10 TOP 10, List Number 3: Etiquette

Sweet3Mango has asked me to come up with a few articles for people new to Thailand, and/or those looking to visit, who want to get some advice about what to do and see, and how to act. So in the spirit of lending a helping hand to those lucky folks coming to the greatest country in the world for the first time, here’s another of Seven’s 10 Top 10 lists—Proper behaviour. Let’s dive in.

  1. SMILE!  It’s not called “The Land of Smiles” because of the massage parlors. A smile is a sign of politeness, and also a form of greeting.  Many Westerners have a habit of scowling, especially when travelling, in order to keep strangers at a distance or to appear tough. This is considered incredibly rude in Thailand.  Your smile starts off every encounter on the right foot, whereas your frown does the opposite.                      
  2. Be Polite.  Speaking of politeness, it’s a big deal in Thai Culture.  Always end your statement with “krab (if you’re male) or “ka” (if you’re female) when speaking.  There are many things Westerners give no thought to that Thais find incredibly rude.  These will be covered in another list, but the main thing to know now is that politeness goes a long way.  It could mean the difference between receiving a discount and being extorted, being helped and being ignored, or being respected versus being despised.
  3. Learn Thai.  While it’s true that English is the common global language, it still helps to be able to speak the local tongue, even if it’s only a little bit.  In the case of Thailand, it could (as with politeness) keep you from being ripped-off.  For one thing it’s a sign of respect that you’ve made the effort to learn some Thai. The locals will appreciate it.  For another thing, it’s an advantage to know if or when people are talking about you with the assumption that you won’t understand.  Just a few words in Thai will make them think twice before gossiping about you to your face.
  4. Learn Thai Culture.  Many things that are perfectly acceptable in your country are downright horrifying to Thais (like going topless on the beach, or shirtless in the supermarket).  Farang have a pretty terrible reputation in Thailand.  It will help if you can set yourself apart from the unwashed tourist masses by adopting some of the culture while you’re here.  There’ll be a later list on Thai Culture Basics; that will be a good place to start.
  5. BE POLITE.  This one bears repeating.  Try to remember you are a guest in another country.  It’s not the Thais’ job to acclimate to you—it’s your job to behave properly. Sure, it’s your holiday and you want to cut loose, but you’ve come to a country full of people who are not on holiday, so if you stand on the table and wave your shirt over your head, no one’s going to cut you any slack, just because you’re on holiday.
  6. Never ever fight, argue with, or cross a Thai.  This country is run mainly by the Thai mafia and a semi-corrupt police force.  Being violent, confrontational, abusive, or even rude to a local can get you killed and buried in the jungle, never to be found.  This goes for taxi drivers, hotel staff, immigration officers, bar girls (yes, bar girls), and especially ladyboys.  You never know if the person you’re arguing with could make you disappear with a single phone call, so no matter how angry you get, or how screwed-over you may feel, take a deep breath and let it go.  It’s not worth dying over.
  7. Tip when appropriate.  Here are the basic rules for tipping:  Restaurants—yes, if the service was great, but don’t tip a lot.  20 baht for a 300 baht meal is enough.  Also check the bill, sometimes the tip (10%) is added automatically.  Taxis—yes, if the driver busted his hump to get you somewhere in a jiffy.  Round up to the next 50 baht.  Masseuses (legitimate ones)—yes, if the massage was terrific, give her another 100 or 200 baht.  She won’t get much from the quoted price since the owner of the shop takes the biggest cut.  Masseuses (naughty ones)—yes, if the price wasn’t all-inclusive at the start.  Generally, if you paid less than 2,000 baht, then the girl isn’t getting anything and you need to tip her.  If you paid over 2,000, you don’t need to tip.  Bars—no, unless you’ve had the waitress trekking back and forth to your table for an hour.  Here’s a very important point to remember:  DO NOT OVER-TIP.  Westerners (Americans, at least) do this far too often, and then Thais get used to getting more than is appropriate for the service, and expect it from everyone after that.  And you don’t get any special status for over-tipping.  In fact, the opposite happens.  Thais think you’re a chump.
  8. Thais come first.  You will notice that Thais will cut in front of you at the cash register, or when ordering food at the street vendor’s cart.  Let them.  Do it for two reasons.  First, you’re in their country, likely exploiting their countrymen in some way or other, and getting a holiday in paradise for a real bargain.  And second, you don’t want to create a problem for yourself.  Relax, enjoy life, be patient, and don’t get riled up about the insignificant stuff.
  9. Don’t assume you’re being ripped off.  Yes, some Thais will try to take advantage of ignorant tourists, but that’s not their fault.  It’s the tourists’ fault for being ignorant.  It’s a good idea to get a feel for what things cost before choosing to buy something.  That’s just common sense.  And yes, you’re expected to barter (except when riding a songtheaw—those prices are fixed).  Just remember to be polite, and understand that the seller has just as much right to get what he can from you as you have to try for a bargain.  Find the happy middle ground.
  10. Mai ao ka/mai ao krab.  Pronounced “my ow,” this is the proper way to say “no thank you” (ka if you’re female, krab if you’re male).  It doesn’t help you to just shake your head, or ignore someone trying to sell you a massage or a t-shirt.  Thais will think you are “jai dam” (the literal translation is “black heart”), or a bad person.  There’s no reason not to be polite.

The main point to take from this list is, you are an outsider in a country you don’t understand.  Thais are kind, happy people and they’re glad you’re here—until you do something to make them not glad.  Maybe you can get away with more by being a jerk in your country, but in Thailand it’s the opposite. And you’re not a character in a movie. Just because this place is awesome and seems like a dream, doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want. So leave your ego at home, embrace Thai culture, relax, and be nice.  Life is beautiful here! Don’t make it ugly by being a d*ck.

Stay tuned for another newbie-friendly 10 Top 10 List, and in the meantime follow me on Twitter @BangkokSeven or browse the red-light photo archives on my Facebook page.

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