What are the things that strike us as "strange" or "different" when we first visit Thailand? What should we think about them? These questions and a few more are hopefully answered (more or less in random order) on these pages!
Some issues on these pages may also have been mentioned on other pages of this site. Not everybody reads all the pages, so this should be accepted by the visitor!
Please realize that these pages will never be complete! We will do our best to add new items to them regularly, however.
His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his wife Her Majesty Queen Sirikit are very highly respected in Thailand. You will see pictures of them everywhere: In every shop, in every restaurant, in every home. The one below was photographed in a hotel. As is pointed out elsewhere on this site too, offending Their Majesties in any way is probably the worst you can do in Thailand.
If you offend Their Majesties in a bad way, you may end up in jail. Foreigner or not. So always speak with respect about them! In the worst case you could get the death penalty, but then you must have done something very stupid.
If you have stayed in Thailand for a longer time or if you have read about the works of HM the King, it is highly likely that you will admire HM the King too. You might want to take a look at our pages about HM the King and about his music. You can select them form the menu at the top of this page.
Another thing that you will see everywhere in Thailand are the (often large) Buddha images. Thailand is a Buddhist country. Almost 100% of the population are Buddhists. Sometimes statistics say that there are about 10% Christians in Thailand, but do not believe this, or at least do not believe that these Christians -if any- are native Thais!
Although Buddha Images, that are the direct reflection of Buddhism in Thailand, are often beautiful and certainly can be considered as works of Art, always be aware that for the Thais they are in the first place Religious objects. And here too the advice is to approach them always respectfully. You are always allowed to take pictures of them (also in Temples), but you are not allowed to sit upon them for a picture (or for any other purpose). The only Temple where photographing is strictly forbidden is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew) in Bangkok.
Offending Buddhism is probably the second worst thing you can do in Thailand!
Near many houses in Thailand you will see a "spirit house", like the one on this picture. This has nothing top do with Buddhism. This is an aspect of a kind of animism, that also has attraction to the Thais, as it appears.
The basis for these spirit houses in Thailand is the belief that every house has its house spirits and sometimes one should ask these spirits for favors or for their protection. Or one should make offerings to bring them in a good mood. You will see flowers, candles, joss-sticks and small images -for instance of elephants- in these spirit houses, as offerings to the House Spirits, that are believed to live in these Spirit Houses. Take a closer look when you pass them (but also with respect!).
Do these offerings help? Everybody who owns a spirit house can tell you stories that prove that he/she (mostly she) would have been much more unhappy if he/she had not made offerings to the house spirits. So yes, it appears to help!
The Thai Smile
What is the "Thai smile" and what does it mean? This is one of the most difficult questions to answer about Thailand. We can not answer that question with even a beginning of certainty!
Wherever you walk in Thailand, people will smile at you. If you stop at a market stall, the seller will smile at you. When somebody does not quite understand what you are saying, he/she will smile at you. What is (probably) the meaning of all those smiles?
Sometimes a Thai smile means embarrassment, sometimes it means an invitation to buy a product, sometimes it may be a friendly greeting. The "Thai smile" has a thousand meanings!
It may be handy if you realize what it (mostly) does not mean: When a lady in Thailand smiles at you, this does not mean that she likes you more than any other person! Many foreigners make that mistake and bring themselves into painful situations. It comes handy if you realize that! A jealous husband may carry a knife or a gun!
Let the question what a Thai smile means exactly under the circumstances you meet it remain a mystery! It does not have a bad meaning under any circumstances!
As soon as you have spent a few hours in Thailand, you will notice that the word "service" still has a real meaning there!
When you enter a hotel, there is always somebody there to carry your luggage. He or she(!) does not do so in order to receive a tip (although this is not prohibited!), but he or she does this to make you feel welcome and comfortable. This is true from the largest hotel to the smallest guesthouse.
As soon as you have agreed about the price for some article or service, your business counterpart will want you to be happy with your new belonging or about the service and -if you have bought something- it will be packed carefully, handed to you with a smile, and you will be thanked for your clientele.
This is something that is long gone in many Western countries. Some people feel suspicious and think they paid too much when they are being treated (more than) correctly in a shop in Thailand. Please realize that this is part of the service that is included in any deal in Thailand! Enjoy it!
