Sabai Sabai – a few points on Thai culture and how it will relate to your trip
Easy going – laid back – relaxed – comfortable – just fine, very, very fine…
You are likely to find Thai ways very “laid back” compared to Western cultures. If you are a person who worries often about schedules, always being right on time, watching the clock, if you find yourself becoming agitated when things do not go exactly according to plan, then be ready to adapt and to cultivate patience and openness to the unplanned or unexpected.
Mai pen rai
means it’s nothing
and is the usual response when someone begs pardon. This expression captures something of sabai sabai but also captures something of the Thai sense of modesty, harmony, and decency. We all know the expression, “Stuff happens,” or some expression like it, even if it can be a hard fact to acknowledge. It is very much a value of Thai culture to maintain equanimity in the face of adversity. In general, Thais are restrained about expressing emotion or showing strong feelings in public, and place great value on courtesy and helping others.
Foreigner’s (i.e., Westerner’s) hand is a slang expression for “foot.” This refers to something like, say, an American propensity to point with the foot, to close the door with the foot when you have two grocery bags in your hands, to sit down and cross you legs with your foot sticking out toward someone else’s face, to…you get the idea. This is not to do in Thailand. For Thai culture, the feet are the lowest part of the body, the head the highest, and to be treated as such. For the same reason, it is not polite to touch someone on the head or stand towering over someone’s head. In general, Thais do not gesticulate wildly or “talk with their hands” (or feet).
Land of Smiles
This phrase you might well have heard before. The Thai Tourism Authority likes to use it to promote an image of the country as a happy and cheerful haven. Still, this can be misleading. You certainly will not arrive in Bangkok to encounter hordes of people wandering about lost in smiley happiness. A smile is in fact usually the culturally correct response in just about any situation in Thailand. But smiles can differ subtly, helping to maintain a modest face in many different contexts, and include not just the happy smile, but the greeting smile, the embarrassed smile, the confused smile, the disappointed smile, etc. Professor Google can readily direct you to many lists (of differing lengths) offering typologies of the Thai smile. Many Western visitors find unnerving the seemingly uncanny ability of Thais to know exactly what they are thinking or feeling, even though they have not said anything, not realizing that it is written all over their faces.
The greeting in Thailand is not a handshake, but the wai. The hands are placed together and head slightly bowed. Just how deferentially a person executes the wai depends on the relative status of the two people. Politicians, however, at least during the campaign season, do have the reputation for directing a very deferential wai to anything that moves or does not move, such as telephone poles. And of course there is a youtube video to show you just how to do it correctly (not like a politician).
If you walk about London wearing a t-shirt sporting an image of Queen Elizabeth with a mustache painted on her upper lip, which you may have purchased in a London shop, the bobbies won’t chase you down and no one will call Scotland Yard. Nothing like this is remotely conceivable in Thailand. The king is widely revered and there is a very strict lèse majesté law with severe penalties for doing or saying anything that could be construed as insulting or offensive to the royal family. While many Thais object to the law and there has been, within the confines of what can be said openly, a public debate over lèse majesté in recent years, the law remains in force and, with rising nervousness over succession as the king advances in age, is more stringently enforced by the government than ever. Nearly every year at least one American or European gets drunk, does something stupid, and ends up in jail for insulting the monarchy. The only “break” given to foreign violators is that they, unlike Thais who are convicted for lèse majesté, are usually pardoned by the king around the time of New Year’s celebrations. This brings no cause for worry as far as concerns the program, but it is something that you should be aware of.