By Peter McKenzie-Brown
For westerners living in Thailand, much about this country is difficult to fathom. Although Thais are clearly kind, fun-loving and charming, there is something about the country that is quite alien to most of us. Why is this? Here are a few ideas about why Thai culture is so fundamentally different from those in the West.
Thailand shares a complex of cultural and linguistic features with other countries in East Asia. Together, those local characteristics have led to ways of thinking and organizing knowledge that are fundamentally different from those we westerners employ. Explains Richard Nesbitt,
Two utterly different approaches to the world have maintained themselves for thousands of years. These approaches include profoundly different social relations, views about the nature of the world, and characteristic thought processes….The social practices promote the worldviews; the worldviews dictate the appropriate thought processes; and the thought processes both justify the worldviews and support the social practices.East is East, and West is West, and the difficulties of the two meeting are scarcely less baffling than they were when Rudyard Kipling wrote Gunga Din in 1892.
People around the world call Thailand the Land of Smiles, but are Thais really happier than westerners? The evidence suggests they are, even though Thai culture – like most Asian cultures – does not place much store in the pursuit of happiness as a personal virtue . Thais tend to place greater stress on public displays of respect and on (hierarchical) social relationships. However, the place to begin this discussion is with body language, which in Thailand has a few easy-to-accommodate requirements.
Body language: The traditional Thai greeting is called the wai. In general, the younger person greets first, by placing the palms together at chest level and bowing slightly. The higher the placement of the fingertips, the greater the respect; the highest wais are reserved for monks and royalty. If someone should wai you, it is polite to wai back (except to children.)
In giving or receiving gifts or passing things, Thais ordinarily use the right hand. They place the left hand under the right elbow, and bow the head slightly.
The head is considered sacred, since it is the source of intelligence and spiritual substance. Do not touch another person’s head. Because the feet come in contact with the ground, they are considered to be profane, dirty – especially the soles of the feet. They should not be pointed at another person. Pointing the bottom of your feet at someone can be interpreted as an insult – the equivalent of giving someone (in North American culture) the finger.
Remove your shoes before entering a temple or a home, and in offering food to monks on their morning rounds. Rural people, who often go barefoot, wash their feet at the bottom of the stairs to the entrance of the house before going inside.
When sitting on the floor, men often cross their legs. Women tuck their legs to the side. It is rude to sit with your ankle crossed over a knee, or to place an arm over the back of someone’s chair. Also, public displays of affection are frowned upon.
Respect: These displays are important in Thai culture, and they make sense in terms of broader social realities. One is the matter of respect and influence, which plays a critical role in Thai life.
Respect is an important part of all societies, of course. However, in Thailand it comes with a few special features. It seems to be built into social attitudes. This is different from the situation in most western countries, where we routinely say that respect needs to be earned. (In practice, of course, few people ask how celebrities have earned the respect they receive….)
In Thailand, respect comes in two flavours. One is the flavour of wisdom and moral influence. Some people have it automatically. In approximate rank order, the top of the respect totem pole is peopled with the King, the Queen and one’s parents; monks; older people; and teachers and professors.
The second flavour of respect is owed to those with wealth or institutional power. Many Thais believe that wealth is a reward for superior religious merit in previous lives. So is raw power – both police and military. In such an intensely hierarchical society, patron-client relationships are dominant. They can be found in business, military and other areas of social life.
Public displays of respect take many forms. These include tolerance, kindness and generosity and the absence of open conflict in public.
Respect is a good thing. Loss of respect is not. If you cause a person to lose respect in public, that person loses face. Thais take loss of face quite seriously, and it is an important social issue. For the teacher, it can affect classroom dynamics in the sense that students will rarely argue or disagree with their teachers. Also, they are less likely to risk making a mistake in class than western students since a serious error could mean serious loss of face.
Sacred, Human and Profane: The Thai world-view reflects a profound sense of the sacred, the human and the profane. Vertically, these roughly correspond to sky, community and earth. Below us are demons; above us, spirits. The human world stands between the two. One can suggest that the (sacred) head touches the higher world and the (dirty) feet touch the profane.
The sense of sacred, human and profane also exists horizontally. Villages need to have a wat (temple) at hand, because it is sacred space. The farther away from the temple you are, the greater your risk of encountering the spirits of the forest, many of which are not good spirits. Rural villages frequently have carvings at their gates to remind the spirits not to cross the boundary between human and spirit space.
These ideas are represented architecturally in the structure of the wat, which has been strongly influenced by Brahmanism (Hinduism). For example, the chedi in a temple – its usually conical central tower – represents Mount Meru. In the Brahmanist religious classic Ramakien (the Thai version of the Hindu Ramayana), Mt. Meru is the home of the gods. The name of this classic’s hero, Rama, is now applied to the kings of the present dynasty. For example, the present king is the ninth Chakri king, and is known as Rama IX.
Thai Buddhism and the King: The glue that holds Thailand together is its religion and the King. While the country is officially Buddhist, the religion itself is a complex mix of animistic, Brahmanistic and Buddhist elements. It takes a long time to understand.
A striking characteristic of Thai society is its acceptance and tolerance of other religions. This was once illustrated by the fifth Chakri King, Chulalongkorn (Rama V). During the early years of his reign, he learned that the Prince of Chiang Mai opposed the work of Christian missionaries in Thailand’s North. In a famous edict, written in 1878, he wrote that
Religion cannot be an obstacle in secular administration. Every person has the right to choose his own religious belief, and whether or not that that particular religion teaches the truth is a matter that concerns him alone. According to our agreement and in practice in Bangkok we do not make any restrictions concerning religion. If anyone considers the religion of Jesus Christ good and true, he is free to profess it. Whenever the country needs his services there is no reason why a man following Jesus’ teachings should not be able to render them. Religion is no hindrance to a man’s duty to his country.Bearing King Chulalongkorn’s tolerance in mind, it is useful for us to observe a few simple rules.
In the meantime, observe a few simple rules. You should never denigrate Buddhism to a Thai. Show respect for the monks. Their presence greatly enriches Thai life. You should dress respectfully (this means conservatively) when you enter a temple. Women should wear clothing that covers their arms and legs when entering a temple, especially a royal temple. Also, women may not touch images of the Buddha or a Buddhist monk.
The present dynasty of Thai kings has included many remarkable rulers. Thais love and revere their kings in a way that most people from other countries simply cannot understand. The kings of this dynasty have generally deserved the reverence they have received.
The present king, who officially has little power, yields enormous moral influence and authority. Thailand is now celebrating his 60th year as the country’s sovereign. It is extremely rude to say anything disparaging about the king. It is also against the law. Do not do it, even as a joke.