Samui Wining & Dining

The traditions of Thailand include some customs that are important to know about.

The traditions of Thailand include some customs that are important to know about.

A “chaotic veneer”. That’s what it has been described as. That’s what overwhelms first-time visitors to Thailand, particularly as 95% of inbound flights land in Bangkok. In our cosmopolitan age, it’s all too easy to use the words ‘culture shock’ – I’ve even heard them used to describe an unfamiliar corner shop back home. But until you first find yourself in the middle of a capital city where ‘East meets West’, you ‘ain’t seen nothing yet!


Although Bangkok seems modern and cosmopolitan, it’s part of a nation with an approach to life that’s not even vaguely similar to our own. One of the first signs of this new culture you’ll see immediately is the ‘wai’. This is the prayer-like gesture of respect and greeting that’s made by bringing the raised hands together at chest height. To the eyes of an outsider, it seems that this is merely one general gesture – a wai is a wai is a wai. But not so, and there are unspoken rules about this that every Thai child simply absorbs while they are growing up. So study the form of this greeting and try to spot the differences. Imagine it to be a bit like a salute: the casual greeting amongst friends or near-equals is a flowing and relaxed rapid raising and lowering of the hands to chest height. On a more formal or important occasion, the hands are kept in place for longer and the fingers are stiffer. If the person you are greeting is of a higher social status than you are, then your hands will be raised higher so that your fingertips touch your nose – the higher your hands, the more you are humbling yourself and showing respect.


It’s amusing to see newcomers sometimes almost ‘worshiping’ serving staff by wai-ing them wildly with their hands up on their foreheads. To a Thai this is much the same as when a Westerner throws himself fulllength on the ground in front of The Pope! It’s quite out of place. Young children, also, should not be wai-ed by adults. There are so many shades of meaning contained in this one simple gesture that it would fill a book (and has done so, numerous times). Therefore, the simple rule is to wait until you are wai-ed and then return it in a similar style. But happily, the Thais are a most tolerant and accommodating race and have become accustomed to their visitors doing odd things!


However, there is one aspect ingrained into Thai society for which there is no equivalent in the West, and the ignorance of which can have sudden and dire consequences for the unwary. The Thai Royal Family is sacrosanct, and the current monarch, HRH King Bhumibol Adulyadej,is so revered that he now has attained the status of a demi-god. Any criticism of the monarchy is strictly and immediately punishable by law. No lawyers, no bail, no courts – in some cases you will go straight to jail. Even throwing money about or tearing up a banknote will make your Thai friends frown; all the money has an image of The King on it. Thailand is a very nationalistic country, and the national anthem is played in public places twice a day (also in cinemas before a show). On Samui you might only experience this at the cinema, or if you’re at the bus station, ferry or airport at 8:00 am or 6:00 pm. You might not be familiar with the tune, but when everyone else stands up, it’s respectful to follow suit.


These are the two biggies. The whole business of the wai is quite amusing. But the reverence of the Royal Family is cast in stone and it’s vital to appreciate its importance. The Thai people quick to forgive – on most things! But this very element also has a downside. Listen out for the unofficial national ‘anthem’ of “mai pen rai”. The traditions of Thailand include some customs that are important to know about.You’ll hear it everywhere and under many different circumstances. “I’ve lost my wallet!” “Mai pen rai!” “My air-con is broken.” “Mai pen rai.” “My airport taxi hasn’t arrived/my coachman has been struck by lightning/I’ve been bitten by a rabid tarantula” – “Mai pen rai.” The loose translation is ‘never mind’. It’s the verbal equivalent of a shrug but can mean anything from “so what!”, to “what do you expect me to do about it”, to (said with a glare) “go away”. Fortunately Thai staff on Samui have been trained to have a much more constructive attitude, and it’s extremely unlikely you’ll hear this when you express a concern! But elsewhere across the island (and the nation) – be prepared!


There are dozens of little daily customs and traditions, but it’s beyond the scope of this article to unravel them all. Things like, it’s really rude to use a toothpick without covering your mouth (but, on the other hand, it’s okay to openly pick your nose). Or just something as simple as Thai names. Thais still use our old-fashioned system of ‘honorifics’ – titles like ‘sir’ or madam’ are used automatically, and that includes a respectful one that we haven’t got – the word ‘khun’. I suppose that the nearest meaning would be to respectfully put the word ‘person’ in front of someone’s name. So don’t just call your waitress ‘Nok’ or whatever. Call her ‘Khun Nok’ instead.


The only other things to touch upon (or not to touch) is perhaps ‘monks’ and ‘body parts’, as they’re obliquely related. It’s forbidden for a monk to have any physical contact with a female, and vice versa. So if you (or your wife/companion) lurch into one on a swaying train, come out with a very high wai and lots of apologies. Also the head is considered the holiest part of the body and the feet the lowest. Avoid sitting with your feet up and pointing at someone. Try not to pat anyone affectionately on the head – the space above it is a clear run to heaven. And whatever you do, never, ever, step over someone else’s head. But on Samui this can only happen in two places. One is on the beach; but it’s rarely that crowded and, anyway, the Thais can’t abide to sit in the sun. The other is in the bedroom. And here it all depends on the circumstances as to whether you’re enthusiastically observing a Thai custom or simply doing your duty!


 Rob De Wet


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