Every country does things differently — and Thailand is no exception. And these customs and practices could appear bizarre to you had you not been prepared for them.
So, you might want to get a glimpse of several strange Thai cultures before experiencing them first-hand.
There are numerous bizarre Thai customs and cultures. The most notable ones are Thai weddings, funerals, and etiquette. Marriages reflect the remnant of sexism and patriarchy in the country, funerals show the influence of Buddhism on the locals, and etiquette highlights the value of humility.
Of course, there are more incomprehensible traditions in this country. And you should know more about them. Read on to find out the 10 customs foreigners find peculiar in Thailand.
What Are the Unique Traditions in Thailand?
As mentioned, every country does things differently. And Thailand is famous for being “different” from the west. They eat different food, speak different languages, and believe in different entities that make as much sense as ghosts.
Of course, not all of their customs are unexplainable. Some of them are thanks to the influence of religions and beliefs like Buddhism and paganism. The others are due to external cultures like the Chinese.
However, many Thai traditions are straight-up nonsense. So, don’t sweat it if you can’t understand some of them. Just accept them as what they are. After all, not every culture needs to be logical. They are just what people do.
Now that you’re familiar with cultural difference 101, it’s time to get to the meat of the matter.
Here are 10 Thai traditions only locals would understand.
1. Thai Wedding
Wedding days mark a significant change in stages of your life. That is the same for every country. But for Thailand, it also reflects the country’s past relationship with patriarchy.
In the past, patriarchy was a big deal in Thailand. The head of the household was always the most senior male member — usually with multiple wives. Even the ruler of the land was restricted to only male kings.
And with such intense patriarchy, it’s no surprise that traditional Thai weddings reflect that quality too.
On the wedding day, the groom has to form a parade carrying money and other valuables and march to the bride’s house. And at her house, he would give his money to the bride’s parents in exchange for them entrusting her to him.
This might, in a sense, sounds like a slave trade. It is basically the groom purchasing the bride from her parents, expecting her to look after him for the rest of his life.
However, this “purchasing” is also a sign of commitment, showing how much effort the groom is willing to put into his marriage.
How you interpret this practice depends on you. But you cannot deny that it might appear “odd” to many people.
2. Thai Funeral
As you might have heard, Thai people don’t bury the dead. They cremate them. And for many, this practice can put a big question mark on their faces.
This tradition is thanks to Buddhism. Buddhists cremate the body because nothing can prevent it from withering away.
So, to prevent the flesh from rotting and causing diseases, Buddhists “cleanse” the dead body with flames. Of course, natural fires are not strong enough to disintegrate human bones. As a result, the dead’s relatives may keep the remaining bones as a keepsake.
Even Buddha’s body was burnt when he passed away. His bones were claimed to be crystalized and were distributed globally as a symbol of the teaching’s expansion.
In Thailand, people don’t just burn dead bodies. They also burn other things with the dead — like fake money, car miniatures, and whatever the dead used to like.
Locals believe these items will follow the soul of the dead into their next life — whether in heaven, earth, or somewhere else. Basically, it’s for fortune in their reincarnation. This might sound similar to the burning ritual in the Chinese new year.
3. Thai Etiquette
When it comes to etiquette, the world can’t seem to agree on which conduct is proper and which isn’t. Every nation has its own idea of appropriate manners and behaviors. Of course, Thailand is no exception.
The most significant aspect of Thai etiquette is respect. And showing respect in Thailand is not so simple.
There are levels of humility that you should be aware of. Showing the wrong respect to the wrong people may make you appear as either a joke or a punk.
The basis of Thai respect deals with seniority. If you are younger, you need to be humble and well-mannered. The easiest thing you can do is bow your head. Of course, it’s not the best thing you can do, but it should suffice for a foreigner. Bow as often as you can.
If you want to step up your respect game a bit, try performing a “Wai.”
You might have heard of it as the traditional greeting of Thailand. However, it’s not just a greeting tool. You can use it to express various emotions like gratitude and apology. You can view it as an extended version of a bow since “Wai” forces you to lower your head no matter what.
