Thailand is unique in Southeast Asia in that the country has never been a dependency of another nation.
The roots of the traditions and cultures of Thailand lie firmly within the family structure and the Buddhist religion. The young are taught to pay respect to their parents, elders, teachers and Buddhist monks.
Once Buddhism spread throughout Thailand the wat or temple became the centre of village life. It was the place where people received education, attended ceremonies and held feasts and festivals. The wat and the Buddhist religion still play very important roles in the day-to-day life of the vast majority of Thais today and it is for this reason that the people of Thailand are some of the most respectful and courteous people you are ever likely to meet.
Though many of the customs may seem strange to a foreigner it’s always worth remembering that you are in someone else´s country and are ambassadors from your own, so although you may not get it right every time, an effort to understand and respect local culture and customs will certainly be appreciated.
Buddhism is the prevailing religion of Thailand. About 95 percent of all Thais are Buddhist, and the country has approximately 18,000 Buddhist temples and 140,000 Buddhist priests. Nearly all Buddhist men in Thailand enter a Wat (monastery or temple) for at least a few days or months during their lifetime.
Muslims, the majority of whom live in the area just north of Malaysia, constitute approximately 4 percent of the population, and the country also has some small Christian and Hindu communities.
Visitors should dress neatly in all religious shrines and temples and should never enter without shirts, or in shorts, hot pants or other unsuitable attire. It is acceptable to wear shoes when walking around the compound of a Buddhist temple, but not inside the chapel where the principal Buddha image is kept. Each Buddha image, large or small, ruined or not, is regarded as a sacred object. Never climb onto one to take a photograph or do anything that might indicate a lack of respect.
Buddhist monks are forbidden to touch or be touched by a woman, or to accept anything from the hand of one. If a woman has to give anything to a monk, she first hands it to a man, who then presents it to the monk.
A monk is not allowed to touch money, so if a man wishes to give money to a monk, he must place it in the alms bowl or pouch.
The Thai language
The Thai language, or Phasa Thai, basically consists of monosyllable words, whose meanings are complete by themselves. Its alphabet was created by King Ramkhamhaeng the Great in 1283 by modelling it on the ancient Indian alphabets of Sanskrit and Pali through the medium of the old Khmer characters.
After a history of over 700 years, the Thai alphabet today comprises 44 letters (including 2 obsolete ones), representing 20 consonant phonemes, and 15 vowel signs, denoting 22 vowels, diphthongs and triphthongs.
As Thai is a tonal language with five different tones, it often confuses foreigners who are unused to this kind of language. For example, they have difficulty in distinguishing these 3 words from each other : "suea" with a rising tone, "suea" low tone and "suea" falling tone which mean a tiger, a mat and clothes respectively.
Like most languages of the world, the Thai language is a complicated mixture of several sources. Many Thai words used today were derived from Pali, Sanskrit, Khmer, Malay, English and Chinese.
The wai is a slight bow with the palms together and the fingertips touching the face. It is how Thais greet each other and is a way of showing respect or thanks. The closer the hands are held to the head the greater the respect shown. for example, if you were to wai a monk or an older person, then the top of your fingers should be raised to the top of your nose.
It is impolite to return a wai to someone of lower social status and would be embarrassing for them for example you should not wai the hotel staff, taxi driver or children.
Thais are aware that westerners are not familiar with the wai and a smile or nod is perfectly acceptable.
The Thai smile
Thailand is not called the Land of Smiles without good reason. Smile whenever you can, when haggling for a price or when you have a problem that needs fixing. A simple smile can get you further than you can imagine.
Politeness is the key to good communication, with anyone, not only in Thailand. You will notice though that the Thai people will often be overly polite with strangers, and always forthcoming with please and thank you. Common courtesy should be used in any society but in Thailand it plays a key role and many visitors will find it to be a refreshing change and one of the great attractions of this country and its people.
Hands and Feet
In Thai culture the head is regarded as the highest part of the body, literally and figuratively. Therefore, avoid touching people on the head especially if they are older than you as it is considered very rude.
The feet are regarded as the lowest part of the body and therefore unclean. Shoes should be removed when entering a private Thai home as a sign of respect. You should never point your feet at someone or an object as this is considered disrespectful.
The word Khun is the best way to address someone; it means Mr., Mrs. or Miss and is used in front of the name, usually the first name. For example if you were named John Smith you will hear yourself introduced as Khun John etc.
The polite terms krab and ka are often used. To say hello if you are male in gender you would use the phrase ¨sawat dee krab¨ and if you are female the phrase used is ¨sawat dee ka¨.
