Thailand's culture is about mutual respect and politeness that binds the country's people together. Thai culture evolves largely around Buddhism and respect for seniority, whether in terms of age, status or wealth. However, monks receive absolute deference and it is common to see healthy young monks sitting on buses while elderly passengers stand.
Seniority has different forms: younger people respect elders, the poor look up to the rich, and common citizens defer to politicians and high ranking military personnel. Seniority in years is sometimes unclear, so Thais often ask a person's age. With seniority established, the older person may address the younger as nong, and the younger person may address the older as pii.
Seniority is complex and involves unwritten obligations. For example, a manager dining with her staff will automatically pay the bill, regardless of the ages of those present. Some visitors find this unfair. A common assumption in Thailand is that foreigners are rich and should therefore pay higher prices than locals; hence the two-tiered pricing system seen at many tourist attractions.
A traditional greeting is the wai, made by pressing the fingers and palms together at chest level while slightly bowing the head. The wai serves several functions: saying hello, showing respect to a senior and asking forgiveness. A wai is always returned, unless it is from a child.
Keeping calm is important, and outward displays of anger are unwelcome. People generally overlook minor misdeeds, and even major offences are dealt with as discreetly as possible. Patience is a virtue.
While politeness is in style all over the world, there are a few guidelines you can follow that your Thai hosts will appreciate.
In Thailand, almost everything in life involves a smile, even blunders and mishaps. Westerners often mistake this for being laughed at. For example, if a waitress forgets an order and laughs, she is not showing contempt, just making the best of a bad situation. If you complain, do so gracefully as anger usually gets you nowhere.
Cleanliness and neatness are also important. In tropical Thailand, never put off showering or doing your laundry. Most Thais keep themselves scrupulously clean and dress respectably. T-shirts, sandals and knee-length shorts are suitable for informal occasions, but visits to palaces, government offices and some temples usually require something more appropriate. Nudity is forbidden, and topless bathing can offend, even though it is tolerated on some tourist beaches.
The head is high and the feet are low, both physically and spiritually. Never touch anyone's head, and avoid gesturing (especially towards a Buddha image), moving things and touching people with your feet, even if you do see people doing it to their friends. Before entering a temple or a person's home, remove your shoes.
Shared meals are served in separate dishes with serving spoons. If someone invites you to eat, use the serving spoons to put food on your plate, not your personal spoon. Take small amounts of all the food instead of keeping one kind for yourself. Using a toothpick after the meal is acceptable if you cover your mouth with one hand.