Thailand lies between Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos, with the Gulf of Thailand to its south. Its culture mixes strong Indian influences, Chinese traditions, and elements that are uniquely Thai. With its diverse geography, friendly people, and stunning scenery, the “Land of a Thousand Smiles” is a must-see destination in South East Asia.
Thailand is the 50th largest country in the world with an area roughly equal to that of France. With rugged mountains in the north and world-famous tropical beaches in the south, it is a land of pristine beauty.
Thailand is separated into four distinct regions. Despite the overarching strength and unity of Thai culture, each region has its own unique cultural and geographic features.
Northern Thailand shares its border with Myanmar and Laos. This region is mountainous and filled with thick forests and river valleys. Its culture is heavily influenced by Burmese culture and it carries strong influences from the historical Lanna kingdom.
Northeastern Thailand, also known as Isan, is largely isolated from the rest of Thailand by a large mountain range. A Lao-speaking majority, as well as a primarily agricultural society, characterize this culturally distinct region.
Southern Thailand, located on the Malay peninsula, is home to many of Thailand’s pristine beaches and resorts. With a more tropical climate, this narrow land mass is home to a many fishing communities.
It is the region of Central Thailand that is predominant, though. This region is the seat of Thailand’s modern-day capital city, Bangkok. With its fertile plains, it has also long been the economic center of the country, producing the majority of Thailand’s rice. Central Thailand is also the area that has the greatest population density, and the greatest concentration of the ethnic Thai majority. It is the political, economic, and cultural center of Thailand.
Much of Thailand’s culture comes from the ethnic Thai people. One of the most important influences on Thai culture has been Buddhism. Many of the traditions and beliefs of the people in Thailand stem directly from Buddhist principles. Hinduism has also made important contributions to Thai culture, and the close links between Thailand and India can be seen in art, literature, and in many Thai customs. The cultures of nearby Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and China have also played an important role in forming the traditions of Thailand, as have indigenous belief systems such as Animism.
Of Thailand’s nearly 70 million people, roughly two thirds are from Thai ethnic groups. Although the ethnic Thai people can be divided into dozens of different subgroups, their traditions, languages, and cultures differ only slightly. This leads to a population with a strong sense of shared traditions and cultural identity.
The remaining third of the population is made up primarily of Chinese, as well as various minorities including Vietnamese, Khmer, Hmong, and Mein. Even among these diverse ethnic groups, the Thai language is widely spoken and understood, and the Thai script is often used in place of traditional writing styles.
Since the 1950s, Thailand’s government has made efforts to preserve and strengthen the sense of national culture and national identity. During the 1980s and 1990s, however, Thailand saw a resurgence in local culture and traditions. Although there is still a strong national identity, local food, dances, music, celebrations, and beliefs have begun to play a more important role in Thai life.
Thai culture is deeply influenced by religion. With around 95% of the country being Theraveda Buddhist, the belief system and values of Buddhism play a huge role in day-to-day life. Throughout the country, the most important values that Thai people hold to are respect, self-control, and a non-confrontational attitude. Losing face by showing anger or by telling a lie is a source of great shame for Thai people.
In general, displays of emotion in public are viewed in a very negative light. No matter how frustrated or upset a person might feel, he or she will always strive to maintain a positive and friendly attitude, a sense of humor, and a smile.
Respect for elders and for those in higher social positions is also important. Hierarchies of social status characterize nearly every interaction. Children are expected to respect their parents and teachers. The young must show deference to the elderly. Those with highly prestigious positions in society, such as doctors, important public figures, and monks are almost revered.
Family is central to Thai life. Although many newly-married couples will set up their own households, it is not uncommon for extended family to live with them. Often, grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles will all live in the same household and help to raise children and provide for the family. Children are expected to show great respect for their parents, and they maintain close ties, even well into adulthood.
Although Thailand’s family life and society has been traditionally male-dominated, women are granted considerable respect. Recent laws and legislation have allowed women more freedom to move out of traditional roles and into professions such as politics, medicine, and business. Respect and equal rights for women has, in recent decades, become an important part of Thailand’s law and values.
