This post originally appeared on The Lady Errant.
From the minute I stepped off the plane in Bangkok, the culture shock of Thailand hit me like a sweaty fist. Literally and figuratively, because that humidity is no joke! I quickly realized that Thailand is a rich, varied culture that is at times incredibly different from my own. I love to “collect” small and big cultural customs when I travel, so I have complied a list of some that I noticed during my travels in Thailand. I am no expert on the culture, history or country, I only have my experience to guide me!
Without further ado, I give you my ABCs of Thailand (minus a few letters, because ain’t nobody got time for X!), all of which I gathered during my two-month long travels there. During these travels I stayed in the south on an island, staying in a village in the north (where we taught English briefly), and visited cities, temples and vistas everywhere in between!
Birthdays, bucket showers, and “bai nai.” I was surprised to find that in Thailand, the day you were born is much more important than the date, i.e. they celebrate on the day of the week you were born at that particular time of year, such as the second Tuesday in November.
We experienced the infamous bucket showers (where you put water in a bucket and dump it over your head in lieu of a tub or shower) while staying with our friend in the Peace Corps who lived in a tiny village. I didn’t mind them so much on those hot, humid days, but never learned to stop giving an involuntary squeal upon dumping the first bucket over my head!
As a greeting, Thais will say, “Bai nai?” meaning, “where are you going?” It’s kind of like our, “what’s up?” It always made me feel like I was in-the-know.
Color-codes. Every day of the week has a different color. At the schools we visited, the childrens’ uniform shirt must match the day of the week that color happens to be!
Diving, dragonflies and dancing. Thailand was the first country I went diving in (I was certified there!) and I was pretty spoiled because it is certainly first class.
The dragonflies we saw in Thailand are RED. And huge! Almost the size of hummingbirds, sometimes, and jewel-toned.
During my stay in the village, we learned some traditional Thai dancing. The dancing mostly consists of dancing lightly while moving in a circle or line (and much more complicated than my explanation!) while bending the hands back at the wrist–and mine do certainly not bend that far! When the girls are babies, they will have their hands soaked in warm water and pushed back to increase flexibility of muscle and bone. Then, when they are older and in lessons, their hands are actually taped back to achieve the most beautiful curve.
Elephants and eggs. I was unbelievably excited to see elephants in Thailand and I was not disappointed when I finally saw some! We rode elephants in the hippie town of Pai, and went to an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai where the elephants actually paint pictures. I also met a baby elephant there, that was maybe a little too friendly.
In Thailand, if someone hands you an entire egg, it means they never want to see you again. This was unknown by Christian missionaries in the village, who handed out a variety of eggs on Easter. It was a huge faux pas and it took them quite awhile to establish relationships again afterwards.
Generosity and geeks. The Thais are some of the most generous people on the planet. It is known as the “Land of Smiles” for a good reason. I cannot think of one person who was rude, in fact, most of the people we met ended up feeding us, giving us a refreshing drink, giving us contacts in another city, giving us rides, or offering us a place to stay! The only “rudeness” we experienced was either in huge crowds, in the bus station, or on the border. And those situations are prone to rudeness in any country!
One custom in Thailand that completely flummoxed me was their tendency to have “geeks,” or mistresses. A majority of married men have a geek on the side that is well-known about the village or town. It is perfectly acceptable, although I never heard of woman having geeks themselves.
Hitchhiking, hair and humidity. Hitchhiking, while not encouraged when you’re alone, is fun in a group; and as previously discussed, the generous nature of the Thais always had them rearranging their truck for us and refusing any sort of compensation!
My hair, as you can imagine, went wild in the humidity. However, I’m not sure it’s ever been healthier, and the same goes for my skin. I still never adjusted to that dampness, though, and am not sure I could ever live someplace like that for a long period of time.
King, khanoms and karaoke. Everyone in Thailand loves their king, or at least appears to. Every day, in public places, his anthem is played, and every house has a least one picture of the king inside, if not multiple. Even the empty house my friend in the village ended up renting had no furniture, but a picture of the king on the wall! When you go to the movies, you’ll watch a short film and hear the anthem prior.
Khanoms are any kind of snack, usually something sweet, that is customarily brought when you visit anyone, like a hostess gift. I love this tradition and I always loved the khanoms, whatever they were! I loved them so much one of the villagers nicknamed me “khanom” briefly. Luckily that name didn’t stick!
Karaoke is a huge pastime and you will do it everywhere: parties, camping, at dinner, etc! I do love karaoke and they have a plethora of 80’s songs wherever you go.
Languages and “la.” Within Thailand, they have several dialects of Thai. My Thai name was in the northern dialect, which made me many friends since it is such a rare dialect, especially for foreigners. Everyone in the north speaks this dialect, as well as the national version of Thai.
“La” means handsome, and I used it all the time as it’s accompanied with a fun hand gesture. I’m fairly certain it’s only used for men but don’t hold me to that one!
