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Thais are fiercely loyal to both the royal family and nation. While the constitutional monarchy does not have direct say in government affairs, the king and royal family are highly respected and visible in everyday life, from images of the current and past kings displayed everywhere from private homes to public highways, to the playing of the king’s song before every movie begins in the cinema (if you go to a film, make sure to stand up with the rest of the audience as a sign of respect).
Additionally, the national anthem is played every day at 8:00am and 6:00pm in schools and public places. Again, all people are expected to stand up and wait quietly until the anthem has finished. You’ll likely witness this phenomenon while at a market or when using public transportation like at a BTS station.
Any words or actions that could potentially be negative or critical of the royal family or government are handled very seriously and come with severe consequences.
An overwhelming majority of the population (more than 95%) identify as Theravada Buddhist sprinkled with heavy doses of animism and ancestor worship depending on the region and ethnic background of the local population. Thais grown up learning Buddhist teachings, like concepts of reincarnation, non-attachment and meditation. These beliefs are highly visible in everyday life through the country’s glittering temples, saffron-robed monks, colorful shrines and strings wrapped around people’s wrists as blessings.
Every morning, monks walk through the streets collecting alms of food and money from the local people who believe they gain merit, or improve their karma, through making donations. Temples play a significant role in local communities, housing monks (most Thai men enter the monkhood at least once during their life) and holding special celebrations, community events, fundraisers and festivals. Some temples offer “monk chats” where tourists can speak directly with the monks.
Guests are welcome to visit Thailand’s Buddhist temples – significant ones are obvious attractions for both foreign and Thai tourists – but there are several things to keep in mind. It’s important to dress modestly (covering knees, shoulders and cleavage). This is especially true for women but also extends to men. It’s a good idea to keep a sarong, scarf or button-up shirt on hand to cover up.
You’ll find a mix of spaces including shrines, the main temple building or viharn that’s used for public gatherings and chanting, monks’ living quarters and meditation spaces. It’s common to wander around the grounds but be aware of any signs marking off-limits areas.
While some of the country’s popular temples have entrance fees, most are free to enter but it’s a nice gesture to leave a small donation (20-100 baht will do).
Visitors are expected to be quiet and not point at or touch things (especially with your feet!). Usually taking photos is accepted, but be discreet and don’t take photos of other people.
Over the centuries Buddhist beliefs have blended with ancient animist practices, local folklore and respect for the supernatural to create myriad rituals, beliefs and traditions ingrained in Thai culture.
Sacred amulets crafted by venerated monks and spiritual are believed to protect the wearer from bad luck and bad spirits, as are the ancient Thai tattoos known as sak yant.
Spirit houses, which look like small temples atop pedestals, are situated on every property, whether it’s a private home or public company, with offerings of incense, flowers, sweets and drinks made daily to appease the spirits believed to live in and protect the space.
Flower garlands are also found at sites such as trees or caves where spirits have been detected, while businesses will place a statue of nang kwak, a beautiful woman beckoning with her hand, to bring in good luck and, more importantly, money.
Businesses will also regularly prepare offerings and bring in monks to chant and make merit in order to protect the place, ushering in good luck.
● Wai-ing – Instead of a handshake or hug, Thais greet each other and show respect by placing their hands together in prayer position. While it’s polite to return the gesture, there’s also a complicated set of rules surrounding the wai, so don’t feel obligated - a simple smile will do!
● Taking Shoes Off – Everyone is expected to take off their shoes before entering temples, homes, massages shops and even some stores.
● Being Aware of Feet –Thais believe the feet are the dirtiest part of the body and, aside from when you get a foot massage, feet should never be pointed at or face another person, especially a monk or Buddha statue. Resting your feet on things, like a chair or coffee table , is also frowned upon.
● Keeping Calm & Saving Face –Keeping calm and saving face is of utmost importance in all situations. You won’t get anywhere in Thailand if you raise your voice or act frustrated plus you’ll cause all parties to lose face, or dignity, which is the ultimate no-no.
Due to complicated histories and political situations, many of the different ethnic minorities still live in remote hill locations with farming as their main source of work and income. Most still follow their traditional ways of life including belief in animism as well as practicing traditional dances and wearing traditional clothing – each tribe can be identified by their style of dress, jewelry and headwear.
While visiting the north, you can’t go far without noticing vibrant tribal textiles for sale or even members of the tribes coming down from the mountains to do business. There are also many trekking and homestay experiences available to visitors to catch a glimpse of these different ways of life.