Another concept that is very important in Thai culture is sanuk. Sanuk is a wide-reaching idea that embodies the playfulness and sense of humor that is so central to life in Thailand. It could refer to a spontaneous and joyful meeting with someone on the street, or a humorous pun made at just the right moment. The sense of humor and joie de vivre captured in sanuk is central to the Thai way of life.
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สวัสดี! (Hello) and Welcome to our Guide to Thai Culture, Customs, Business Practices & Etiquette
Known for its islands, sand and sea, the 'Land of Smiles' is an ancient culture with much more to offer than just tourism. A major economy in South East Asia with a strong international outlook, Thailand is booming business-wise, attracting interests from around the globe.
Despite appearances Thailand can be a culturally-challenging place. The heavy emphasis on masking true feelings requires the outside to work much harder in terms of how they communicate and relate to people.
That is why we have published our free cultural guide to Thailand!
Valuable for anyone researching Thai culture, customs, language, society, manners, etiquette, values, business norms and essentially wanting to understand the people better.
Whether visiting Thailand on business, for tourism or even hosting Thai colleagues or clients in your own country, this guide will help you understand your Thai counterparts, improve communication and get the relationship off to the right start.
How do we know all this information? Well, we are experts in cultural awareness training courses on Thai culture!
FACTS AND STATISTICS
Location: South-eastern Asia, bordering the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, southeast of Burma
The Flag: The Thai flag was adopted in 2017 by royal decree. It consists of five horizontal stripes which, starting from the top, run in the following order: red, white, blue, white and red. On direction of Rama VI, who commissioned the flag and considered ‘blue’ an important colour, the middle blue strip is twice the width of the other four stripes. The red stripes denote the Thai people the white stripes denote religion and the blue stripe denotes the Thai Monarchy.
National anthem: The national anthem of Thailand, entitled ‘Phleng Chat’ (literally translated as ‘national anthem), was adopted shortly after the country changed its name from ‘Siam’. The national anthem is played twice a day on television and radio and Thais are expected to stand for its duration to show their respect. This custom is played out in public as part of the lifting of the flag in public areas such as the work place, schools, universities, prisons, hospitals etc.
Ethnic Make-up: Thai 96%, Burmese 2%, other 2%.
Population: 68,200,824 (2016 est.) This figure incorporates mortality levels caused by AIDS. The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV / AIDS listed 11 Asian-Pacific countries home to the majority of individuals infected with the HIV virus globally. Thailand is included in this group.
Population growth rate: 0.32% (2016 est.)
Climate: tropical; rainy, warm, cloudy southwest monsoon (mid-May to September); dry, cool northeast monsoon (November to mid-March); southern isthmus always hot and humid
Time Zone: The time zone used in Thailand is ‘Indochina Time’ (ICT) which is UTC +7
Currency: Thai Baht
Government: Thailand has a constitutional monarchy but is currently led by a military Junta which took power in May 2014, following which, General Prayuth Chan-ocha became Prime Minister. Following the 1932 Siamese coup d'état, in which the system of absolute monarchy was replaced by a constitutional monarchy, Thailand’s military has seized power 12 times.The current King, Maha Vajiralongkorn, ascended the throne in 2016 following the death of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadei. Much loved by the Thai people, King Bhumibol had lived to become the world’s longest reigning monarchy prior to his death. Unfortunately, King Maha Vajiralongkorn is not popular in Thailand and has a poor reputation for his ‘playboy’ lifestyle. Many Thais would have preferred the ascension of his sister to the throne as she’s known for her engagement in charitable causes and her help for the poor but palace rules prohibit women from the throne. This issue could become a significant challenge to the long-term viability of the Thai monarchy.
Internet penetration: 39.3% (July 2015 est.)
[A monk stands before a statue of The Buddha; Thailand is a place rich in Buddhist history, learning and culture]
INTRODUCTION TO THAILAND
Whilst its neighbours fell prey to the colonising powers of Europe, Japan and the United States, Thailand holds a unique position in South East Asia for its ability to have retained its integrity.