Monks, milking out, massages, moles and “mai ben rai.” Monks, wearing their customary bright orange outfits, are everywhere and I loved seeing them. Women are not allowed to touch them, and everyone is required to give up the front bus seats when a monk steps on. Boats have little areas that are sectioned off, as well. We saw monks of all ages, from little boys to very old men. Some boys will enter monkhood to honor their family or if their family is impoverished. It is my understanding that it is not a lifelong commitment, although it can be if so desired.
Breasts in Thailand are called “mountains of milk,” I got told often that I was “milking out.” When you have big mountains it’s just inevitable sometimes…
Traditional Thai massage involves a lot of bending, moving, tiger balm (a soothing, mint-like cream…like natural Icy Hot) and the pressing of blood vessels. While the first massage was a little terrifying (and I accidentally took my shirt off…Thai massage includes clothes!!), the second one was amazing when I knew what to expect. It wasn’t as relaxing as a typical massage, but my body felt relaxed afterwards!
Moles, especially with long, nasty hair growing out of them, are a status symbol and a sign of wisdom, so the old men especially prize them. A custom I found particularly, well, gross (to sound completely culturally incompetent. But, ew).
Finally, “mai ben rai” is the Thai equivalent of “no worries!” and can be an answer to anything. I relate it to “hakuna matata!”
Night markets and nicknames. Night markets in Thailand are the best! The best stuff, the best haggling, the best atmosphere. Everyone has a nickname in Thailand that usually sounds nothing like their five-syllable-long given name, at least to an outsider like me. For example, we met one young girl who’s full name was Haittaratt, but was called Lyette. I don’t see the connection there, but Lyette IS much cuter!
Ovaltine. Iced. It’s the best.
Pants, pad thai, paying and pomegranates: Fisherman pants (the ones with really low crotches), which I always thought were weird, are ubiquitous and quite comfy. I may have bought a few too many pairs because there were so many cute varieties!
Pad thai is AMAZING, and I love that it never tastes quite the same.
The oldest person at the table is generally required to pay.
Pomegranates rock here: they’re white-pink on the outside and sweet on the inside. The taste similar to the ones I’ve had in the states, but I found them much better!
Rice. SO MANY KINDS OF RICE!!! Sticky rice, purple rice, plain white rice, dessert rice…the list goes on. I’m not always a huge fan of rice (especially for breakfast), but sticky rice is pretty good! Especially when mixed with coconut milk.
Sugar, spirit houses, and “suwai.” Even my sweet tooth could not handle the excessive sweetness present in many Thai dishes and snacks.
Spirit houses are one of my favorite Buddhist traditions. You build someone a spirit house when they die, and every day for a year you light the incense on the house and give them offerings, to ease their transition between lives. Whatever your religion is, I found this a beautiful tribute.
“Suwai” means beautiful, and it was definitely one of my ten go-to Thai words (and really only ten words). However, I figured out near the end of our trip that using it in a different tone means something along the lines of disgustingly ugly…nice. Don’t you just love tonal languages?
Tuk-tuks, traffic and “Thai-napping.” Tuk-tuks, or bike taxis, are all over. They can be fun and easy (or necessary), but those drivers can be persistent. I know it’s necessary as it’s how they make their living, but sometimes a girl just wants to walk!
Traffic in Asia is a WHOLE different organism than traffic anywhere else. I thought South America was crazy, but Asia was a whole different ball game. Unlike in the states, it’s better to NOT look both ways. Never let ’em see you sweat!
One term we coined was “Thai-napping,” when your projected plans for an hour meeting turn into a several hour, day-long, or even night-long event. The Thais (and much of Asia) have a very different concept of time. Often, we would make a plan for lunch, and would end up eating dinner or going on an impromptu camping trip. Sometimes I struggled with this custom as I like to stick to my plans (Asia had fun with my plans a lot), but in the end, all of the Thai-napping experiences were just too much fun.
Wats, whiteness and “wai-ing.” Wats, or temples, are everywhere and seemed really decadent to me (although to be fair, many religious monuments are!). All the wats I saw were curly-cued and gold-tinged and some seem waaaay over the top. They were all certainly beautiful, though!
Whiteness is sort of like the opposite of tanning here. While everyone wants to be darker here, in Thailand, everyone wants to be paler, and they have tons of whitening products (even for the armpits, as I made the mistake of buying whitening deoderant…). The key chemical in their whitening products, for the most part, is bleach. So if you use them continually, like for years, as many of the older woman do, you end up a funny grey color. Definitely an example of different cultural standards of beautiful. There, everyone called me beautiful, due to my really pale skin (although it was very scandalous when I accidentally was sunburnt and suddenly a lobster). Here in the Western world, I always feel much more beautiful when I’ve had a touch of sun (although I really am super pale so I mostly just turn pink).
By far my favorite Thai custom is wai-ing, where you fold your hands like you’re praying and bow your head to others. Different placement of the hands is required for monks or elders (and woman) but I pretty much wai-ed everyone like a monk just in case, as the placements were about an inch apart.
Years. The Thais go by the Buddhist timeline, beginning with the year that Buddha achieved enlightenment (from my understanding) and therefore the year is 2553.
Do you “collect” customs when you travel? What are some of the ones you’ve found most fascinating?