The way of life in Thailand, especially outside of the more tourist visited areas and big cities, is very different to the way of life that you are probably used to.
Some things may feel strange, others charming, and others down and out irritating, but once you get used to the Thai way of doing things and learn a little about Thai culture, you will surely fall in love with living and working in Thailand.
There are several useful tips to help you understand the differences and make matters a little less overwhelming for when you arrive in Thailand.
What to Remember When Going to Teach in Thailand
Understand the Wai
The wai is the typical Thai greeting. Thai’s do not generally shake hands, although it is becoming more common in international business settings, hug or air kiss like you may see in other countries. It is used in a range of other different social situations, including saying goodbye, giving thanks, apologizing, praying to Buddha, and showing respect to sacred places and buildings. To wai, place both hands together, with your palms flat and your fingers outstretched. Whilst you will learn different forms of the wai throughout your time in Thailand, as a general guide to start with, try and hold your hands at chest level, then dip your head whilst fluidly raising your hands slightly so that your middle fingers and your nose are at the same level. If somebody wais you, always return the wai, unless it is a service person or a child. There are lots of social rules surrounding who should wai who; as a general rule, people should wai someone older or of a higher social position. Practically, this means when you meet the principle of your new school, any teacher coordinators or an older Thai teacher you should wai them. Even if you get it wrong, it shows respect and they will be thankful. Each time you see them, you should wai.
Avoid Public Displays of Affection
Thais find public displays of affection quite offensive. They don’t do it, so you shouldn’t do it either.
Do Not Touch a Person’s Head
In Thai culture, the head is seen as being the most spiritual part of a person’s body. Even though you may see people playfully ruffling the hair of children, as a foreigner you should avoid touching anyone’s head, of any age. It is also polite to stoop slightly if you must pass between people who are talking.
Be Careful with Your Feet
The feet are the lowest part of the body, and using your feet to point, stepping over people or things, and certainly directing your feet towards a Buddha image is seen as being really disrespectful. I have a friend who, whilst sat on the stage, crossed her legs in a school ceremony; the collective gasp from the students and the slap to her leg from the Thai teacher next to her quickly made her see her error. It also made her want to crawl under a stone and never reappear. So, be careful how you point your feet!
Everything in Thailand is a lot slower than in many western countries. When your bus is late, accept it. When you are waiting for an appointment with someone and they are delayed, accept it. Do as the Thais do, and simply smile.
Mai Bpen Rai
You will surely learn to recognize this phrase quite quickly in Thailand. It helps if you can try to adopt this attitude – at times you will need it! It roughly means no worries, never mind, and no problem. Thais generally do not let things stress them out or worry them in the same way as many foreigners do. You’ve missed your bus – mai bpen rai. Your computer has broken – mai bpen rai. You’re vegetarian and your meal has chicken in it – mai bpen rai. Nobody told you school is closed today – mai bpen rai. You’re undergoing a personal tragedy – mai bpen rai. This does not mean that Thai people do not care about your problems, rather it just means that they are trying to minimalise negative feelings. Linked to this, is Thais will rarely show anger or extreme emotions in public. If you start shouting about something, or burst into uncontrollable tears, you will likely be seen as being slightly crazy.
Many Thais Believe in Ghosts
Many Thai people, especially outside of the major cities, have a strong belief in ghosts in spirits. This can often seem quite peculiar to an outsider, but beliefs are deep set and can affect many aspects of a Thai’s life. No matter what your beliefs are, just smile politely if you hear Thais talking about ghosts.
There are Spirit Houses Everywhere
Each town has a communal spirit house where offerings are given to the town’s spirits. Many parks, homes, shops, offices and other buildings also have shrines where items are left. Another teacher I know, on first arriving in Thailand, was so incensed at seeing someone leave something on a beautiful shrine she not only glared at him, but removed the item and put it in the bin. Her intentions were good; she genuinely believed she was helping to tidy the place up. In reality, she threw an offering in the bin. Although this is an extreme example, it is something to bear in mind.
Buddhism and the Royal Family are Sacred
Keep your opinions on either topic to yourself, especially if they are less than positive. To speak negatively against Buddhism or the Royal Family can quickly lose you friends in Thailand.
Get Used to a Constant Stream of Personal Questions
Thais are very inquisitive, and do not share the same perceptions of privacy when it comes to questions. You will often be asked how old you are, if you are married, whether you have children, how much you earn, how much rent you pay, and similar. If you are not comfortable answering these questions, smile and change the topic, or else tell a semi-truth. Connected to this, Thais are not shy about dishing out what could be seen as personal comments. They do not mean to be rude, they are simply stating what they believe to be true. If someone tells you that you are fat, as happened to me early on in Thailand, smile in the same way you would if they said you were beautiful. (I have also been told this.) Don’t take offence.
Thais Use Nicknames
Most Thai people are given two names at birth; their full name and their nickname. Their nicknames are therefore chosen by their parents, and not something that they, or their friends have chosen. If somebody tells you their nickname, it means that they want you to use that name. Nicknames are almost always far easier to remember and say than the full name anyway, so it is convenient to use the nicknames.
There is Dual Pricing System
For many attractions, there are two different prices listed for foreigners and nationals. The foreigner price is higher. With a Work Permit though, some places will allow you to pay the lower Thai price. This can save you a fair bit of money over the course of your time in Thailand. The double pricing system can be a little strange though when you first notice it. You will probably also find that you pay more for some forms of transport, especially tuk tuks and motorbike taxis, than locals do, and that market prices may sometimes be more. The general perception is that foreigners are rich. This is a way of life in Thailand.
Although many things may seem so different when you first arrive in Thailand, there are also things that you will find fairly similar to back at home. Once you have adapted to some of the cultural differences, Thailand is actually a very easy place to live. Locals may not always understand you, but they are usually friendly and will generally try and help you. Knowing a little bit about what to expect in Thailand, and how to try and deal with the difference, before you arrive in the country can really help your transition into a new culture a lot easier and a lot less confusing.
What other tips would you suggest for adapting to Thai culture?
Do you agree with the above list, or have your experiences been very different? What did you find the greatest cultural difference when you first moved to Thailand?