The king and royal family are deeply revered and respected in the Kingdom of Thailand and any visitor to Thailand should be careful to show respect for the King and his family. Any criticism of the monarchy is not acceptable to the Thai people.
Festivals and celebrations
Full Moon Day, February
This community celebration began when 1250 disciples gathered to hear the Buddha teach. Today, merry- making such as bringing food to monks and feeding captive birds and fishes is combined with celebrations throughout the Kingdom of Thailand. Each person reverently carries flowers and glowing candles to pay homage to the Buddha, his teachings, and his disciples.
Thai New Year
(Songkran festival, 13th to 15th April 2006)
The traditional Thai new year is celebrated in April each year. Thailand adopted this tradition from the ancient Brahmins in India who believed that the sun re-entered Aries and finished its orbit round the earth on April 13.
In Thailand, this festival is celebrated for three days from April 13 to April 15. Before the celebrations, people will clean their houses in the hope of casting away any bad luck of the old year, so that good fortune will slip into their new lives instead. Food and sweets will be prepared in advance for merit making and for treating guests.
The Songkran celebrations will begin with food presentation to the monks who will walk along the streets in the early morning to receive food and other offerings. Some people will take food to the monasteries nearby for the monks
One of the most popular activities for young people is to convey their best wishes to their elders by pouring water onto them or their palms. After this, it is time for children and young people to have full enjoyment with water-throwing, dancing and folk games.
Do not expect to escape the water throwing activities, these take place on every street in Phuket. They can be a welcome break to the heat of the dry season, but if you wish to stay dry it is best to stay indoors!
Second week of May
Prior to the annual monsoons, Northeast villagers construct gigantic rockets which they fire into the sky to ensure plentiful rain during the forthcoming rice season. The rocket festival is traditionally a period for letting off steam before arduous field work begins in earnest. It features beauty parades, folk dances, ribald and high-spirited revelry before the rockets are ceremoniously launched.
Full moon night
This is Thailand’s loveliest festival when, under the full moon, Thai's float away onto rivers and waterways. Krathongs (small, lotus shaped banana leaf boats) containing a lighted candle, glowing incense, a flower, and a small coin to honor the water spirits. The traditional meaning for the festival is to wash away the previous year’s sins.
Thai food is varied and colourful and certainly regarded as one of the best cuisines worldwide. The mis-conception about Thai food is that it is always spicy, indeed many Thai dishes are not spicy at all. Thais use a range of spices in their cooking which have Indian and Chinese origins and Thai food is always full of many different flavours.
The staple of the Thai diet is rice which is offered and eaten at every meal. Rice is so important in Thai culture that the word to eat is derived from the word for rice.
Food is available at all times of the day or night and the locals prefer to eat several small meals a day consisting of small dishes rather than one large meal.
There are many street vendors in Thailand selling anything from noodle soup to barbecued chicken at the roadside providing a healthy and satisfying snack.
Restaurants are plentiful and excellent value and offer a wide variety of Thai and international cuisine. Expect to pay only a few hundred Baht for a meal at small local Thai restaurants.
Markets are a way of life in Thailand. Every village and town has at least one market selling fresh meat, fresh fish, fruit, flowers and a variety of other foods such as spices and curry pastes. The food on offer is nearly always extremely fresh.
There are also cooked food stalls selling sticky rice, noodle soup and a range of other fried foods such as chicken and rotis. The markets are where the locals shop for their daily provisions and you will never have to travel far to find one. Most markets open in the afternoon around 3pm and finish as it starts to get dark. The prices are usually only a fraction of those in the high street supermarkets.
Thailand is also famous for its' night markets and these are wonderful places to sample a wide variety of freshly prepared local foods. Small stalls offer everything from small fried batter balls to coconut sticky rice, each small dish costing around 10 Baht.
At the markets you can also find a whole range of Thai handicrafts such as silk scarves, cheap clothing and jewellery. The markets are open until around midnight and are illuminated with lamps powered by the stallholders motorcycle sidecars.
Muay Thai (Thai boxing)
Muay Thai was originally taught for self defense and has since developed into a major sport. It is popular with both sexes and most Thais practice Thai boxing during their teens. A high level of training is required to develop the skills necessary to become proficient in this sport.
The boxers wear gloves and headbands and the event is accompanied by a musical band which provides traditional martial music for the fight. During the fight the band will change the tempo of the music to suit the action of the fighting.
Muay Thai is practiced in every town and village and athletes competing at the top levels are extremely well paid and respected.