This was not without a price however, as Thailand was not only compelled to give away large areas of land to the French and English but was also forced to end its position of neutrality during World War II and side with the Japanese – or face being taken over. Called Siam until 1939, the bloodless Siamese coup d’état ended the rule of absolute monarchy and resulted in the renaming of the country to ‘Thailand’.
Although Thailand had aligned with the Japanese during the second world war, it proceeded to become a US ally in 1954 whereby it fought alongside America during the Vietnam war.
Politically tumultuous, Thailand has faced coups in 1932, 1947 2006 and 2014. There is also considerable violence due to the ethno-nationalist insurgency taking place in its Malay-Muslim majority province which has resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians.
LANGUAGE IN THAILAND
The Thai language is comprised of 44 consonants, 32 vowels and five tones in Thai pronunciation, along with a script that has Indian origins.
The Thai language, belonging to the ‘Tai’ family, is the standard spoken language in Thailand and is used for governmental and administrative purposes across the country. Regional dialects are particularly distinct depending on whether the speaker is from the North or South of Thailand.
Other languages spoken in Thailand are Chinese, Lao, Malay and Mon-Khmer. The use of English is becoming more prevalent in government and commerce. It is also being taught as a second language in secondary school and universities, which enables the English-speaking visitor in Thailand to have little trouble conversing.
The largest concentration of people speaking Thai outside of the country is in the US; in particular in the states of California and Los Angeles.
WARNING! Remember this is only a very basic level introduction to Thai culture and the people; it can not account for the diversity within Thai society and is not meant in any way to stereotype all Thai people you may meet!
THAI CULTURE & SOCIETY
Religion & Beliefs
With 93% of adherents, Buddhism is the official religion in Thailand with Islam as the largest minority religious group at 5% of adherents. Christians account for 1.2% of the Thai population and those in the ‘other’ or non-religious category account for 0.8%.
[Muslim Thai children outside a traditional Islamic school near Krabi, southern Thailand]
Major Celebrations/Secular Celebrations
Thais, from across both the public and private sector, typically enjoy upwards of 16 public holidays a year. Whilst some occur on the same day each year, others are based on the lunar calendar and dates are as such open to change. Let’s look at some of the most popular:
- New Year (31st December to 1st January) – The day typically starts with offerings and worship at the local Buddhist temple. As with most other countries, the time is then celebrated with family, friends, food and drink.
- Magha Puga (Falling on the third lunar month of the year) – Magha Puga (also transliterated as Makha Bucha or Magha Puja) is an important Buddhist celebration which is celebrated throughout the Buddhist wold – including, but not limited to, Laos, Cambodia, Nepal and Myanmar. The occasion celebrates the special event in which Buddha transmitted the principles of Buddhism to over a thousand ‘Arahants’ or ‘Enlightened Ones’. Buddhists strive particularly on this day to avoid sin, carry out good actions and to purify one’s mind. Thais refer to these three principles as the ‘heart of Buddhism’.
- Chakri Day (6th April) - This holiday is celebrated within the public sector but less so within the private sector. Although Chakri Day celebrates both the coronation of Rama I to the throne in 1782 and the contributions of subsequent Kings to the current day King. The day is also used as an opportunity to prepare for the much loved, three-day long Songkran festival which falls three days after Chakri day.
- Songkran (13th April – 15th April) – Known as ‘Songkran’, the Thai New Year is one of the most loved Thai holidays and it is celebrated with vigour. The event is usually celebrated with parades, family events, food, drink and religious ceremonies. The most loved activities include water due to its association with purification. Prepare to get wet if you visit during this period as both children and adults have turned the occasion into a three-day long water fight! Even those passing by on motorbike are not immune from a good soaking.
- Visakha Puja (4th June) – Undoubtedly the holiest of Buddhist religious ceremonies, Visakha celebrates the birth, enlightenment and nirvana (the state to which Buddhists aspire of perfect peace and release from suffering) of Buddha. Those marking the occasion attend temple celebrations during the day and participate in circumbulations o the local temple during the evening.
