. ‘Phuu yai’ re-affirm their rank by granting requests when possible; to refuse would be to risk a loss of face and status.
Age is a large determinant Where other factors are absent or weak. In such cases the terms ‘phii’ (elder sibling) and ‘nawng’ (younger sibling) apply more than ‘phuu yai’ and ‘phuu nawy’ although the intertwined obligations remain the same. Even people unrelated by blood quickly establish who’s ‘phii’ and who’s ‘nawng’; this is why one of the first questions Thais ask new acquaintances is ‘How old are you?’.
When dining, touring or entertaining, the ‘phuu yai’ always picks up the tab; if a group is involved, the person with the most social rank pays the bill for everyone, even if it empties his or her wallet. For a ‘phuu nawy’ to try and pay would risk loss of face. Money plays a large role in defining ‘phuu yai’ status in most situations. A person who turned out to be successful in his or her post-school career would never think of allowing an ex-classmate of lesser success – even if the were once on an equal social footing – to pay the bill. Likewise a young, successful executive will pay an older person’s way in spite of the age difference.
The implication is that whatever wealth you come into is to be shared – at least partially – with those less fortunate. This doesn’t apply to strangers – the average Thai isn’t big on charity – but always comes into play with friends and relatives.
Foreigners often feel offended when they encounter such phenomena as two-tiered pricing for hotels or sightseeing attractions – one price for Thais, a higher price for foreigners. But this is just another expression of the traditional patron-client relationship. On the one hand foreigners who can afford to travel to Thailand from abroad are seen to have more wealth than Thai citizens (on average this is self-evident), hence they’re expected to help subsidise the enjoyment of these commodities by Thais; and at the same time, paradoxically, the Thais feel they are due certain special privileges as nationals – what might be termed the ‘home-town discount’. Another example: in a post office line, Thais get served first as part of their nature-given national privilege.
Do’s & Don’ts
Monarchy and religion are the two sacred cows in Thailand. Thais are tolerant of most kinds of behaviour as long as it doesn’t insult either of these.
Do’s & Don’ts – King & Country
The monarchy is held in very considerable respect in Thailand and visitors should be very, very respectful too – TOTALLY avoid disparaging remarks about the king, queen or anyone in the royal family. One of Thailand’s more outspoken intellectuals, Sulak Sivaraksa, was arrested in the early 1980s for lese-majesty because of a passing reference to the king’s fondness for yachting (Sulak referred to His Majesty as ‘the skipper’) and again in 1991 when he referred to the royal family as ‘ordinary people’. Although on that occasion he received a royal pardon, later in 1991 Sulak had to flee the country to avoid prosecution again, for alleged remarks delivered at Thammasat University about the ruling military junta, with reference to the king (Sulak has since returned under a suspended sentence). The penalty for Lese-Majesty is seven years imprisonment.
While it’s OK to criticise the Thai government and even Thai culture openly, it’s considered a grave insult to Thai nationhood as well as to the monarchy not to stand when you hear the national or royal anthems. Radio and TV stations in Thailand broadcast the national anthem daily at 8 am and 6 pm; in towns and villages (even in some Bangkok neighbourhoods) this can be heard over public loudspeakers in the streets. The Thais stop whatever they’re doing to stand during the anthem (except in Bangkok, where nobody can hear anything above the street noise) and visitors are expected to do likewise. The royal anthem is played just before films are shown in public cinemas; again, the audience always stands until it’s over.
Do’s & Don’ts – Religion
Correct behaviour in temples entails several considerations, the most important of which is to dress neatly and to take your shoes off when you enter any building that contains a Buddha image. Buddha images are sacred objects, so don’t pose in front of them for pictures and definitely do not clamber upon them.
Shorts or sleeveless shirts are considered improper dress for both men and women when visiting temples. Thai citizens wearing either would be turned away by monastic authorities, but except for the most sacred temples in the country (eg Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep near Chiang Mai), Thais are often too polite to refuse entry to improperly clad foreigners. Some wats will offer trousers or long sarongs for rent so that tourists dressed in shorts may enter the compound.
Monks are not supposed to touch or be touched by women. If a woman wants to hand something to a monk, the object should be placed within reach of the monk, not handed directly to him. When sitting in a religious edifice, keep your feet pointed away from any Buddha images. The usual way to do this is to sit in the ‘mennaid’ pose in which your legs are folded to the side, with the feet pointing backwards.
Some larger wats in Bangkok charge entry fees. In other temples, offering a small donation before leaving the compound is appropriate. Usually donation boxes are near the entry of the ‘bot’ (central sanctuary) or next to the central Buddha image at the mar. In rural wits, there may be no donation box available; in these places, it’s OK to leave money on the floor next to the central image or even by the doorway, where temple attendants will collect it later.
Do’s & Don’ts – Feet & Head
The feet are the lowest part of the body (spiritually as well as physically) so don’t point your feet at people or point at things with your feet. Don’t prop your feet on chairs or tables while sitting. Never touch any part of someone else’s body with your foot.
In the same context, the head is regarded as the highest part of the body, so don’t touch Thais on the head – or ruffle their hair – either. If you touch someone’s head accidentally, offer an immediate apology or you’ll be perceived as very rude.
Don’t sit on pillows meant for sleeping as this represents a variant of the taboo against head-touching. I once watched a young woman on Ko Saniet bring a bed pillow from her bungalow to sit on while watching TV; the Thai staff got very upset and she didn’t understand why.
Never step over someone, even on a crowded 3rd class train where people are sitting or lying on the floor. Instead squeeze around them or ask them to move.
Do’s & Don’ts – Dress & Nudity
Shorts (except knee- length walking shorts), sleeveless shirts, tank tops (singlets) and other beach-style attire are not considered appropriate dress for anything other than sport g events. Such dress is especially counterproductive if worn to government offices (eg when applying for a visa extension). The attitude of ‘This is how 1 dress at home and no-one is going to stop me’ gains nothing but contempt or disrespect from the Thais.
Sandals or slip-on shoes are OK for almost any but the most formal occasions. Short-sleeved shirts and blouses with capped sleeves likewise are quite acceptable. Thais would never dream of going abroad and wearing dirty clothes, so they are often shocked to see westerners travelling around Thailand in clothes that apparently haven’t been washed in weeks. If you keep up with your laundry you’ll receive much better treatment everywhere you go.
Regardless of what the Thais may or may not have been accustomed to centuries ago, they are quite offended by public nudity today. Bathing nude at beaches in Thailand is illegal. If you are at a truly deserted beach and are sure no Thais may come along, there’s nothing stopping you – however, at most beaches travellers should wear suitable attire. Likewise, topless bathing for females is frowned upon in most places except, perhaps, on large tourist islands like Phuket, Samui and Samet. According to Thailand’s National Parks Act, any woman who goes topless on a national park beach (eg Koh Chang, Koh Phi Phi, Koh Samet) is breaking the law. Many Thais say that nudity and topless sun- bathing on the beaches is what bothers them most about foreign visitors. These Thais take nudity as a sign of disrespect for the locals, rather than as a libertarian symbol or modem custom. Thais are extremely modest in this respect (Patpong-style go-go bars are cultural aberrations, hidden from public view and designed for foreign consumption) and it should not be the visitor’s intention to ‘reform’ them.