“Custom, then, is the great guide of human life,” wrote Scottish philosopher David Hume. Knowing the customs of a country is, in effect, a guide to understanding the soul of that country and its people. The following Sidebar is intended to provide a glimpse into the unique world of this nation’s customs: how people marry, how families celebrate holidays and other occasions, what people eat, and how they socialize and have fun.
Marriage and Family
Marriage is discouraged until one’s education is complete. According to tradition, if a young man wishes to marry, he must first become well acquainted with the entire family of his intended wife and make himself agreeable to them. He then asks his parents to make his wishes known.
If both families agree on the marriage, a wedding date is set. The groom traditionally pays a bride-price to the bride’s parents as compensation for their having raised her.
Some parents later return the items or cash to the couple as a wedding gift. Pink is the traditional color for bridal gowns. Grooms wear either a European-style suit or a high-necked jacket (sua phrarachathan) and trousers. Newlyweds in rural areas often live with the bride’s parents until they have a child.
Several generations may live in the same household. The oldest male is customarily the patriarch of the family. Members of the family (even adults) are traditionally expected to abide by the advice of their elders, although this is becoming less true. Families usually have two or three children. On a farm, all members of the household share the work. When the elderly live with their married children, they often look after the grandchildren. A family’s youngest daughter inherits the parents’ home. In return, she and her husband care for the parents in their old age.
Rice (plain in southern and central regions; glutinous, or sticky, in the north) is the dietary staple. It is usually served with very spicy dishes that consist of meat, vegetables, fish, eggs, or fruit. Curries and pepper sauces are popular. Typical meats include beef, chicken, and pork. Thailand boasts a variety of tropical fruit year-round. Restaurants in Bangkok serve a range of international cuisine.
Thais use forks and spoons at the table. They hold the spoon in the right hand and the fork in the left, pushing food onto the spoon with the fork. Knives are usually not necessary because foods are served in bite-size pieces. In northern areas, people eat steamed, glutinous rice with their fingers. Chopsticks are used when eating noodle dishes and in Chinese homes. Guests usually receive a second helping of food and are encouraged to eat as much as they can. Diners choose small portions from various dishes at the center of the table to eat with rice. Bones and other such items are placed on the plate. Water, the standard mealtime drink, is drunk at the end of (not during) the meal. When one is finished eating, utensils are placed together on the plate.
Handshakes are widely used between Thais and foreigners in official and business circles, but the traditional Thai greeting is the wai. How the wai is performed depends on the relationship between the people, and there are many variations. Generally, it is done by placing the palms of the hands together, with fingers extended at chest level, and bowing slightly; women curtsy. The younger person greets first, and the more senior person responds with a wai in a lower position. The higher one’s hands are placed, the more respect is shown. Bows and curtsies are also more pronounced to show greater respect. The fingertips go above the level of the eyebrows only to show reverence for Buddha or to greet royalty. For other honored persons, the fingertips may reach to between the eyebrows, with the thumb tip touching the tip of the nose. A wai is always returned, unless there is a significant difference in social status or age between the two people, in which case the senior does not return the wai. For example, an adult does not exchange a wai with a small child. Buddhist monks never return a wai. The gesture can mean not only “Hello” but also “Thank you,” “Good-bye,” and “I’m sorry.”
Thais address each other by their given names, preceded by Khun (for example, Khun Sariya), and reserve family names for formal occasions. In formal situations, foreigners may address Thais by using “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” or “Miss” with the given or family names.
Men and women generally do not touch or show affection in public. However, good friends of the same sex sometimes hold hands. Among the younger generation, it is becoming more common for members of the opposite sex to hold hands.
When visiting, the person of highest social rank or age is treated with the greatest respect. In all cases, how one sits, walks, or otherwise interacts with others depends on the status of each person present. It is customary to remove one’s shoes when entering a Buddhist temple or private home. Visitors should avoid stepping on the doorstep because of the traditional belief that a soul resides in the doorstep of a temple (wat). It is not necessary to take gifts when visiting, but it is not uncommon for guests on extended stays to present their hosts with a gift of appreciation.
In the home, people commonly sit on the floor, but do not stretch their feet out in front of them. Women generally tuck their legs to the side and behind them, and men sit cross-legged. Men might also sit with their legs tucked to the side to show special respect to the hosts. Guests may offer compliments on the home or children, but should avoid excessive admiration of any specific object to spare the host embarrassment.
Among the most popular sports are soccer, table tennis, badminton, basketball, and volleyball. Traditional sports include takro (played by trying to keep a wicker ball in the air without using the hands) and martial arts. As in many parts of the region, people enjoy movies and television. Kite-flying is a popular activity, and many enjoy watching Thai chess, played without a queen and according to its own rules.
Holidays and Celebrations
Although the government uses the Western (Gregorian) calendar, Buddhist holidays are set by the lunar calendar and vary from year to year. Official holidays include International New Year’s Day (1 January), Chinese New Year, Chakri Day (6 April), Coronation Day (5 May), Royal Ploughing Ceremony (11 May), the Queen’s Birthday (12 August), Chulalongkorn Day (23 October, honoring the “beloved monarch,” who abolished slavery and introduced many reforms), the King’s Birthday (5 December), Constitution Day (10 December), and New Year’s Eve. Some important religious holidays include Makha Bucha, Asalaha Bucha, and Visakha Bucha, which mark important events in Buddhism’s history. Songkhran is the Thai New Year. Loy Krathong honors the water goddess for providing water throughout the year; people float small “boats” with candles, coins, or flowers on waterways.
Source: Encarta Interactive World Atlas