- Chulalongkorn Day (23rd October) – This national holiday, marks the life of one of Thailand’s most revered Kings, King Chulalongkorn who died on 23rd October, 1910. He is credited with, amongst other accolades, maintaining the integrity of Thailand the face of aggressive European colonialization within the region and modernising Thailand.
- Constitution Day (10th December) – Constitution Day celebrates the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932 and the introduction of the Thai constitutional monarchy. The day celebrates the monarchy through parades and fireworks and thanks them for granting them the right to run their own affairs.
- Thai families are the cornerstone of life in Thailand and, although nuclear family setups are the norm, it is not uncommon for extended family members live with the family.
- Families are typically far more closely knit than those in western culture and hierarchy is more pronounced.
- Social stratification demographics in Thailand have changed considerably over the last fifty years.
- Social stratification traditionally consisted of an elite section of Thai noble people, complimented by a small foreign merchant class, and a large class of poorer rural dwellers.
- Over the years however, these distinctions have changed and wealth has played a key role in establishing a middle class which has grown considerably.
- The elite class and poorer rural dwellers still exist, but the latter has grown to include poorer dwellers of the growing urban areas.
- Traditional gender divisions exist in Thailand in respect to child care and domestic work, with women taking on the vast majority of these tasks.
- In an agricultural setting, there is a great deal of overlap in tasks carried out between the genders whilst men dominate roles within the religious sphere.
- Women make up almost half of the labour force and account for over half of the workforce.
- The Thai government are working to combat violence against women and women’s rights are built into the constitution.
- Most frequent violations against women include domestic abuse (affecting women across the socio-economic spectrum), discrimination and prostitution trafficking.
- Children have a special place in Thai society and are typically doted on by family members and non-family adults.
- Mothers rarely, if ever, leave their babies and will typically take them wherever they go.
- Babies are weaned at two or three years of age. They learn from the people and implements around them and are often given access to the tools used by their parents.
- In this respect, the children of craftsmen, farmers etc. will grow up with a passive (and often active) understanding of parental crafts.
- The government provide children with free education for a minimum period of 12 years and children are mandated to attend for at least 9 of these 12 years.
- Thai cuisine is much loved internationally and Thai restaurants are a feature of most large cities around the world.
- In 2011, Thai dishes featured more than the dishes of any other country on an online CNN poll.
- Thai cuisine is a complex fusion of sweet, sour, salty, spicy and bitter flavours which are balanced in a way that creates ‘harmony’.
- Rice plays such an important role in Thai cuisine that the word for ‘rice’ and ‘food’ is the same.
- It is typically eaten at all meals and comes in the form of standard white rice, or, it is of the sticky, glutinous variety. It is usually eaten using a spoon and fork in dishes containing seafood, beef, pork, chicken or vegetables.
Thai cuisine varies depending on region, with differences primarily reflecting the food preferences of the region’s neighbours. Many popular Thai dishes were introduced by the Chinese during the 15th century and European influences on Thai cuisine were gradually introduced from the 17th century onwards. Some of the most popular dishes include:
- Pad Thai – Pad Thai could well be considered a national Thai dish due to its popularity both in Thailand and abroad It consists of noodles, with fish sauce, tamarind and stir fried with other ingredients such as egg, shrimp, shallots, garlic, ginger, chilli, soy sauce, bean sprouts and peanuts. It is often sold as street food.
- Thai Green Curry – This is a fragrant and popular dish, which consists of coconut cream, green chillies, lemon grass and a key ingredient such as chicken or fish balls.
- Tom Yum Soup –The basic building blocks of Tom Yum (or Tom Yam) soup are lemon grass, lime juice, fish sauce, chillies and kaffir lime. Shrimp is then typically used as the key ingredient.
Arts, Humanities & Popular Culture
- The arts are supported by both private and public groups.
- There are colleges of dance, music and drama in Thailand and a very popular national theatre.
