South East Asia :: March - June 1995

Subject: I wouldn't do that if I were you.
Date: April 14, 1995 14:12

Dos and Taboos
From Culture Shock: Thailand by Robert and Nanthappa Cooper)
between the sexes should not be displayed in public. No hand-holding or kissing.
things, people and situations you don't like rather than moan about them or try to change them.
is disliked, don't compare your country and people with Thailand and the Thais.
images should be kept in a high place and treated with great respect. It is against the law to take or send them out of the country except under very special circumstances.
must be kept to yourself. Not on the desk. Certainly not pointing at anybody. Do not step over anybody's food.
whenever possible. Thais love it.
the sign of an important person; don't be mean.
Hair, Heads:
not to be touched. If you do so by accident, excuse yourself.
often less specific than in the west. If attendance and punctuality are important, use a card. If you specifically invite somebody to your house, they expect to eat there.
not to be crossed whether sitting on floor or chair when in the presence of monks.
the body a little when passing in front of, or between, people.
the most important people in the country and they must be treated with respect at all times. Touching of a monk or his robes by a woman is taboo [and would result in a lengthy 'purification' ritual for the monk].
Dress appropriately; do not wear black unless at a funeral.
with fingers is acceptable for objects and animals but not for people.
the lifeblood of Thailand; don't throw it away in front of Thais.
must be treated with the greatest respect; stand up when images of the King or Royal Family appear on the cinema screen.
take them off at the door of the main temple building and at all homes.
gently. Do not raise the voice.
people will like you. A smile can be used to excuse small inconvenience [or request forgiveness], to thank for small services and to return the wai of children and servants.
must be kept.
like 'please', is expressed verbally much less frequently in Thai; a smile is often enough. [But for men, 'Kapun Kap' means thank-you while women must say, 'Kapun Kaaa']
any object is bad manners.
monks, old people and your social superiors. Do not wai servants, labourers and children. The lower the head, the more respect is shown. The inferior individual initiates the wai. Whatever the wai received, reply with a lesser one.
slightly behind monks and old people.

OK. What on earth is a 'wai' you ask. Functionally, it is a display of respect. Physiologically, it is a bringing together of the palms before the head, as if in prayer, followed by a bow. The deeper and longer the bow, the greater the respect implied. One should always return a wai, unless it is offered by someone of significantly lower status, such as a child or servant, whereupon a simple nod or, better yet, a smile will suffice.

The ubiquitous Thai smile is actually more than a sign of happiness. It can be used to communicate non-verbally in a variety of situations.

The observant visitor will quickly realise that the smile is the correct mechanism for repairing minor breaches of etiquette. It may take longer to realise that the smile can also be used to excuse conduct that, in [western] culture, would require elaborate explanations and, possibly, monetary compensation. If the visitor thinks he is in a difficult cultural situation, he can spare a thought for the poor Thai student in a London pub, standing at the crowded bar covered in identical pint mugs full of bitter beer. Unintentionally, he picked up the wrong glass and drank from it. Upon this fact being pointed out to him in very clear terms, he smiled. . .
Rarely would a Thai smile or laugh involve ridicule, although it may sometimes seem that way to the visitor. One luckless farang [foreigner] of our acquaintance was strolling the lanes around the Pratunam area of Bangkok when a bucket of sudsy water came flying through an open doorway and caught him full-frontal. Clearing the muck from his eyes, our hero found himself surrounded by smiles. Fortunately he had been in Thailand long enough to catch a smile as easily as he caught the water, smiled back, and soon everybody was laughing and cleaning the farang. When it was discovered that he could speak some Thai, the water-thrower said 'excuse me'." "In the above example the smile may have been prompted by amusement of the banana-skin variety, but it also served to excuse the perpetrator of an unintended inconvenience. When the smile was returned it demonstrated the granting of pardon.

From Culture Shock: Thailand

00:19 Saswasdee House; Bangkok-Thailand :: 21 APR 95

Oh yeah, the bit about not pointing with the feet. Here in Thailand, feet aren't just the things that get dirty by walking on the ground, they're downright 'lowly' when compared with such grand things as the head, the highest point of the body both physically and spiritually. Sitting in a manner that causes the soles of the feet to point toward another person is fairly rude. The same posture with feet toward a Buddha image or monk is downright abhorrent behaviour.

Food, particularly rice, is respected and putting the feet above it by stepping over it is also frowned upon.

A tall person of low status would be acting rightly to stoop a little in the presence of a shorter person of high status.

When crossing between two people who've made way for you, show deference by bending slightly (bringing yourself below their level) and, of course, smile for the inconvenience you're causing.

The most extreme example of feet vs. head I've heard is when a farang refused to accept from a restaurateur a small amount of change he considered too small for the amount he'd paid. After repeated refusals he finally took it but wrung the notes before flinging them to the ground and stomping all over them. Seeing this, a Thai patron of the restaurant reacted instantly with a punch in the face and a flying drop-kick to the mid-section. You see, there's an image of the Thai King on every banknote and the nasty farang had been rubbing his feet all over the Royal face.

Jay Leno wouldn't have much to comment on here. The King and Royal Family are beyond reproach. Even mild criticism of any kind is likely to be thought of as treasonous and likely to be punished if the authorities get wind of it. Before every film rolls in every cinema in Thailand, the King's anthem is played along with a slew of images depicting him behaving in a Kingly manner. I've never seen an audience get to their feet so quickly as the Thais rose to respectful attention tonight just before the opening credits of 'Drop Zone'.

Jay wouldn't be able to poke fun at the state religion, Buddhism, either. Or straying monks, a few of which have recently been caught in compromising relationships with women. That's like Fleet Street being given a gag-order on haranguing Royals. Or telling Rush Limbaugh to speak respectfully of Liberals and feminists. Mr. Leno would run out of funny things to say..

If the punched-out farang were wise, he wouldn't press charges or otherwise make a fuss. In fact, the Thai's are more than willing to bring the trouble to you regarding this type of transgression. For example, while processing a roll of film a darkroom assistant noticed that one of the images showed the members of a family arranged on the shoulders, lap and hands of a Buddha statue. The darkroom assistant promptly called the police. They promptly arrested the entire family. The courts jailed them and upon release deported the lot, banishing them from Thailand forever. I can't imagine what kind of response spray-painting a Buddha would get; caning would be a reprieve.

Patrick. -- Responses Sought --

Buddha's Top 10 Requirements On Those Who Govern:
  1. Be liberal, generous, charitable. Do not use your position to accumulate wealth and property.
  2. Obey the five precepts: Do not destroy life, lie, steal, engage in illicit sex, use intoxicants heedlessly.
  3. Make your paramount concern the welfare of your people.
  4. Govern with integrity. Do not deceive your people.
  5. Be kind, gentle, genial.
  6. Lead a simple life, self-controlled, non-sybaritic.
  7. Be free of hatred toward anybody.
  8. Promote peace and non-violence.
  9. Be patient, tolerant, forbearing.
  10. Do not oppose the will of the people.