New country, new customs – so many ways you can embarrass yourself and others. So what are the most obvious do’s and don’ts in Thailand? Thais are very used to foreigners – especially so on Koh Samui. While they’re a forgiving lot, you’ll do yourself (and your country’s good name) a big favour to learn basic Thai cultural ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’.
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The top 10 do’s and don’ts in Thailand
1. DON’T forget the mosquito repellent
Let’s start here – and totally avoid mosquito bites. For this to be a comprehensive list about perfect Thailand preparation … it needs to include mosquito repellent. While malaria is only a concern in small parts of Thailand (typically areas tourists don’t visit), you’ll want to stay safe from any mosquitoes carrying dengue fever which is slightly wider spread – one of those “million to one” luck-of-the-draw kind of things.
Mosquito questions? Get answers to all your mosquito questions, discover my favourite repellent, and learn how to win the mosquito battle.
2. DO dress properly
Make sure to dress properly when visiting Thai temples and royal palaces – shoulders and knees covered for both sexes. The more formal your clothes, the better.
Dress code questions? Learn exactly what to wear in Thailand – including easy and foolproof outfits for when you visit Thai temples, the beach, Bangkok and more.
3. DO … your homework
The books above are a fantastic intro to Thai culture, and you’ll arrive more informed than 95% of other tourists to Thailand. You’ll even learn how, when and why to wai.
Culture questions? Don’t miss these wonderful books about Thailand – including novels, memoirs, travel guides, cookbooks and more.
4. DON’T expose yourself
Well, obviously you’re not a flasher – but this includes not sunbathing topless in Thailand (soooo not ok), or wearing revealing clothing.
Taking the exposure idea a step further – don’t skip (or skimp on) your sun protection, either. Koh Samui is just 650 miles north of the equator (Phuket is only 550 miles or just under 8 degrees). It’s supremely burnable, skin-roasting territory – even on a cloudy day, but especially so near the water or anything reflective (like a glass table top).
Make sure to pack a wide-brimmed sunhat, a UPF top for swimming/snorkelling/paddling and an ample supply of your preferred sunscreen – ideally SPF 30 or higher. My favourites are above, and they’re all cruelty-free.
See what to wear in Thailand for a better idea of local dress codes, as well as tips for what to wear on the beach. Note that breastfeeding falls in the “not in public” category, as does excessive PDA. (What’s excessive? In Thailand, pretty much anything beyond holding hands).
5. DO take off your shoes
Feet are considered dirty in Thailand; in many places (like small shops and private homes) shoes are left outside. Quick tip – it’s common to leave your shoes outside your hotel room as well. If you’re ever unsure, it’s perfectly fine to stick your head inside a shop and ask before entering, or just look for other shoes left outside. There are often signs in English as well.
Shoe questions? As you’ve realised – you’ll be taking your shoes on and off dozens of times per day. As such, it’s important to bring the right kind of “easy access” shoes to Thailand. Learn exactly what to pack – and what to leave at home – in the best shoes to wear in Thailand.
6. DO respect the monarchy
Thailand’s beloved monarchy is a particularly vital chapter of Thailand – Culture Smart!, with lots of interesting background detail. If you’re going to do anything right in Thailand – make sure it’s this one.
7. DO keep your patience
Slow service? Things not going to plan? Keep your patience and stay calm, no matter what – Thailand is the land of happy, go lucky.
8. DON’T point
Gesture to something, if necessary, with all four fingers extended and the thumb flat against the palm. Again, this is another difficult one – pointing is second nature to many Westerners.
Extra credit? Ready to score some bonus points? Learn how to wai.
9. DON’T put your feet up
Thai etiquette means not putting your feet up on anything not meant for feet (like a coffee table or a chair). Feet = dirty. Keep yours on the floor. (What if you’re sitting on the floor? Tuck them beneath you or beside you, away from those nearby).
Also be aware that pointing to anything, or pushing things around with your feet is really, really rude in Thailand. This is perhaps the hardest “DON’T” for Westerners because we’re in the habit of using our feet much more than we realise. (Spot the next time you use your feet to kick a cupboard door closed, or pulled a shoe towards you before putting it on – you never knew you did that, right?). Even if you know not to do so, it’s still hard to catch yourself.
Fancy footwork: Try to get in the habit of ‘no feet’ a few weeks before you leave for Thailand (if you have children, they might enjoy policing you).
10. DON’T touch anyone’s head
In Thailand, don’t touch anyone’s head – not even children. It’s the most important part of the body. This includes not ruffling a child’s hair or gently patting someone’s head.
*Bonus* DON’T invalidate your travel insurance
Dangerous animals vs. your travel insurance? You’ll have every opportunity to endorse all kinds of animal abuse in Thailand; activities like riding an elephant, cuddling a tiger (a terrible idea?!) or watching monkey tricks are widely available.
Few travel insurance policies will cover any of the many ways such animals can harm, chew, drown or properly maul you. And yet: There are dozens of places in Thailand where you can pay to feed and fraternise with all of them. (Quick list: World Nomads includes elephants, tigers and big cats, hippopotami, crocodiles, alligators, sharks, bears and deadly snakes as insurance-voiding dangerous animals).
Travel insurance policies vary – so make sure you read the fine print before your departure. Search for ‘safari tours’ and/or ‘dangerous animals’ and know where you stand. If in doubt, get in touch with your provider to be absolutely sure what constitutes ‘handling’ or ‘working with’ such an animal.
The same advice goes for any adventure sports (including Muay Thai) and especially riding scooters/motorbikes. Make sure you know your policy’s requirements for bike licenses, helmet use and alcohol. (For example, a motorbike accident without a helmet might mean zero insurance coverage). Double check, then triple check, details like this before you leave for Thailand.
A final “don’t” if you’re an animal-lover headed to Thailand: Don’t visit any animal attraction, or participate in any animal activities before you’ve done your research about (A) what you’re supporting, ethically-speaking and (B) whether such activities invalidate your travel insurance. You can maybe sense where I stand on the subject – so ‘know before you go don’t go’.
More do’s and don’ts in Thailand
Thailand do’s and don’ts are easy, right? They will be soon, with a quick read of the above – and a little practice. Give yourself huge kudos for doing this research – you’ll soon see that many tourists to Thailand haven’t bothered.
Worth reading: For a tremendously comprehensive primer to the do’s and don’ts of Thai culture, I recommend downloading a Kindle copy of Kenny Yee’s Do’s and Don’ts in Thailand (or grabbing a used paperback on Amazon – there always seem to be a few available). The cover is a bit quirky, but it’s a really useful book.
If you’re planning ahead and love earning a gold star for effort, don’t miss these easy ways to improve your trip (or at least avoid a few dozen mosquito bites):
- Dress code: Exactly what to wear in Thailand
- Koh Samui : The Koh Samui Guide
- $100 or less: 17 ways to improve your Thailand trip