Different country, different culture: Thailand

Temple Thailand sunset

Travelling means being aware of another countries customs. Sometimes these are made very obvious to you, like with signs telling you not to enter a building unless you are dressed a certain way, and other times you have no clue why people seem to take offense at something you did.

Chances are you try to inform yourself about cultural differences before your trip – but it’s only after experiencing the culture of your destination that you start to understand to which extent rules apply. It pays off to observe the locals, and it also pays off to watch other travellers interact with them. Them getting it marvellously right or terribly wrong can make for the odd valuable culture lesson.

So what about Thailand? We found Thai people to be very friendly and polite. They love to laugh and giggle. They are generous and kind and always willing to help you. It is a culture that focuses on positivity, to an extent where people might not answer a question you have asked them because they would have to tell you that they don’t know or that what you want is not available.

In the three months we spend in Thailand, we also learned that getting upset doesn’t get you anywhere. Nor does being critical, behaving aggressively, raising your voice or arguing. It is considered incredibly impolite, even insulting. You always “save face” – yours and others.

The worst thing you can do to someone is to cause them to lose face, so you want to avoid that. Amongst other things to keep in mind is the perception that the head is the highest and most honourable part of the body, which for you means to not touch other peoples heads. I guess that is not something that you would do normally, anyway, but remember that this also applies for touching children’s heads.

The feet, on the other hand, are the lowest and ‘dirtiest’ part of the body. Do not move objects with your feet and don’t shove them into anybody’s face. Do take your shoes off when you enter a temple or a person’s home.

Thailand rules shoes sign

Show respect for the Royal Family. Insulting the king is a reason to be jailed, so try to avoid that. I noticed that it’s best not to talk at all about the Royal family with Thai people, as I felt it made them feel uncomfortable when I brought it up.

These are the most important etiquette rules. There are others, like for example that a woman should not touch a monk, nor hand anything to him, but mostly it boils down to basic manners. You know, you should keep your body clean, wear decent and appropriate clothes, not be intimate in public – these kind of things.

Of course you’re still a foreigner and can’t get everything right. We went to visit a temple and a nun showed us around. She handed me an informational pamphlet about the temple which at one point I stuck between my knees because I needed my hands free for a second, and she kind of froze, hesitated for a moment and then told me that because there are images of the Buddha and also various important monks in the leaflet, it was disrespectful to put it where I had put it.

It was a very nice gesture of her because she gave me the benefit of doubt, and made the effort to address and explain the issue. When something is very clear and obvious to you, it is often hard to imagine that the other person just doesn’t know better and that they didn’t mean to offend you or your culture. In my case that would have been the last thing I had wanted to do, so I apologized repeatedly.

Experiences like these can however also go really wrong – and leave you wondering what exactly it was that got you into trouble. We witnessed an incident on our travels, and I think it’s a tale worth telling.

We had just been on a three-day tour to the beautiful Similan Islands. In the afternoon a boat brought us back to a little pier, together with a whole load of fellow travellers. From here we were distributed to different mini-busses which would take us back to wherever we were all staying. Our hotel was in Phuket, which meant that we had a two hour drive ahead of us. We hopped on our bus with another seven people and set off.

Similan islands beach

It didn’t take long when suddenly the motor went off, but the driver just switched it on again whilst the vehicle was rolling down the road, and it actually worked.

Then it went off again. Everyone sat in silence as we got used to the motor dying and being revived for the next 15 minutes or so of driving. The air-conditioning didn’t seem to be working, either. Finally, when it came to going up a hill, we had to stop.

We didn’t really know what was happening. Our driver seemed a bit stressed. He left the car, assumedly to get help. We had stopped in front of a shop that sold ice-cream, so everyone  went in and got some. The other passengers were a Chinese girl who lived in Thailand and whom we had already met during our stay on the Similan Islands, and six people from Russia, a couple with a teenage daughter and  a group of two girls, one guy, who seemed to be on a holiday together.

We got back in the bus and waited for the driver to return. I noticed that the teenage daughter as well as one of the two girls had put their feet up on the headrest. One belonged to a seat that wasn’t used, while the other one was the one of the driver’s seat. None of the people in the bus made the impression of being of the obnoxious kind, but I found that a bit rude, even though I don’t think they meant to be rude.

I wondered if this would cause any trouble with the driver, what with the ‘sacred head, dirty feet’-thing. But when he came back, he didn’t seem to pay any attention to it, with the girl immediately removing her feet, anyway. He was still not in a good mood, though, avoiding eye contact, not really answering the young Russian guy who offered advice about the car.

