Although to the Western traveller tonal languages can be difficult to learn, knowing how to say hello in Thailand is easy. By greeting people in the local language will earn you many smiles and new friends. It can only enhance your travel experience in the country.
A Thai greeting is referred to as the Wai, and consists of a slight bow with your palms pressed together in a prayer like fashion. It is very similar to the Indian Namaste and the Cambodian Sampeah.
Hordes of tourists come to enjoy the Islands in Thailand without taking the time to learn a little of the local culture. Make an effort to speak a few words of the local language in any country will set you apart from those who treat the locals more or less as vacation servants.
A number of my friends from my fitness club and coincidentally my favourite niece and her husband have just recently left for holidays in Thailand, not together I must add! Before leaving my particular friend at the club was subjected to quite a lot of banter from the ‘Jolly Boys’ regarding the famous or is it infamous, LadyBoys. The fact that my chum is Vietnamese and was taking his girl friend with him made no difference to the guffaws.
So, I thought, time for a blog to educate and inform, if that’s possible. Many people choose to begin their Thailand holiday in Bangkok, opting to witness the organised chaos of this fascinating city before moving on to the beautiful beaches of Phuket or Koh Samui. Despite the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, it is important to remember that the Thai are a deeply cultural and religious people and their local customs should be respected.
However for the uninitiated traveller, these customs are often unknown. If you take the holiday packages that plan your stay in advance these are all very well but in most cases will not allow you the grassroots insight that I would recommend and which would allow you to experience and even sometimes take part in an authentic and respectful way.
Perhaps I may try to demystify Thailand’s most common practices and customs. I began by mentioning the universal greeting or ‘Wai’ to show respect or to say hello, goodbye or thank you. It also demonstrates reverence when used before an image of Buddha. It’s as simple as bringing your palms together at about chest or nose height and performing a slight bow of your head. Everywhere you go in Thailand you will encounter this greeting as it is an important part of Thai etiquette and the locals will be particularly impressed with visitors who make an effort to greet them this way.
The Thai people revere their Royal family but it seems that the government don’t think their citizens are patriotic enough and have introduced a number of measures to instil patriotism by institution. One of the measures is the broadcasting of the Thai national anthem twice a day. People are required to stop what they are doing whenever the national anthem is played. I know I’m being rather disrespectful but the first time I witnessed this I had the feeling that I had strayed into North Korea. I now hear that the generals are campaigning to have the traffic stop when the national anthem is played. Think of even more traffic jams than they already have. Oh well it all adds to the local colour and certainly makes Thailand different to the West.
Talking of local colour, the Hindu religion that predates the Buddhist movement inspired the legend that certain colours are positively associated with different days of the week. You’re most likely to notice this on Mondays when many Thai people honour the day the King was born, by wearing yellow clothing. Other colours that are worn include pink on Tuesdays and light blue on Fridays to acknowledge the day on which the Queen was born. The political unrest that is only just under the surface has given the colour red a less favourable significance and is now associated with the oppositional movement.
Going back to subject of Bangkok’s famous LadyBoys, Thailand is renowned for its transsexual entertainers who are a tourist attraction in themselves and although the country seems to have quite a liberal attitude towards this topic. It is mainly based on the Thai people’s non-confrontational nature rather than a progressive attitude. In saying that, Thailand is a safe destination for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender travellers and the local LadyBoys are not only a prominent fixture of mainstream society but also reach celebrity status for some of the higher profile performers.
In addition to the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender) situation, the same non-confrontational nature of the people has led to rise of heterosexual prostitution and the bars are full of pretty Thai girls working in the oldest profession in the world. They are mostly from the poorer parts of the country hoping to earn their fortune in an easier and better paid occupation than they would find slaving for a pittance in the rice paddy fields. The trade has been on the increase since the Vietnam War when American and Australian troops were encouraged to take their rest and relaxation in Bangkok.
The majority of the Thai population practice the Buddhist religion of the Theravada school however a world view that non-human entities i.e. animals, plants etc. possess a spiritual essence has been adopted into the local religion. Although their teachings discourage attachment to material objects, many of the Thai people wear protection amulets and worship images or statues of Buddha. Most houses, shops and offices feature some kind of spirit house or altar and offerings such as garlands and food are made to please the spirits that they believe inhabit the land. Visitors may look but should never touch.
Most types of clothing are tolerated in tourist areas, all tourists wishing to visit shrines and temples should cover up and be aware that short skirts, sleeveless tops and flip flops may prevent them from entering. Shoes should always be removes when entering religious structures or homes. Certain sacred places display signs that prohibit women from entering and visitors should not be offended by this practice. Women who would like to worship at these sites must do so from outside the building. It is also taboo for women to touch or pass things directly to a monk. However polite conversation is permitted.
Another delicate subject with travellers, it’s important to be aware of the toilet and hygiene basics in Thailand where shall we say the standards are very different to the West. Although most public toilets and hotels in larger cities offer more modern standards, things change dramatically the further out you go. Outside the cities, squat toilets, if you are lucky, are the main options available and are flushed by sluicing water from a bucket provided down into a hole. Used toilet paper is to be thrown into a bin, not flushed.
Rather than a shower or a bath, traditional wash rooms consist of just a water trough and bowl or ladle to pour water over your body. There are even areas in the country where bathing outdoors is the normal practice and men will usually bathe in their underwear while women will wear a sarong.
Of course it is all these differences that make holidays in a foreign country so exciting but being prepared and forewarned will save you from many shocks. Nothing like the shock of finding that you have fallen head over heels with a beautiful Thai girl and finding that she/he is in fact a LadyBoy.