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The Do’s and Don’ts of Thailand

by Dr. David

The Do’s and Don’ts of Thailand , Thailand trip is a laid-back, fun country to visit, and the Thai people are calm and patient. However, there are a few “red lines” that might provoke and upset even the most hospitable locals! If you’ll make sure to follow a few simple rules – your vacation will be calm and pleasant, without any unnecessary complications.

DrugsThailand has zero tolerance for drugs, and even a small joint can get you locked up for 5 years. In more severe cases of drug use, you can get 25 or even 50 years of jailtime. Don’t think that the police look away at the fool moon parties in Ko Pha Ngan – disguised police officers are present, and if they decide to arrest someone, he’s in for big trouble. Just because thousands of people around you get away with drug use – doesn’t mean the same will happen to you. There are no guarantees or immunities. Any cop can decide that a news article about his involvement in catching and arresting drug users, will get him a promotion. For all you know, he might have had a bad day and simply decided that someone’s going to pay for it…that someone could be you!!! So, stay away from drugs in Thailand.

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Obeying the Law – Thailand is nothing like Singapore, where you can get arrested for spitting on the sidewalk. However, the policemen here make some good money from ‘know-it-all’ tourists who think they can get away with ignoring local laws (the police won’t spend its time on locals, of course). The Farang (foreigner) means easy money for Thai policemen – after one night’s arrest, his terrified family will raise a considerable amount of money to get him released. I can tell you, for instance, the story of a good guy from a good family that I have personally known for years. A few months ago, he tried his luck with monopoly bills (instead of real cash), as he entertained himself with girls in a local pub at a Thai town. Our story ends with his family having to pay dozens of thousands of dollars to get him released and back home safely. Thailand follows the simple code of “live and let live”, so you don’t need to take a lawyer with you. Rather, have some common sense and you’ll avoid unnecessary complications.

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The Royal Family – any act or speech that can be interpreted as disrespecting the royal family, can get you into serious trouble. Perhaps you intended to say a good thing, but the local person who heard you, didn’t quite understand the English. So my best advice in that regard, is simply to avoid discussing the royal family altogether, and if there is something very important you just have to say, hold your horses until you’re back home. Keep in mind that the picture of the Thai king graces the money bills so that tearing or stepping on it may seriously upset some locals.

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Temples, Religious Symbols and Monks – are treated by Thai people with great importance, awe and sanctity. Make sure to take off your shoes when visiting a Thai wat (temple), and keep the appropriate dress code, which means that women must have their shoulders and knees covered (you can bring a long-sleeved shirt or scarf to slip over your shoulders). Don’t touch or play with Buddha sculptures or figures, regardless of their size. Bear in mind that women are not allowed to touch the monks or even directly hand things over to his hands

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The Foot – is considered by the Thai people as the most inferior part of the body. Don’t use your foot to touch or point at something. When sitting on the floor, try to fold your legs so that your feet will not point at someone’s direction accidentally.

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The Head – is considered by the Thai people as the most superior part of the body. It is prohibited to touch a Thai person’s head in any event (not even to express affection). Although some of the locals who live in big cities have grown accustomed to western gestures and will probably accept you patting a young boy’s head, it is better safe than sorry, so I recommend avoiding it.

Handshake – is hardly a Thai custom, and the locals do not shake hands, even though those who were exposed to western gestures might do so. Try to avoid it, unless the Thai person with whom you are interacting is the one who extended his hand to shake.

Pressing the Palms Together – in a prayer-like fashion at the face level is called ‘Wai’. It is the common Thai greeting, which takes place when a younger person (or one of lower grade, position etc.) is the first to greet an older, veteran person.           The Thai people will be pleased to see a foreigner greeting in the local manner, but do refrain from exaggerating or amplifying the gesture, which would seem ridiculous.

Using a Conversation Manual – there are many websites which feature an English-Thai conversation book, but these are hardly useful and mostly serve for show off. Unlike western languages, the Thai language is a tonal language, which means that tones are the core of the language. They are essential; as important as any vowel or any consonant, as they distinguish the meaning of one word from another.  Saying the same word in another tone changes its meaning, and there are 5 tones so that one word can have many different meanings. The chance that a local would understand a single word you say in Thai is close to none, and what’s worse, is that he may understand something you didn’t mean to say.  So apart from greeting (Sawadika) and thanking (kop khun), drop the conversation manuals and use English – the worst that can happen (which usually does) is that you’ll be misunderstood. Also, don’t falsely interpret energetic head nods as signs of understanding- in most cases it’s nothing but a polite gesture which indicates that your listener heard you – but not necessarily understood your intention.

Keep your Cool – raising your voice, yelling and banging on the table is unacceptable in Thailand, to say the least.  Kreng Jai, which lays the foundation for the Thai culture (can best be translated into “consideration”) may cause much frustration and irritation for foreigners, but screaming and shouting won’t solve anything (quite the opposite, really). If you’ve encountered a certain problem at your hotel, for instance – raising your voice and waving your hands in front of the receptionist will get you nowhere, as you won’t receive the necessary help. Instead, if you’ll come smiling, speak quietly and politely ask her assistance in solving the problem – you’ll be surprised to see her willingness to help.

General Behavior – leave all prejudice and stigma behind. The Thai people are not stupid, blind or deaf – they see, hear and even understand. Have good manners and treat them with respect, the same way you want to be treated.

Bargaining in Markets etc. – is very common in Thailand, but always do it with a smile and keep calm, which will get you a better price. On the other hand, bargaining also has its bounds; you should probably think twice if you want to spend an hour to get a $1 discount.

Renting Jet Skis in the Islands – there are numerous stories about jet ski scammers and many embassies have warned their citizens in that regard. Most Jet Ski owners function as an organized Mafia, and there were many cases of physical assaults, when tourists were forced to pay thousands of dollars for damage they did not cause (but were accused of), refused to pay, and were beaten for it. So please beware and stay safe!

Treating Ladies with Respect – while the alarming figures suggest that 1% of the women in Thailand are prostitutes, this also means that 99% of them aren’t. Be polite and respectful and behave with common sense. The entire Thailand is nothing like the Walking Street in Pattaya, and you shouldn’t behave in other places as you would there. Treating a girl who does not belong to that 1% rudely and inappropriately, can get you in deep trouble, and if she has a boyfriend, it can end badly.


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