You can get around Thailand without speaking any Thai, but of course it’s nice to try and learn a few words. Here are the ones you’ll use the most:
Khop khun (thank you)
Khor thode (excuse me/sorry)
Arroy maak (very delicious)
Arroy maak maak (very, very delicious)
Mai ow (don’t want)
Mai bpen rai (never mind/no worries)
You’ll also hear the word farang a lot. Farang refers primarily to white-skinned foreigners and is used as a general term regardless of whether you’re here as a tourist or have lived in Thailand for decades.
For numbers, Thais use both Roman and Thai numerals:
๑ Neung (low tone)
๒ Song (rising tone)
๓ Saam (rising tone)
๔ See (low tone)
๕ Ha (falling tone)
๖ Hok (low tone)
๗ Jed (low tone)
๘ Bpaad (low tone)
๙ Gaow (falling tone)
๑๐ Sib (low tone)
As with much of the world, football is the sport of choice when it comes to both playing and watching and Thailand has an active national professional football league.
For more local pastimes, the ancient sport of sepak takrawis like kick volleyball where players kick a small rattan ball high into the air using their feet, knees, head and chest – it’s incredible to watch!
Another popular pursuit is cockfighting. Families raise roosters for battle and then take them to different cockfighting rings where onlookers bet on which bird will win in an intense fight.
For a less violent activity, outdoor evening aerobics classes are a hit with older women who can be seen bouncing along to blaring music in public parks and parking lots, while students love playing badminton during breaks from class or just in front of the homes as evening falls.
While there are transgender communities everywhere, in Thailand you will notice a seemingly high number of people known as ladyboys. Thailand’s ‘third gender’ has been an integral part of Thailand for centuries and you’ll find boys even in primary school exhibiting behaviors or preferences that suggest they’ll identify as a ladyboy.
The term ladyboy, or kathoey in Thai, encompasses a wide range of people – some men may just choose to dress as women while others go through procedures and gender reassignment surgery to be all female. While there are still prejudices and inequalities, typically ladyboys are accepted in society with a high proportion of ladyboys in the entertainment industry and ladyboy cabarets are a popular attraction throughout the country.
Thailand is also open and accepting to other members of the LGBT community and it’s not uncommon to see openly gay and lesbian couples wherever you go. In 2018, the country further secured its position as a welcoming and inclusive destination holding the LGBT+ Travel Symposium: Thailand and pledging to welcome even more LGBT travelers.
Thailand’s two most famous festivals are Loi Krathong, which takes places in October or November and is known for its fire lanterns and flower floats, and the Thai New Year, or Songkran, characterized by its nation-wide water fights.
Different regions and even specific villages are home to other local festivals and holidays, such as Chiang Mai’s annual Flower Festival in February or the Vegetarian Festival, which is most prevalent in Phuket every October.
Naturally, there are also a number of Buddhist holidays celebrating auspicious dates or teachings of the Buddha, such as Khao Pansa, which can be likened to a Buddhist version of Lent. Many holidays and celebrations don’t fall on the same dates every year as based around the lunar calendar.
Beyond traditional holidays, there’s even more to celebrate. While Thailand has its new year in April, the global New Year is still recognized and celebrated, and Christmas is often acknowledged.
Other fairs and festivals include the annual Wonderfruit arts and music festival.
Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out... The Buddha’s original meditation of choice, known as vipassana, is simply about observing your breath. What sounds simple is much harder in practice but still a central part of Thai culture. Everyone grows up learning how to practice vipassana meditation. Meditation schools and retreat programs can be found across the country at certain temples or special meditation centers and are popular with visitors trying to train their “monkey mind” for a shot at nirvana. Depending on the program, courses can range from short, overnight introductions to month-long retreats and are often silent. It’s best to do a little research and book your spot in advance for a retreat and expect to pay a suggested donation for your participation.
It’s also not uncommon to see someone sitting in a quiet spot in a temple or on temple grounds taking a few moments to reconnect with their breath and focus their mind.
While it may seem like a whole different world than what you’re used to, Thailand is relatively safe and easy to travel with kids. Many Thai people still live with extended family all under one roof and it seems like every person in the country absolutely loves little kids. When traveling with children, it’s not uncommon to be staying at a guest house or eating at a restaurant and have the staff come to play with your kid, sneak them a snack, or even take them away to play and meet the other staff. Large resorts often have special kids clubs offering activities and entertainment, while various outdoor adventures, activities and animal-focused offerings are a hit with kids. In places like Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai, large expat communities mean there are a wealth of schools, day cares and family-friendly activities to fill your time.
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