Need to know: Thai culture top 10



Culture, that unfathomable melting pot of history, religion, politics and modern social behaviours; it’s a tricky beast to tame, especially when it’s not your own. And Thai culture is no exception. Here in the land of smiles, where a word can mean five different things depending on the tone with which it is uttered, there’s a lot for outsiders to get their heads around. Thanks to hospitality being an integral part of Thai culture, it’s easy enough for visitors to muddle through. But, whether you’re visiting or planning to stay a little more long term, a little knowledge and understanding goes a long way. 

On the blog this week, we’ve rounded up ten of the trickiest or most important cultural features we’ve come across in our time in Thailand and do our best to explain them from a non-Thai point of view. Hopefully our top ten will give you a little insight into the rich and fascinating tapestry that is modern Thai society and make your life a little easier when you’re here.

1. Let’s start with the DOs

  • Take off your shoes when you enter someone’s house.
  • Dress modestly when you go into a temple or sacred place.
  • Give your public transport seat up for kids, monks and the elderly.
  • Smile.

2. …and the DON’Ts

  • Touch people on the head.
  • Point the soles of your feet at anyone.
  • Speak badly of the royal family.
  • Argue with your taxi driver (less a cultural feature than simple, good advice).

3. The Pis, Nhongs and Khuns

Thai society is hierarchical and boils down to this: be respectful of your elders. It’s common for Thais to ask each other their age upon being introduced, so they know how to address one another. Among themselves, Thai people attach a pre-fix onto another person’s name to show they respectfully know their place, Anyone older than you is a “pi”, which means big brother/sister, and anyone younger is “nhong” (little brother/sister). And someone you want to address formally is “khun”.


4. Nicknames

Thai names tend to be long and quite formal so everyone gets a nickname too. Sometimes they are shortened versions of the full name – Natayada might go by Nat – but rarely. Common Thai nicknames include Oat, Nok, Wan, Golf and Nan. So, say Golf is 25 and Nan is 17, Golf would call her “nhong Nan” and Nan would call him “Pi Golf”. And if they were going to meet Oat for a business meeting, they would probably both call him “Khun Oat”.   

5. The Third Sex

Thailand is well-known for “ladyboys”. A “katoey” is a trans person or someone born a man who lives day-to-day as a woman (not to be confused with drag queens who only dress up for performances). Some have had gender reassignment surgery, while others haven’t. When interacting with katoeys, remember always to refer to them by the name or pronoun they give you – it’s only polite. Also worth bearing in mind is that while Thailand’s cosmopolitan centres have a liberal attitude to gay culture and LGBT lifestyles, they go against traditionally conservative Thai culture and many of these folk still face a fair bit of marginalisation.


6. Appropriate dress

Speaking of conservative attitudes, even young Thais have a relatively modest approach to clothing. Though shorter shorts are increasingly common, you rarely see cleavage or bare shoulders on your morning commute. Things are certainly more relaxed in seaside locales, though once you’re off the beach, it’s good form to cover up again out of respect.

7. Religion 

Thailand is a Buddhist country and while they by no means impose their views on anyone else, visitors are expected to be respectful. Make sure your head is never higher than a Buddha image, don’t take pictures in temples or at shrines and – again – dress appropriately: shoes off, shirt on.

gold buddha

8. Food

It’s central to Thai culture and one of the best things about it. Thai people are justifiably proud of their food and it’s good manners to try things that are offered to you – chances are, it’ll be delicious anyway. Mealtimes are a shared affair with lots of dishes in the middle and plenty of passing and swapping, so everyone gets a bit of everything.

thai food

9. Greng Jai

Perhaps the most difficult aspect for non-Thai people to explain or understand, the concept of “greng jai” is akin to “saving face”…. but not your own. When one acts with greng jai, one attempts to not cause offence or to impose oneself; but rather intends to not make the other person feel uncomfortable. It’s much more nuanced than that, but at its heart, it’s a good intention.

10. Don’t worry about it!

If all of that seems a little daunting, remember this: one of the most uttered Thai phrases is “mai bpen rai”, which means, nevermind, it’s nothing, or don’t worry about it. One of the best things about Thailand is its laid back, sabai sabai attitude. Events and people regularly run late and the pace of life is sedate and relaxed. After all, the weather is sunny, the food is delicious, the scenery is gorgeous – so don’t stress out!

thai smile 1

For more tips and hints of life in Thailand and Koh Phangan, check out our blog or subscribe to our mailing list (you’ll even get 5% off your next off-peak visit. Are you ready to experience this amazing culture?). 


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