Home to some of the world’s most-loved spicy street food, legendary beach bars and over a thousand-odd years of history, Thailand ranks as one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. It appeals to everyone from gap year travellers to honeymooners, with enough budget hostels and luxury hotels to suit every taste. While it may feel familiar, even to those who haven’t visited, Thailand is also a deeply traditional and conservative culture. Take a quick crash course in what not to do in Thailand before your trip to avoid causing any offence, breaking any laws or supporting any harmful practices.
What not to do when visiting Thailand
1. Touch other people’s heads
This one probably doesn’t feature high up on your holiday to-do list, but just in case you’re tempted, don’t do it. In Thai culture, the head is the holiest and cleanest part of the body. By touching someone’s head or hair, you disrespect them, even if it is unintentional. If you do make the mistake, apologise as quickly as you can. By the same token, it’s also disrespectful to touch a statue’s head.
It’s worth bearing in mind that this applies to children too. If you’re volunteering or teaching in Thailand, you should always avoid ruffling children’s hair.
2. Elephant riding trips
According to PETA, more than 3,000 elephants are held captive in elephant tourist attraction orphanages and parks across Asia. Of Thailand’s 4,000 elephants, over half are in captivity. Asian elephants are now classified as endangered species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). These animals are often beaten into submission from a young age, separated from their mothers and forced to take tourists for rides across town. They’re often made to perform cruel and confusing tricks too, like balancing on their hind legs on a small drum. Don’t support it.
If you do want to want to have an authentic experience, there are several responsible elephant sanctuaries dotted around the country offering a natural and ethical way to see them. Some of the best include The Surin Project and the Elephant Nature Park.
3. Bad mouth Buddha, the King or the Flag
Thailand is a Buddhist country, so you should treat statues, temples and images with respect. Climbing on Buddhas in temples is not only offensive, it’s a punishable offence by law. It’s also illegal to take images of the Buddha out of the country without permission.
On the whole, Thai people admire their royal family and you’ll see pictures of them adorning shops and hanging in people’s homes. The lese majeste law actually makes it illegal to insult the royal family. It’s not an empty threat either, even foreigners have been known to serve a lengthy prison sentence for breaking the law. Refrain from saying anything disrespectful in person, on social media and even in private messages.
4. Outstay your welcome
If you’ve been travelling for a while, you’ll know that in quite a few countries it’s an easy process to extend your visa, even if it’s expired. But in Thailand, laws are strict. While overstaying your visa for a few hours might be waived, staying for any longer than 24 hours is punishable, with penalty fines up to USD 630. If you stay for longer than 90 days, you’ll get a temporary re-entry ban for at least one year.
5. Cover up inside temples
This one goes for most religious and sacred buildings across the world, but you’ll be surprised by how many people forget. Temples are extremely holy places and you should always cover up before entering. Keep your knees covered if possible and always keep a shawl or big scarf to hand to throw over your shoulders for last-minute temple trips.
6. Keep your shoes on all the times
Like many Asian countries, it’s rude to keep your shoes on indoors. This applies to private homes, temples, shops and sometimes in restaurants. As a rule of thumb, if you see a heap of shoes outside the front door, it’s time to get your tootsies out. While your head is the holiest part of your body, your feet are the dirtiest and your shoes are even more so. Refrain from doing anything with your feet other than walking. That means no pointing with them, holding the doors open with them, resting them on the table or standing on money. It’s also highly offensive to point them in the direction of a Buddha statue.
7. Ignore a greeting
In Thailand, people don’t tend to shake hands as a greeting. Instead, greet someone by bowing your head and placing your hands in a prayer position. This traditional greeting is called the ‘wai”, pronounced ‘why’. It’s usually paired with a friendly ‘hello’ or ‘Sawasdee. It’s polite to ‘wai’ when greeting, thanking, apologizing and saying goodbye. Many Thai people will also wai when they pass temples, shrines and anything to do with the monarchy. You should always ‘wai’ a monk, but they are not expected to return it. You shouldn’t ‘wai’ at anyone younger than you though, a simple nod and smile will suffice.
There are two more formal types of ‘wai’ too. A slightly more formal wai involves bringing your thumbs to your nose and your index fingers to your forehead. The most respectful wai involves lowering your head to your thumbs and placing your palm at your chest. You should use this one for the royal family and monks.