The first thing you learn about Thailand is that it is the ‘land of smiles’. Thai people are extremely friendly and helpful and honest. Yes there will be the occasion where a tuk-tuk driver will try to get more money out of you but on the whole you will more than likely experience an entire nation who wants to welcome you into their country. Even something as simple as a greeting is beautiful. Thai people respect their elders so always be deferential to older people. When greeting a Thai person especially if they are older than you, it is respectful to wai them which entails placing the palms of your hands together, bowing your head saying sawadeeka if you’re female and sawadeekhap if you’re male. Do not wai someone on a motorcycle or someone carrying heavy bags in both hands as they will feel compelled to wai you back which might be a bit awkward for them.
The second thing you learn about Thailand is their love for their King. He is seen as part of the family for every single Thai person and criticising him would be like criticising someones mother. There is even a law called Les Majesté against criticising the King so always be mindful to be respectful. In fact steer clear from any topics about the King and the royal family in order to avoid offending anyone or landing yourself in trouble.
The third thing you learn which you would probably only find out about if you are staying here long-term is a concept called Kreng Jai. Kreng Jai is about suppressing your own needs and self interests for someone else’s benefit. Kreng Jai is about doing something even if it bothers you to give an advantage to the other person or to allow them to save face. Thai people do not like losing face and this makes it harder to judge what they are thinking or feeling. So they might say everything is fine even when offended therefore non-verbal cues are very important as they don’t always say what they mean.
There is a fourth thing you might learn about Thais and their obsession with skin colour. I was initially hestiant about writing about this but I believe in always speaking the truth. Lighter skinned Thais are seen as being wealthier whereas darker skinned Thais are seen as poor. The misconception is that farm labourers in the rice fields or street vendors have darker skin because they spend more time in the sun. Thai people do not want to be mistaken for poor farm labourers or street vendors. What this has created is a market for beauty products that include skin whitening or skin bleach. Switch on the TV in Thailand and you will most likely only see light-skinned/white Thais. Go to the beach, you will only find Thais under umbrellas, swimming in shorts and t-shirt or only coming to the beach closer to sunset. White skin is seen as superior and darker skin as inferior. Speaking from personal experience I am struggling to get placed in a school as an English teacher because Thais do not believe that anyone who is non-European or not ‘white’ can be a native English speaker. This discovery saddened me as I come from a country of where a government imposed apartheid laws, where we are still recovering from oppression and racial segregation. I hope that one day soon these misconceptions about the rest of the world and skin colour can be laid to rest and everyone can be treated equally.
Thailand is a beautiful country and I would still tell people to come visit as we all have so much to learn from one another. There are also so many other wonderful aspects of Thai culture that I have come to love.