Thailand is called the Land of Smiles for the warmth and friendliness of its people, but what else defines this unique and interesting culture?
I’ve travelled to Thailand twice, once as a bright-eyed 21 year old and the second time 3 years later, as a more confident, worldly yet curious young adult. It was the latter journey during which I fully experienced Thai culture as I spent the better part of a year backpacking around the country, teaching English and for the most part, living like a local.
About 75–95% of the population in Thailand is ethnically Tai. Thai Chinese make up 14% of the population and Thai Malays 3%. The remainder consists of Mons, Khmers and “hill tribes”. Thailand’s primary religion is Theravada Buddhism, to which around 95% of the population subscribe.
Thai culture has been shaped by many influences, including Indian, Lao, Burmese, Cambodian, and Chinese, but is still very unique. Here are five things you might not know about Thai culture, and how I was introduced to them on my travels.
1. The Wai
The wai is the traditional Thai greeting which sees locals press their hands together with their fingertips pointing upwards as they bow their heads and touch their fingertips to their face. This is usually done together with a spoken greeting of “sawatdee krap” for male speakers, and “sawatdee ka” for females.
The wai, is generally offered first by the younger of the two people meeting, and the elder may then respond in the same way. The wai is a sign of respect and reverence for one another, similar to the Namaste greeting of India and Nepal. Teachers in Thailand are greatly respected, even if they are foreign-nationals or farang. I remember being greeted by Thai school children in the corridor with a rushed wai and mumbled Sawatdee, which always made me smile.
2. Vegetarian Festival in Phuket
The Phuket Vegetarian Festival is held around October every year and celebrates the Chinese community’s belief that abstinence from meat during the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar will help them obtain good health and peace of mind.
It’s a colourful event rich in cultural history, but can be quite alarming for visitors. The ceremonies which take place during this time are both thrilling and gruesome, and from my personal experience, often hard to watch. The community involved in the festival partake in extreme body piercing with swords, knives and other sharp objects puncturing their cheeks, and parade through the streets of Phuket town. It is believed that the Chinese gods will protect them from harm, and apparently these acts result in little blood or scarring.
Other ceremonial events include walking over hot coals or climbing an eight metre ladder of sharp blades while in a trance.
Apart from the visual spectacle of this festival, which I could only endure for so long, there was no shortage of specially prepared vegetarian cuisine being sold at nearby street stalls and markets.
According to local lore, Phuket’s vegetarian festival dates back to 1825 when the governor at the time moved the island’s principal town from Ta Reua in Thalang District to Get-Hoe in Kathu, where there were tin mines and Chinese miners. Kathu was then still covered by jungle and fever was rife. Legend has it that an opera company came from China to perform for the miners but they soon grew very sick from an unnamed illness (although some sources report this as malaria). The whole company opted to keep to a vegetarian diet to honour the gods and to everyone’s amazement the sickness disappeared.
The people celebrated by holding a festival to honour the gods as well as express the people’s happiness at surviving what was surely a fatal illness. The festival is held every year to bring good luck to individuals as well as to the community.
3. Songkran – Thai New Year
In 2007 I was lucky enough to be staying in Bangkok over the Thai New Year known as Songkran which is observed from 13 – 15 April each year. This is the end of the dry season and to celebrate, Thai people throw copious amounts of water at each other on the streets and then sprinkle talcum powder over one another.
The water throwing stemmed from washing Buddha images and lightly sprinkling scented water on the hands of elderly people. Small amounts of scented talcum powder were also used in the annual cleansing rituals.
In more recent times this has been ‘upgraded’ into a full-blown water fight with locals and foreigners alike carrying squirt guns, water ‘jet-packs’ and buckets. At the time I was staying at a guesthouse just off the Khao San Road and remember being ambushed by a friendly group of young Thai girls the moment I stepped out of the doorway. I was soaked in seconds and they smeared power across my cheeks as they sang greetings and smiled at me. The Songkran Festival is a time of undeniable merriment, amity and cleansing.
I remember when teaching English to children in the local school, how odd I found some of their nicknames. Thais are usually given one nickname to be used with friends and family (and English teachers, clearly!) shortly after birth. The nicknames are short – one syllable – and while they can be shortened versions of their full name, they are more frequently unrelated. Nicknames are useful because official Thai names are often very long.
Apparently English nicknames have become popular only in recent years, and I recall the names of some students: “Bank”, “Ball”, “Ice”, “Golf”, “Play”, “Net”, “Meow”, and “Fifa”.
Other very common Thai nicknames include May (for girls born in the month of May), Ploy (girl’s name meaning precious stone or gem), and Nahm (meaning ‘water’). It is also common for babies to be named after small animals like Nok (bird), Poo (crab) and Kwang (deer).
Thais are a very superstitious people and do much in honour of the gods and to appease ghosts. I recall fondly driving around Phuket Island on my trusty, black Yamaha scooter and seeing spirit houses outside homes and Buddha offerings below statues, decorated with garlands of rich, vibrant colours.
A spirit house is a shrine to the protective spirit of a place and most houses – and even businesses – in Thailand will have one. It is normally in the form of a miniature house or temple, and is mounted on a post. The spirit house is intended to provide a shelter for spirits and offerings are left to keep them happy. Offerings made at spirit houses and Buddha statues include candles, oil lamps, burning incense, flowers, food (mostly fruit), water and cool-drinks.
There are many online resources and blogs detailing the vast range of Thai superstitions and beliefs, many of which centre around animals, such as “If a monitor lizard enters your house, talk to it nicely, and it will bring you fortune” or “If a pet bird makes a noise at night, you will get into an argument.” Or, strangely contradictory to Western belief, “If a bird poops on your head, you’ll be doomed for the rest of the day!”
I have travelled to many countries around the world and never have I met a friendlier people than in Thailand. They have this concept, which is one of the big things that attract me to this nation – it’s the concept of Sanuk, which is the idea that life should be fun. I am also drawn to this culture by their equivalent of Africa’s Hakuna Matata (meaning “no worries” in Swahili); in Thailand there is a saying: mai pen rai which translated means “it doesn’t matter”. Thais often deal with disagreements and misfortunes in this manner which simply means the issue isn’t important enough to stress about.
They simply give a shrug and a smile, say mai pen rai and go on to enjoy their day.
This article first appeared on Computicket Travel.