This item is very much related to the former one. When you are in a restaurant in Thailand, you should not be surprised to find one or even more waiters (waitresses) to be standing near your table, and constantly checking, from a discrete distance, if you have everything you need.
When your glass is empty it will be filled before you think of it yourself, when you have finished your current dish the table will be cleared and there will always be somebody near your table to take your possible next order.
Sometimes you might be feeling uncomfortable to see somebody watching your table while you are studying the menu and you might think that you should hurry. This is not the case, so you can take your time. The waiters or waitresses have all the time in the World, and so have you.
This high level of service in restaurants can be found in every type of restaurant, from simple to expensive. In Thailand personnel is not expensive and restaurants therefore can hire as many waiters or waitresses as they have tables!
One more thing about restaurants: In every restaurant in Thailand, from small to large, iced water is free of charge and will be supplied in abundance, whether you order other drinks or not. The only exception to this are the small food stalls with just a few tables. You should buy bottled water there, but regarding hygiene this is wise too!
Living areas and offices and sometimes shops are often guarded by uniformed guards. They are not policemen, but private security officers. On the picture you see the entrance of a living area. The guards ask visitors or taxi drivers to leave their identity card with them and they give a receipt in return. When the visitor or taxi driver leaves, he gets his identity card back. This is something that seems strange to us, Westerners, but is accepted as completely normal by Thais. Strangely enough you, as a foreigner, will never be asked to leave any identity paper with such a guard. I am married to a Thai wife, as you may know as a visitor of this site. When my wife and I enter certain buildings or certain other enclosed areas, she has to hand over her identity card, but I can walk through! Just once, when we entered a military area, I too had to show my passport, but I did nor have to leave it with the (in this case) military guard. My wife had to leave her identity card.
The Thais adore their children. This is not exactly something just for Thailand. However, if an adult is sitting in a bus, and a child comes in, the adult will stand up to give the seat up for the child. In most Western countries you would expect the reverse.
So do not feel offended when you enter a bus, where there are no seats left, and no child stands up to give you its seat! According to Thai custom, the child is more entitled to have the seat than you are!
This subject has been extensively treated on our page with language tips for first time visitors. Nevertheless the issue is so important, that it belongs on this page too.
Thinking that you can learn Thai in a few months is a complete illusion. I have been going to Thailand -one month a year- since 1989 and I still hardly speak and understand any Thai. And I really am not a complete fool where languages are concerned. Are you a genius? Fine! Try to learn Thai against my advice! But for all you others, with an average intelligence, forget about learning Thai!
In Thailand however many -if not most- people speak English. But the problem is that they pronounce it quite different than the English or the Americans do. (The page, linked to above is about this problem).
Our advice is and remains: try to understand the Thai way of speaking English instead of trying to learn Thai!
Most Thai people are very willing to speak English to you, because they want to practice it.
Because English is a difficult language for the Thais, one sometimes sees strange spelling mistakes, like (see above) "ART HENWARE" for "Earthenware". Before you make fun of that, please realize that they are still much better in English than you are in Thai!
The Thais have dark skins. Many Thais have been "mixed" with the Chinese, which results in a light brown skin. Most "real" Thais have quite a dark skin. There is nothing strange or unexpected about that, in fact.
The strange thing comes when you watch Thai TV and you see advertisements for body creams that make your skin lighter! In the West people go into the sun and try to get a darker color that way, in Thailand people (especially women) use chemicals to get a lighter skin! This is not only strange, but in fact incomprehensible, because people in Thailand really have beautifully colored skins.
Many houses in Thailand have quite a high gate around them. The main purpose of these gates is to prevent thieves to enter the premises. In many cases these gates, however, are also beautifully made. This picture shows you an example. I believe that these gates, at least gates that are so beautifully made, are typical for Thailand. If you ever come to a living area, anywhere in Thailand, you will see lots of them. Some are simple, but -as I said- many are the result of cunning craftsmanship.
So, next time you are in Thailand, walk trough one of the living quarters and admire these fine pieces of handicraft. They are worth a small detour.