Tourists behaving badly. It happens everywhere. I’m sure you’ve seen it: drunken bar fights with locals over a bill. Tagging an historic landmark. Taking smiling group photos in places which are disrespectful (like Auschwitz).
Living as an expat in Thailand, I am treated to this display of very non PC behavior/stuff to make Thais blush daily. It ranges from the minor no-nos (like ladies not covering your shoulders/knees at a temple) to the obscene (like men not taking “no” for an answer at a bar with bar girls). It really bothers me because a) visitors either don’t bother to read up on etiquette before visiting this amazing country and opt for a “head in the sand” or possess the “what works in my home country surely works here” assumption; or b) they know better but choose to disregard cultural norms, simply justifying their holiday as their holiday, which allows them to act however they deem fit (or unfit).
For those planning a trip to Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand, here are some important things to keep in mind:
1. Don’t let it all hang out, ladies.
Thailand is conservative. I cannot count how many times I have seen women travelers donning nothing but a bikini under some sheer mesh shirt, and shorts that leave nothing to the imagination (including what their asses look like). Places like Chiang Mai are not beach towns. It isn’t respectful to walk around in next-to-nothing. Instead, cover up a bit. I know it gets hot here, so consider some linen dresses, pants, shirts. But, please, please, keep your goodies covered and leave people guessing a little. This counts even in tourist areas at the beach. If not on the water, pop a cute little cover-up over your swimmers.
Also, there have been stories reported in the news of women who rock up, scantilly clad to temples. This is a no-no. Shoulders and knees must be covered. Thai people are typically too polite to tell anyone to grab a scarf and cover up, but if shoulders are bare and shorts hang above the knees, know it isn’t OK.
2. Don’t haggle too much
Yes, bargaining is acceptable in Thailand. It can be fun and shop owners tend to negotiate prices with a smile when done politely. The markets are prime examples of where your shopping prowess and negotiating skills go hand-in-hand. When trying to lower the price (particularly at places like the Sunday Walking Street), only get involved if there is an actual plan to purchase the item. Especially if there are other people around waiting to haggle, too.
However, that does not mean every price tag in this country is negotiable. Food stalls, restaurants, goods and services — none of these things are appropriate to bargain for. I’ve seen people go up to red trucks and haggle for 10 baht. That is under 30 cents in USD. Is it worth it? Stories have been reported of westerners being killed over such a small amount of money. Remember, the salaries in Thailand are far less than what westerners make. And people have to make a living. Pennies are not worth a fight.
3. Men, be respectful
It is easy to get caught up in the bar girl and Thai dating scene in Thailand. I have seen so many men come to this country and act like it is a free-for-all because of the sex tourism. Sure, sex can be bought in Thailand. But, respect cannot. Acting like a douche will result in being treated like a douche, and likely being taken for a ride. And, just because sex is for sale does not mean every women out there is selling it or wants it. No is no is no, and arguing, being aggressive and worse will not result favorably. If a woman is not interested, do not continue to pursue her. If at a bar and she says f&^% off, then do just that. Don’t get in trouble with the staff or the friends who will crawl out of the darkest corners to grant a proper ass kicking for treating a woman with a lack of respect.
4. Don’t cause a scene
In Thai culture, it is important to save face. This can mean anything from providing inaccurate directions because someone does not want to admit they do not know, to saying “yes” but meaning “no.” Don’t push. And never, ever cause a scene in public. Yelling, arguing or being rude does not go over well.
5. Public displays of affection — i.e. making out — are not OK
Recently, a couple was caught having sex on a public bus. While this is illegal in so much of the world, for some reason, it happened. And it caused quite an uproar in the national media. It is rare to even see Thai people exchange affection –even hugging. Be mindful of the environment. Getting it on in public, even a hot makeout session, is not acceptable.
6. Don’t touch someone’s head if they are older than you.
Touching someone’s head is disrespectful if the person is older than you. Even if it is an action as small as plucking a leaf from someone’s head, don’t do it to a Thai person. Instead, just let them know. And women — do not touch any monk.
7. Mind your feet
Shoes come off at temples, homes and other places in the country. If you aren’t sure whether or not to leave your kicks at the door, take a look at the ground. Are there shoes outside? If so, please take them off before you enter. Leaving shoes on and entering places is disrespectful. Also, because feet are the lowest realm of existence in Buddhist culture, never show the bottom of your feet to a Thai person or point at anything with your feet. If you are sitting, sit mermaid style so as not to point feet at anyone else. This is especially important when sitting in a temple.