All foreign men need to know something about how to behave in Thailand when in public. In Thailand, public displays of affection are looked at very differently to what you may be accustomed to in the west, and you can easily end up being looked down upon. This won’t be of much concern to your average holidaymaker, but if you are in Thailand on a long stay for work or business purposes then you are well advised to heed my advice here.
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Thais have a particular dislike for the shameless cavorting that foreigners get up to with local hookers. It really does turn their stomachs and is one of the primary reasons why there is an ongoing crackdown on the more openly illicit behaviour in tourist nightspots.
It’s not as though there is zero tolerance for certain activities of the night with paid professionals; prostitution is illegal but I don’t think I’m going to win a Pulitzer Prize anytime soon for noting that such activity is commonplace. The real distaste for this sort of thing is the indiscretion that westerners often seem to delight in. I ask you, what would your reaction be if you saw one of your work-colleagues back home indecently caressing a lady half his age and weight in full view of all and sundry? Wouldn’t that be considered inappropriate? Well, that’s also not how to behave in Thailand.
Even when the girl in question is not an obvious hooker, public displays of affection are frowned upon… and it’s seen as inexplicably poor taste to flaunt your amorous emotions with a lady whom you’ve paid! Anyone of sane mind in Thailand would go at great length to conceal this sort of behaviour; they would never advertise it to the world like some sort of respectable achievement!
Thais are modest and can even seem prudish, so a modest dress code goes with how to behave in Thailand…
I mentioned that showing affection in public is not appreciated even amongst two regular individuals who are involved in a genuine romantic relationship; this is true and if you want to earn your girl’s respect you will not attempt anything that would embarrass or shame her – this is the number one fear that regular Thai women have with regard to dating westerners.
If the financial obligations in a Thai marriage are the most challenging to get your head around, I’d say that the thinking around public behaviour in Thailand is probably the most annoying. For one thing, any successful relationship between two people that live at opposite ends of the world is likely to have to endure several partings from one another, at least in the early stages of a relationship.
Imagine that, on those occasions, it would not be appreciated if you were to have a kiss and a cuddle before separating from one another. Well, I’m afraid that that’s also not how to behave in Thailand. In some places even holding hands in public is seen as being a little too indecent for respectable society!
Thailand, if you have not yet guessed, is a socially conservative country once you get away from the main tourist areas. The sort of things that go on in those tourist areas are like something that belongs to a different world compared to what goes on in the traditional areas of the kingdom.
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In this article I’m not restricting my references to sexual or romantic forms of affection; it is not unusual for Thai parents to show their affection towards the children in a very different manner to what you see in the west. Once past a certain age, you don’t tend to see Thai parents cuddling their children. I know of lots of young Thai ladies that claim never to have received a hug, a kiss on the cheek, or even a simple “I love you” from their parents. It just isn’t the Thai way. That’s not meant to imply that Thai parents don’t love their children, just that they express it differently.
The emphasis on proving your love in Thailand is not given to spoken declarations, it’s much more important to demonstrate your feelings rather than state them, words are cheap in Thailand and nobody puts much stock in their value. Little gifts are the way to go and no, before you jump to conclusions, it’s not about the expense, it’s about showing that you care and that you’ve been thinking of the other person. It’s about noticing the things that your partner, parents or children like without having to be told, and then providing them without having to be asked. It’s hard work, but knowing how to behave in Thailand will win you true love and respect. As regards your romantic endeavours, respecting your girl’s sense & sensibilities by avoiding any public inappropriateness is very much complimentary to this.
Whenever you are in the traditional areas of the country, my advice is to keep your hands off your girl when in public. Just follow her lead as to what behaviour is, or is not, acceptable.
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The concept of saving face in Thailand is a confusing concept to newcomers, and it will have you second-guessing just about everything that you hear from any Thai person. It will take some getting used to, but you really need to get a basic understanding of the concept of ‘saving face in Thailand’ because it is extremely widespread.
Even something as innocuous as asking for travel directions will likely be dealt with differently. If you know how to behave in Thailand, you’ll know that even if the person you ask hasn’t got a clue where to find the destination you’re seeking, he/she will probably still give you some directions! Most Thais would not want to seem unknowledgeable, as that would cause them to lose face, and would authoritatively give you their best guess at where to find your destination… Believe me on this point, if you get any hint at all that you are hearing unreliable information, don’t rely on it.
On the dating scene, if you ask a lady for her telephone number, she will probably give it to you even if she hopes that you will never call her. The reason why is because she will want to avoid causing you any embarrassment, i.e. causing you to lose face by openly spurning your advances. This is how to behave in Thailand in polite society, so don’t go assuming that you have scored a success just because you have the girl’s number. If you call her asking for a date and she gives you some lame excuse to get out of it, take it as a polite hint that you should look elsewhere.
In giving you her phone number in the first place she was adhering to the concept of ‘saving face and avoiding conflict’ i.e. she avoided any possibility of you becoming offended whilst at the same time allowing you to ‘save face’. Whilst a western girl might have told you to go boil your head, or worse, that would be very unlikely to happen with any decent, respectable Thai lady.
In my own opinion, the concept of saving face in Thailand is a good thing on balance. On the other hand, showing any sort of anger or frustration is one way of losing face, and that can lead some Thais to bottle up inside all of their anger until breaking point. When meltdown does occur you need to run for cover because they can become quite hostile... the word ‘ballistic’ springs to mind! When this happens it is quite easy to know how to behave in Thailand, you just run away :)
To read a reply to this article, from a Thai lady, click here.
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The same girl is pictured in a black dress in the right column (below on mobile) and in a white dress on the homepage. She's 24... and was a lot of fun!
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