Now I had noticed before that the Russian and the Thai culture do not necessarily go together well. Russians are pretty assertive and direct; they express respect and friendliness very differently than Thai people do, who use smiling and acting humble. So even though I understood that the young Russian was just trying to be helpful, I also understood how the driver might have gotten it wrong and felt insulted by the way he was addressed.

Thailand van sawasdee sign wai

He had brought back some fuel from his little excursion – enough to take us up the hill where we found a gas station. I assume he knew all along he was out of fuel but had hoped to make it to there. I was just glad there wasn’t anything seriously wrong with the car.

So we filled up the tank and drove on. And drove further. And drove some more. It got dark. We crossed the bridge that connects the mainland with Phuket, but had still another hour or so to go. Our driver drove quite fast. In fact, he drove a bit too fast, even for Thai standards.

After a slightly scary manoeuvre the young Russian asked him to slow down a bit. Twenty metres later we came to a screeching halt at the side of the road, and the driver, visibly upset, told the guy to get out. He refused, confused as to why he was asked to get out, but not aware of having done anything wrong. So he asked the driver to drive on – to which the driver refused. There was quite a bit of tension in the air. So we just all sat there.

At this point the Russian family father in the back decided it was all enough. He also asked the driver to drive on, and when the driver refused, he got out of the car and went around to the driver’s door.

Up ‘til then, I hadn’t thought this would be anything else but just unpleasant, but now it seemed to take a turn for the worse and about to get physical. The driver got out of the bus as well which surprised me because he was about half the size of the Russian father – and unless he was secretly a Thai boxing champion I could not see how this would end well for him. But there he stood, staring at the Russian man, who for his part stared at him.

They stared a bit, then the Russian turned around and went back into the car. The driver also got back in and started driving again.

Thailand rules clothing sign

This turn didn’t make much sense to me, until Loz told me later about the significant detail that I had missed due to my aisle seat position (Loz sat at the window): the Thai driver had emerged from the car with a gigantic machete which apparently had made him an opponent who had to be taken a bit more seriously. Holy crap.

We drove on, in a “we’re probably all going to die in an horrible accident”-style. Suddenly the father in the back yelled “Stop, stop!” because he had noticed that we had just passed the hotel where he and his family were staying. The driver stopped and the family got out. The door was closed again, we drove on.

The young Russian noticed that we weren’t going the right way to his hotel, so he told the driver. The driver shouted at him that he was not going to go where he (the young Russian) wanted to go – he was going to go back to Phuket City, and nothing else. The young Russian tried to reason with him, but realised he wasn’t going to change the driver’s mind, so he asked to be dropped off, to which the driver abided, and he and the two girls left. I guess they then got a cab to their hotel, without ever having an idea why they were treated so terribly.

It was just the Chinese girl and Loz and me now. We had kept a low profile through the whole thing, thinking it was best not to get involved. After five to ten minutes, the driver had very much calmed down. He dropped us off close to our hotel and asked if we would be alright from here. He even came out and pointed us in the right direction. He was a whole different man, friendly and steady, if only a bit weary.

Buddha black and white Sukhothai

So when we tried to figure out why he snapped, we came to the conclusion that it must have been the foot-on-the-headrest thing. And I don’t think Thai people snap easily. I think they have to be put under quite a lot of pressure. Our driver had been so upset, in a somehow desperate way, unable to address or deal with what has caused his aggravation, but it must have been a pretty big deal to him. So if this is what happens if you make someone ‘lose face’, then boy, you better not give it a try!

Well, that’s all, really. I certainly won’t tell anyone what to do. Loz and I had a wonderful time in Thailand and didn’t get into any trouble, but I did witness that sometimes something we said or did caused confusion, maybe disapproval (often hard to tell), and I’m pretty sure we could have made a bigger effort, learning more of the language, trying to talk more to locals.

So who knows what stirs we caused just because we managed to avoid the biggest pit-falls. But: with the bit of effort we made we were treated so well, that I feel sorry some people won’t experience that, and might instead go home with memories very different from ours.

Maybe every now and again on my travels it’s a challenge to adapt to and respect another culture because a few things don’t make sense to me, but it’s mostly an exciting and rewarding one, isn’t it? Also I for my part don’t find the culture of my own country particularly flawless, so who am I to judge others, anyway.

I hope you find the approach and attitude that works best for you and lets you have many rewarding experiences on your travels. Machetes might or might not feature. Take care!

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