Bangkok Basics - Traditions, Temples and Monks
Bangkok Basics: A Primer
Neil has spent a lot of time living and working in Bangkok and has lot of great info to share. This is the first installment in his Bangkok Basics series.
Bangkok Basics: Part One
In Part One of my primer, I'll be sharing what I've learned about Thai culture during my time in Bangkok. Tradition is everywhere in the daily lives of the people and there are a number of things one should keep in mind in order to show the appropriate respect. I hope you will find what I share useful for your travels.
An Introduction to Thai Tradition
Wai - A welcome with much meaning
The wai is the traditional welcome in Thailand and is likewise used to offer thanks and apology.
To share this greeting, place your hands in a prayer-like manner, palms pressed together with a slight bow of the head. The manner in which this greeting is used indicates the level of respect- the closer the hands are held to the forehead and the lower the bow the more respect is being shown.
The greeting is initiated by the person who is lower in age or status. If there is a large difference in social status, the Wai may not be returned at all, however if someone presents a Wai to you, it is customary to return the gesture.
Another time that you will see the wai used is to recognize objects which have been blessed by a Brahmin Priest. Such objects include spirit houses and miniature temples which are home to the spiritual guardians of the land on which the house or temple resides. You will see many people performing this every day.
The Kingdom of Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, in which the Prime Minister is the head of government and a hereditary monarch is head of state. The monarchy is an institution for which the Thai people have tremendous affection. King Bhumibol, the current monarch, is the longest reigning king in Thai history.
- Never speak disparagingly or be disrespectful of the Monarchy
- Don't deface or step on a stamp or currency displaying the King's portrait (I am told that this applies to any picture of the King)
- When you are near a portrait of the present King, or any King of the past, you do not raise your head above the height of the head in the portrait
Respect for the Nation
The national Anthem plays every morning at 8 am, at which time the Thai Flag raises. Every evening at 6 pm, the national anthem plays again and the flag lowers. Be respectful of this national custom, stand up and be still as long as the anthem is playing. I have often come across this whilst traveling on the BTS. I also recommend that you pay attention if you are listening to your headphones, as you will be the only one walking down the street. (How embarrassing!)
Other Gestures of Respect
- Remove your shoes when entering a house or temple
- Public displays of affection are frowned upon
- Do not pat someone on the head
Temples and Monks
Buddhism is widely practiced in Thailand, as evidenced by the many temples, statues of Buddha and the ever present monks. About 95% of all Thai people are Buddhists and according to Wikipedia, there are well over 30,000 Buddhist temples (“Wat” in Thai) currently in use in Thailand.
In Bangkok alone there are 100’s of temples and statues of Buddha. Two of the most well known temples which you must visit are Wat Pho, which is home to Thailand’s largest reclining Buddha statue, and Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn.
Not surprisingly, Buddhism is supported by the Thai government. Monks are highly respected by all Thais and receive an array of government benefits deserving of their position. On the BTS there are signs indicating reserved seating that should be given up should a monk get on the train.
Monks have taken vows that effectively limit their physical interaction with women. Female travelers should be aware that a woman should not intentionally touch, sit next to, or give anything directly to a monk. That being said, women should not be afraid to approach the monks or speak to them, though if they have taken a vow of silence, you won’t get an answer.
Additional Advice - Scams to watch out for
As with all places, the overwhelming majority of Thai people are helpful, genuine and kind. There are however some who will take advantage of a situation if it is presented, so it is better to be aware and avoid such situations when at all possible. Here are a few scams that I have personally come across.
“Palace is closed” – The Palace is never closed. Some tuk tuk drivers will say this to try to take you to a place where they are compensated to bring tourists, such as jewelry shops or a “special” massage place.
“Get in, I’ll take you to…” - Do not take a tuk tuk offering to take you anywhere, again they are interested in taking you somewhere which will pay them for bringing customers. Only use them when know where you want to go.
Agree on fares up front - Make sure your taxi has a meter and that they are using it. Tuk tuks don’t have meters so always agree a price before getting in for all transportation.