Thailand is a country that is steeped in tradition, from religion and spirituality to the foods served on its people’s table to the direction in which one points one’s feet. The “wai,” or the traditional Thai greeting is done by putting your hands together, in front of your chest, and bowing your head a bit. As a courteous visitor, you can do this when someone “wai’s” you, when you are meeting someone for the first time, or when you are greeting someone. If you hold your hands higher and bow your head longer, it shows great respect. A visitor isn’t expected to know all of Thailand’s traditions – but as with any locale, the more you understand and honor those traditions, the richer your experience will be.
One Thai tradition that will thrill visitors is the abundance of festivals devoted to praying for rain. Farmers depend on rain for healthy crops, of course, and they hold a variety of events as a means of asking, of hoping, and of inspiring themselves for the rainy season.
The Rocket Festival, for instance, is a northeastern Thailand tradition held at the beginning of the rainy season. Legend has it that powerful god Phaya Thaen stopped the rain because he was angry with the world’s animals. Phaya Khankhak, an incarnation of the Buddha, helped the animals defeat Phaya Thaen. Since then, Phaya Thaen had to promise that he would make the rain fall if bamboo rockets were launched. The most grand of the Rocket Festivals is held in Yasothon Province and visitors will love the colorful rockets, beauty contest, and folk entertainment.
Another particularly appealing tradition is Thailand’s world-renowned cuisine. Eating is a communal activity (outside of Western restaurants, of course), and many matters of etiquette deal with social status. For instance, you wait for the “leader” of the group to invite you to begin eating. Thai food is served communally, as on a large platter, and you take a sample (two to three mouthfuls) of different items. Be prepared to spend time; it is an event as much as a meal.
Thailand’s traditions revolve around respect: touching someone on the head may be rude, for instance, or pointing your feet towards someone while you sit on the ground is a sign of disrespect. While we may trip up and perform faux pas when visiting, it is the attempt at honoring Thailand’s traditions that matters most. It is our own sign of respect. Make the attempt, apologize sincerely if a mistake is made, and above all, enjoy the remarkable hospitality of the people of the “Land of Smiles.”