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All societies are made up of some set of rules, principles, policies or laws which becomes customs that everyone follows. It is respectful and polite to know what they are wherever you go. Not only will it make those around you feel better, but it will also ensure you make the best of your visit without any unnecessary complications during your stay in Koh Phangan.
Usually, if you are not familiar with the customs and traditions of where you are, you may do something wrong without even meaning to. The last thing you want is to upset people when you are on vacation or staying in a strange new land. Usually people can be understanding that you are a foreigner, however, sometimes they are not.
So to make sure you have the best stay possible in Koh Phangan and make the most friends you possibly can, here are some Thai customs and traditions that would be best known before you arrive, not after you’ve made someone (and yourself) uncomfortable!
Certain parts of the body are of greater importance and significance than others. The head is perceived as the most spiritual part of the body, which is why you should never touch somebody’s head, not even children. You may offend a Thai parent if you ruffle their child’s hair, even if you meant it affectionately.
The feet are the opposite. They are seen as dirty and symbolically low. Never touch someone with your foot or put your feet on things. When you sit, have the sole of your foot pointing outwards so as to avoid pointing your foot at any person. It is very bad to point your feet at any Buddhist image. Also, never hold doors open with your feet, push a bag along with your feet, or do anything with your feet in place of your hands.
Pointing a finger or beckoning someone with a crooked finger is seen as impolite. Thai’s point with their lips or push their lips out to indicate a direction instead. It is also ok to use your whole hand (all fingers outstretched) instead. For example, to beckon someone over your palm should be faced down with all fingers extended and the action from the wrist.
Thailand has a strong reputation for having a non-confrontational attitude towards the sexual preferences of individuals. It is a very safe and comfortable place for LGBT travellers. It is not uncommon to see transexuals (aka ladyboys) out in the open and accepted for who they are. Even in mainstream society, they are highly visible, from scantily clad teens to high-profile celebrities. However, the first rule of no public displays of affection still stands strong. Anyone can do as they please behind closed doors but out in public is another matter completely.
If a Thai person says no outright, they mean no. If a Thai person says yes, it doesn’t always mean yes because Thai’s generally don’t like letting others down and will often agree to things even if they don’t want to. They may have no intention to follow through with what they have agreed upon but they say yes anyways.
On a similar note, it is rare for a Thai person to want to admit they don’t know something so if you ask for directions, for example, and they tell you them, they won’t necessarily be correct. But! You can’t call them out on it. Do not tell someone they are wrong... just leave it be.
In Thailand, family always comes first with a greater emphasis placed on the extended family than in western countries. It is normal for extended families to live near each other and very common for children to be raised by grandparents or aunts and uncles if their parents need to work. It is expected that the younger members will take care of the older members through doing chores and/or financially.
It is normal to hear people call each other “brother”, “sister”, “aunt”, “uncle”, “mother” and “father” as personal pronouns. They also do this with friends of which there is no blood relation at all, however.
This common phrase means ‘no problem’, or ‘never mind’ but it doesn’t necessarily mean they don't care. When a Thai says ‘mai bpen rai’ they could just be brushing it off because they are not the type of people to display negative emotions. The person could just be saying it because they don't want to lose face by showing their feelings in public.
How To Show Respect
National pride is full-on in Thailand. Twice a day they’ll play the national anthem and it is expected that people will stop and stand until the song has finished. Also, if you ever go to a movie theatre you’ll experience this: before the movie plays, the King’s anthem goes on and everyone must stand for it.
Many critical life decisions are based on superstitious beliefs and many superstitions are connected to the belief of ghosts and spirits. It is completely normal for people to consult a monk for the best date for their wedding, buying a home, or even just test driving a car.
Thai’s also have a tradition of giving newborn babies a nickname originated from a desire to trick malevolent spirits who may want to steal the baby away. Another one is that you can’t attend a wedding if you have had a recent death in the family. Oh yes, and if you dream of numbers you better play them in the lottery! The list of superstitions can fill a book.
Always give your seat to a monk on public transportation. Women should never touch a monk or directly hand anything to them or sit next to them. All offerings to a monk should be placed into their dish rather than into their hands.
In the end, don’t worry because the Thai are generally pretty tolerant and understand that foreign visitors will sometimes make mistakes. As long as you show respect to the religion and monarchy, and don’t yell in public or walk around naked you should be all right.