Respect and good humour: how to be culturally sensitive in Thailand


By Marisa Chicarelli

Thailand is internationally renowned for its beaches, nightlife, festivals, and all other sorts of fun. But fun doesn’t mean being culturally insensitive. Although Thailand has the reputation in some quarters as being uninhibited and fancy free, in actuality, Thais can be quite socially conservative.

With a little respect and a good sense of humour, you can navigate through Thailand’s traditional hotspots and cultural highlights, having fun and enjoying every moment with everyone around you!

Keep your sense of humour handy

You’ll probably find yourself being faced with some awkward questions/comments. Are you married? How much money do you make? How old are you? Oh my, aren’t you fat/skinny! Trust me, the person isn’t trying to be insulting. Just smile and move on.

Also, things may not go as you plan or expect. Taxi drivers may try to charge you off the meter. At restaurants, dishes may not be served at the same time, or if the food is supposed to be served in a different time (especially the Appetizer and Main course), they might be served at the same time.

Many people will nod or say ‘yes’ when they really don’t understand what you mean. Losing your temper won’t help. Just smile and move on.

Heads and feet

You shouldn’t touch a person’s head or hair. Although it may sound like common sense, there’s a little more nuance to this. The head is considered (maybe obviously) the highest part of the body, to be treated with respect. There are times when it’s ok, like between close friends and family.

At the other end, so to speak, there’s the feet. The lowest and dirtiest part of the body. Don’t point them at anyone or use them to point to anything at all, even inadvertently because it is seen as a rude and insulting action.

How’s that? For instance, especially at the temples, do not cross your legs by resting your ankle on your opposite knee. The bottom of your feet will undoubtedly be pointing at someone. Worse, it may be pointing at a Buddha image or a monk. So basically you just need to keep your feet on the ground and everything will be just fine.

The royal family and Buddhism

The Thai royal family is highly revered, so please show respect. Where other countries may allow inappropriate comments, not in Thailand. This also goes for images of royalty. The King’s image is on every piece of currency, so please do not step on, tear, burn, or otherwise desecrate Thai money.

Many Thai traditions revolve around Buddhism. Please don’t try to buy a Buddha image unless you know exactly what you can and can’t do. Dress appropriately in temples – no shorts, nothing sleeveless, nothing too tight or revealing. And behave like you are in a place of worship (because you are), not at a tourist attraction.

Sa-was-dee Kha/Krup – Kop Khun Kha/Krup

Knowing a little bit of Thai words will definitely make your travel go smoother, especially how to greet and say thank you in Thai.

‘Sa-was-dee’ is Hello.

‘Kop Khun’ is Thank you

In Thai language, we have a subfix “Kha” and “Krup” to put at the end of the sentence to show the politeness of the speakers. A female speaker will say Kha, whereas Krup is for a male speaker.

Don’t worry! – ”mai pen rai”

If all else fails, just have a look around and see how the locals are behaving. Or ask. Then take a more conservative approach.

In the end, as long as you proceed with respect and a good sense of humour, if you do commit a faux pas, most Thais will appreciate that you’re trying.

So, mai pen rai and enjoy your stay in the Land of Smiles!


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