- There are also organisations which support the work of Thai artisans
- Fictional writing has changed greatly over the years, and modern fiction is generally built around plots which detail the lives of ordinary people; particularly depicting the struggles of those in the poorer classes
- Traditional folk dance have influenced a love of classical dance in Thailand and national festivals are fairly popular events.
[Typical Thai food restaurant to be found across Bangkok and the rest of Thailand]
SOCIAL CUSTOMS & ETIQUETTE IN THAILAND
- The first name is usually preceded by the word ‘Khun’ (pronounced ‘Koon’) which is used as a blanket term to refer to Miss, Mrs or Mr – for example, Khun Mary or Khun Simon.
- People of importance, such as teachers, professors or monks, the first name should be preceeded with ‘Ajarn’.
- Surnames are reserved for very formal occasions or written documentation.
- It is not uncommon for Thais to assign nicknames to each other.
Meeting & Greeting
- The ‘wai’ is the traditional form of greeting, given by the person of lower status to the person of higher status.
- The wai is the common form of greeting and adheres to strict rules of protocol.
- Raising both hands, palms joined with the fingers pointing upwards as if in prayer, lightly touching the body somewhere between the chest and the forehead, is the standard form.
- The wai is both a sign of respect as well as a greeting. Respect and courtesy are demonstrated by the height at which the hands are held and how low the head comes down to meet the thumbs of both hands.
- The wai may be made while sitting, walking, or standing.
- The person who is junior in age or status is the first one to offer the wai.
- The senior person returns the wai, generally with their hands raised to somewhere around their chest.
- If a junior person is standing and wants to wai a senior person who is seated, the junior person will stoop or bow their head while making the wai.
- If there is a great social distance between two people, the wai will not be returned.
- If invited to a Thai home, then allow your host and hostess to introduce you to the other guests. This enables other guests to understand your status relative to their own, and thus know who performs the wai and how low the head should be bowed.
In Thailand, even Ronald McDonald offers the wai gesture to greet...
- Close friends may be tactile with one another and it’s not unusual to see friends of the same sex often hold hands with one another.
- Hand gestures may be used to enhance speech but it’s important that the actions are calm and never aggressive.
- Thais are gentle people and are likely to be offended and upset by aggressive speech or mannerisms.
- ‘Face’ is important to Thais and it is important that you do nothing to affect someone’s ‘face’ – if you need to say something of a critical nature then ensure that you do so in private
- Thais are ‘indirect’ communicators and, as such are unlikely to directly say anything that may hurt or offend you. Instead, they may use vague responses or try to change the subject. Although this may appear to be indecisiveness on their part, efforts should be made to try and interpret their true feelings.
- Personal Space - When speaking to strangers Thais maintain a distance barrier of approximately one meter. This distance is lessened when speaking to close acquaintances. Although it is polite to retain eye contact during a conversation, it is expected that those in subordinate positions will bow their head during interactions with those of a revered rank in a demonstration of respect.
- If invited to a Thai's home, a gift is not expected, although it will be appreciated.
- Gifts should be wrapped attractively, since appearance matters. Bows and ribbons add to the sense of festivity.
- Appropriate gifts are flowers, good quality chocolates or fruit.
- Do not give marigolds or carnations, as they are associated with funerals.
- Try to avoid wrapping a gift in green, black or blue as these are used at funerals and in mourning.
- Gold and yellow are considered royal colours, so they make good wrapping paper.
- Only use red wrapping paper if giving a gift to a Chinese Thai.
- Gifts are not opened when received.
- Money is the usual gift for weddings and ordination parties.
Dining & Food
- A fork and spoon are the usual eating utensils. However, noodles are often eaten with chopsticks.
- The spoon is held in the right hand and the fork in the left. The fork is used to guide food on to the spoon. Sticky rice, a northern Thai delicacy, is often eaten with the fingers of the right hand.
- Most meals are served as buffets or with serving platters in the centre of the table family- style.
- You may begin eating as soon as you are served.
- Leave a little food on your plate after you have eaten to show that you are full. Finishing everything indicates that you are still hungry.
