“Chang, Chang, Chang,” we all sing, our shoulders tucked into our noses and our one arm hanging to depict an elephant trunk.
It’s nighttime, and Jack and Chai have called us up to the conference room to teach us about Thai culture and the Thai language.
The first thing that sticks in my head? Elephant in Thai is “Chang.” Just like the beer I have grown to love with the white elephant against the forest green background.
But, there’s more we learn. Much more.
Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist culture, therefore it differs greatly from what most Westerners are used to.
What’s it called when you put your hands together in front of your face? And, what does it mean?
The Wai is this prayer-like gesture you see everywhere in Thailand, accompanied by a bow of the head. It is done as a sign of respect to royalty, monks, elders, family, employers and those socially equal or greater than the person who is doing the Wai-ing. But, it’s more complicated than that. There are a few variations of the Wai based on the level of respect to show a person. Jack explains there are four levels of the Wai — thumbs at the bridge of the nose for royalty and monks; thumbs at the tip of the nose for respected elders; the most common, thumbs at the chin for an employer or person of greater social status; and thumbs at chest level for friends and those on the same social level. However, should someone Wai you, the response is the last variation — chest level. The Wai is used to say in greeting, departure and as a “thank you.” Get all of that?
Don’t use your feet to point. Seriously.
In Thai culture, feet are considered dirty and pointing with your feet is disrespectful.
I was standing with Chai after we had our Thai culture class and was horrified when, in coversation, there was something on the ground, and I pointed at it with my foot (which was in a shoe). The lesson from the night before replayed in my mind, and I ducked my head in embarassment, offering a quiet apology for my faux paux.
If you’re in a Buddhist temple/sitting in front of a statute or with Buddhist monks, sit in the mermaid position with your feet pointing away from them.
This goes back to the belief that the feet are the dirtiest part of the body. Sit with your knees tucked to your side and the soles of your feet pointing away from the statue or monk. When I was being blessed by the shaman and was sitting in a permanent Wai during my time, the mermaid position became very uncomfortable. If you can lean your weight on your arms a bit, it shouldn’t be as bad. But, keep this in mind should you want to be blessed during a longer ceremony.
Keep your clothes on …
The first time we went to bathe elephants, Jack asked us to please respect Thai culture, which is to not show skin. So, for the week, we bathed elephants wearing clothing.
I was shocked when I got a massage one evening and an older couple came up to the room to receive massages, too. The recipients of the massages were all laying on mats, fully-clothed. The woman took off her pants as she sat down, showing her underwear to the entire woman. The woman from the nearby village who were giving us our massages giggled nervously when she laid down, ready for her treatment. It got even worse when the man took off his shirt, explaining it was too constrictive for him and “this” was better.
It was all I could do not to pop up from my relaxed state and throw their clothing back at them and explain to them they needed to keep their clothing on.
But take your shoes off.
Feet are dirty (so be sure to keep them clean), but shoes are even dirtier. Remove them when going into homes, schools, small shops and more. A general rule of thumb? If you are about to enter somewhere and there are shoes outside of the door, follow the leader and take yours off, too.
Don’t get too into touching.
Kissing and hugging aren’t the norm in Thailand. You will see people holding hands — couples, friends of the same and opposite sex — just don’t get too touchy. It can make people uncomfortable. Also, never touch a Thai person’s head. And, if you are a woman, do not touch a monk. Ever.
This is a good rule to follow, regardless of where you are. Always put your best foot forward and be a glowing representative of your country. Thai people are charmingly polite and seem to always have a smile on their face.
What other Thai culture tips can you provide? Have you ever accidentally done one of these things? Share your stories!
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