What to know about Thailand
If you are a smoker, don’t walk down the street smoking. Particularly in some areas of Sukhumvit, you may be accosted by a policeman asking for 2000 baht if he sees you dropping your cigarette butt in public. It’s debatable as to whether or not this is a scam, but something to be aware of nonetheless. With Thailand increasingly moving towards banning smoking in public places, you are better off having your cigarette in a bar or restaurant, anywhere that provides an ashtray to ensure that you are not caught out.
Thailand has extremely strict drug laws and your foreign passport is not enough to get you out of legal hot water. Possession and trafficking offenses that would merit traffic-ticket misdemeanors in other countries can result in life imprisonment or even death in Thailand. Police frequently raid nightclubs, particularly in Bangkok, with full body searches on all patrons. Ko Pha Ngan’s notoriously drug-fueled Full Moon Parties also often draw police attention.
Just to reiterate: AVOID ANY EXPOSURE TO ILLEGAL DRUG USE IN THAILAND.
Personal appearance is very important in Thailand as a measure of respect to other people; you will find that dressing appropriately means that you are shown more respect in return. This translates in many ways, even sometimes lowering initial offering prices at markets. While some allowance is made for the differing customs of foreigners, Thais respond more positively to well-dressed Westerners.
Traditionally, Thais are modest and conservative dressers. At a minimum your clothes should be neat, clean, and free from holes or tears. Except at the beach or at sacred sites normal western dress is acceptable for both men and women, except that you should avoid clothing showing a lot of skin. Pants are preferable to shorts, blouses should have capped sleeves, and if tank tops are worn, the straps should be thick (i.e., not spaghetti straps). Thai men generally wear pants, and most Thais view an adult man wearing shorts as fairly ridiculous; shorts are primarily worn by laborers and schoolchildren. Men’s shorts should be knee length or more, if worn at all.
Taking off one’s shoes at temples and private homes is mandatory etiquette, and this may even be requested at some shops. Wear shoes that slip on and off easily. Flip-flops, hiking sandals, and clog-type shoes are usually a good pragmatic choice for traveling in Thailand; only in the most top-end establishments are shoes required.
It is best to play it safe with wats and other sacred sites in Thailand; your dress should be unambiguously modest and cover your entire torso and most of your limbs. For men, ankle-length pants are mandatory; on top, t-shirts are acceptable, though a button-front or polo shirt would be best. Many recommend that women wear only full length dresses and skirts; you should make sure that your clothing covers at least your shoulders and your knees and some places may require that you wear ankle-length pants or skirts and long sleeved tops. Shorts and sleeveless shirts are highly inappropriate, as are short skirts. The rules are even stricter for foreign visitors, so even if you see a local in shorts it’s not OK for everyone.
Topless sunbathing is common by western women at many touristy beaches. At beaches which are primarily Thai visitors however, this is not advised.
Buddhist monks are meant to avoid the temptation of women, and in particular they do not touch women or take things from women’s hands. Women should make every effort to make way for monks on the street and give them room so they do not have to make contact with you. Women should avoid offering anything to a monk with their hands. Objects or donations should be placed in front of a monk so he can pick it up, or place it on a special cloth he carries with him. Monks will sometimes be aided by a layman who will accept things from women merit-makers on their behalf.
While some monks do accept money, most of them do not and offering money to a monk is sometimes considered a sign of disrespect in Theravada Buddhist cultures. Therefore, should you wish to donate to a monk, you should only offer food and put your donation in the appropriate donation box at the temple.
In the morning from 05:00 to 06:30, monks are seen walking in the front of houses and along the main road. At the same time, you can give alms to Buddhist monks. The most popular item that most people offer is rice. While the monks stand in front of you, you put something you had prepared into the monk’s alms-bowl. For the next step, you take off your shoes and kneel down and the monks will bless you. During the blessing, you can pour ceremonial water into a bowl which is dedicated to people who have died. When the monks finish with their blessings, the activity is finished. On the Buddhist holy day, you must go to temple if you want to give alms because Monks cannot go outside of the temple.
The Royal Family
It’s illegal to show disrespect to royalty, a crime which carries up to 15 years imprisonment. Do not make any negative remarks, or any remarks which might be perceived as disrespectful about the King or any members of the Royal Family. Since the King is on the country’s currency, don’t burn, tear, or mutilate it – especially in the presence of other Thais. If you drop a coin or bill, do not step on it to stop it – this is very rude, since you are stomping on the picture of the King’s head that is printed on the coin. Also, anything related to the stories and movies The King and I and Anna and the King is illegal to possess in Thailand. Almost all Thais, even ones in other countries, feel very strongly when it comes to any version of this story. They feel that it makes a mockery of their age-old monarchy and is entirely inaccurate. In 2007, a Swiss man was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for spraying graffiti on the King’s portrait.
The head is considered the holiest part of the body, and the foot the dirtiest part. Never touch or pat a Thai on the head, including children. If you accidentally touch or bump someone’s head, apologize immediately or you’ll be perceived as very rude. Similarly, do not touch people with your feet, or even point with them. If someone is sitting with outstretched feet, avoid stepping over them, as this is very rude and could even spark a confrontation. Squeeze around them or ask them to move. Even if the person is sleeping, it is best to go around, as others are likely to notice. Take care when you sit in a temple to cross your legs under you “mermaid-style” so your feet do not point at any person or statue. Do not pose alongside a Buddhist statue for a photo and certainly don’t clamber on them. It’s OK to take photos of a statue, but everyone should be facing it. It is considered impolite and disrespectful to visibly sniff food before eating it, particularly when eating in someone’s home (this is true even if the sniffing is done in appreciation). Do not audibly blow your nose in public. Also, as doorway thresholds are considered a sanctuary for spirits, it’s important not to step on a raised threshold, but rather to step over it. Keep this in mind especially when visiting temples.
In Thailand, expression of negative emotions such as anger or sadness is almost never overt, and it is possible to enjoy a vacation in Thailand without ever seeming to see an argument or an unhappy person. Thai people smile constantly, and to outsiders this is seen as happiness or friendliness. In reality, smiling is a very subtle way to communicate, and to those who live in Thailand, a smile can indicate any emotion — from fear, to anger, to sadness, to joy, etc. “Saving face” is a very important aspect of Thai culture and they will try to avoid embarrassment and confrontation.
In public places (such as large markets) the National Anthem is played over loudspeakers at 8 A.M. and 6 P.M. When this is played, everybody stops what they are doing and stands still, and you should do the same. The Royal Anthem is played in cinemas before the film, and everyone must stand. It lasts about a minute and then everyone will continue where they left off. In MRT and SkyTrain stations in Bangkok, the escalators will also lurch to a halt to prevent a large human pile-up.