- Never leave rice on your plate as it is considered wasteful. The words for food and rice are the same. Rice has an almost mystical significance in addition to its humdrum 'daily bread' function.
- Never take the last bite from the serving bowl.
- Wait to be asked before taking a second helping.
- Do not lick your fingers.
Visiting a home
If you are invited to a Thai's house:
- Arrive close to the appointed time, although being a few minutes late will not cause offence.
- Check to see if the host is wearing shoes. If not, remove yours before entering the house.
- Ask another guest to confirm the dress code.
- Step over the threshold rather than on it. This is an old custom that may be dying out with younger Thais, but erring on the side of conservatism is always a good idea.
Taboos in Thailand
- Do not use aggressive gestures or overly loud speech during conversation.
- Do not sit with your feet pointing towards people.
- If sleeping in a Thai home then avoid sleeping with your feet towards the family alter.
- Do not give black gifts or yellow flowers as gifts.
- Do not criticise the royal family.
- Do not touch the top of someone’s head as this is considered the most sacred part of the body.
- Do not eat with your left hand.
[Thai business culture is deep rooted in Buddhism, with 'face' and honour key to understanding the people]
BUSINESS CULTURE, ETIQUETTE AND PROTOCOL IN THAILAND
What to wear
- Business attire is conservative.
- Men should wear dark coloured conservative business suits.
- Women should wear conservative business suits or dresses. Women need not wear hosiery.
- Since Thai's judge you on your clothing and accessories, ensure that your shoes are always highly polished.
- Thais tend to be very polite in their interactions and, as such, titles play an important role
- They typically addresss foreign visitors by their first name – this does not suggest familiarity, e.g. Mrs Sandra or Mr Timothy
- Address Thais with ‘Khun’ (see naming conventions above)
- Business cards are given out after the initial handshake and greeting. In theory, you should give your card to the most senior person first.
- It is advisable to have one side of your business card translated into Thai
- Using your right hand, deliver your business card so the Thai side faces the recipient.
- Look at a business card for a few seconds before placing it on the table or in a business card case.
- As in most Asian countries, it is polite to make some comment about the card, even if it is only to acknowledge the address
- Appointments are necessary and should be made one month in advance.
- It is good idea to send a list of who will be attending the meeting and their credentials so that Thais know the relative status of the people attending the meeting and can plan properly.
- You should arrive at meetings on time as it signifies respect for the person you are meeting.
- Although most Thais will try to be on time, punctuality is a personal trait.
- Always send an agenda and material about your company as well as data to substantiate your position prior to the meeting. Allow sufficient time for the material to be reviewed and digested.
- Remain standing until told where to sit. The hierarchical culture has strict rules about rank and position in the group.
- Written material should be available in both English and Thai.
- You must be patient.
- Individuals embarking on a negotiation with Thai counterparts should bear in mind the importance of personal relationships when conducting business.
- Since it takes time to develop trusting relationships, it is essential that you do not rush the meetings and approach the topic of business prematurely:
- It is not unusual for initial meetings to take place in restaurants or bars to facilitate initial relationship building.
- Bear in mind the section on ‘Communication Style’ above, which details the indirect communication nature of Thais and be mindful of potential disagreements.
- Your Thai counterpart may avoid confrontation or seek to save your ‘face’ by seeming to agree with something that they are not actually in agreement with.
- The signs that this might be the case, will be in observable in your counterpart’s body language
- Negations may be extremely protracted affairs
- Formality is the essence of business in Thailand and strict rules of protocol are observed.
- Older Thai companies still observe a tradition of rigid hierarchy. However, this is starting to change in some of the younger and more globally facing business.
- Junior staff are typically very respectful of their managers and managers take on the traditional role of ‘manager’ as decision maker and central leader.
- Managers typically ‘look out’ for their staff and are careful not to shame or embarrass in front of their team members.
- Read more about Being a Manager in Thailand.
Thank you for reading our guide to Thailand. We hope you found it useful. If you have anything to add to our country profile please contact us as we are keen to ensure accuracy.
Quiz: Test Your Knowledge of Thai Culture!
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