4. Thai Language Tone
Have you ever heard of “tonal languages?” If you’re a native English speaker without any experience in language learning, chances are you’ve never heard of this term. And guess what. Thai is a tonal language.
But what does that mean?
Basically, it means the meaning of each Thai word can change depending on the tone you pronounce it.
There are 5 tones in Thai. And that means you can pronounce one word in 5 different pitches.
If you are not used to picking up the different tones in words, you might have trouble learning Thai. Why? Because you wouldn’t be able to distinguish the subtle difference between 1st tone “cow” (which means news) and 2nd tone “cow” (which means rice).
You can imagine the confusion this can cause.
The tone is one of the biggest obstacles in Thai language acquisition. It takes a long time for you to develop your ears. And it can take even longer to emulate those tones. So, if you want to learn Thai, you should be prepared to tackle this foreign aspect.
5. Thai Humor
Thailand is known as the land of smiles. And it’s largely thanks to local humor.
However, you might find some of their jokes a non-laughing matter. Why? Because it could be racist, sexist, and offensive in general.
Even though many Thai jokes are smart word plays and ingenious puns, they also contain body shaming elements. And if you live in 2022, laughing at those subjects on an international stage is unacceptable.
The problem is the Thai don’t seem to care. Many TV shows and other media still make offensive jokes without any sign of regret. And even the ones who were made fun of don’t seem to be that offended.
In a way, this phenomenon is a great thing. It means that Thai people care less about being offended and focus more on “having a fun time” with the group. But of course, not everyone sees it like that. As a result, Thai humor can become somewhat problematic.
This “not-so-funny” problem is due to Thai people’s awareness. However, these kinds of jokes are gradually fading thanks to the internet. But still, you can hear them daily.
6. Thai School Morning Regiment
Now, it’s time to discuss something more concrete and societal. And you might want to start with schools.
If you have been to Thailand, you might notice a bizarre sight every morning at local schools. Before school started at 8.30, the students would gather in the field and form lines at around 8.00. Then, they will sing the national anthem together.
But not only that, they will continue to chant Buddhist sutras, sing the king’s song, and recite national values together.
These practices are everywhere in Thailand. And it is thanks to the influence of the militaristic government of the country in the past.
During the many coup d’etat in Thai history, the military would take over the country and force nationalistic ideals on the people. Kids are taught to be proud of their nations. Adults’ perceptions would be manipulated. You could say that this was the real-life version of 1984 by George Orwell.
And surprisingly, these practices still exist — especially in school.
However, these regimental activities started to die down after the COVID-19 pandemic. No one wants their kids to gather up every morning anymore.
7. Thai Holidays
There are tons of holidays in Thailand, both official and unofficial. And some of them might sound weird to you.
For example, Mother’s day. It’s on August 8th, and it’s the birthday of the late queen Sirikit.
In the west, mother’s day is not a holiday. It’s just a day you express your love for your mother. But in Thailand, it’s so important that people need to stop working and spend time with their mothers.
The locals usually give “Jasmine” flowers to their mothers since they symbolize pure love.
Teacher’s day is also a thing in Thailand. And on this day, January 16th, all teachers in the country get a break from their duty.
The symbols of this day are the Ixora flowers, eggplant flowers, and Scutch grass. These plants symbolize 3 ideal qualities of a teacher: intellect, humility, and strength.
Another intriguing “holiday” in Thailand is the Chinese New Year or Lunar New Year. It’s not an actual holiday, but many companies allow their employees to take leaves and celebrate this special occasion.
Interestingly, Thailand celebrates 3 new years — International New Year on January 1st, Chinese New Year on the first day of spring of the Chinese calendar, and Thai New Year or Songkran on April 13th-15th.
8. Muay Thai Pre-Fight Ritual
Nowadays, Muay Thai is world famous for its lethality as a martial art. But not everyone knows about its superstitious side.
In Thai culture, Muay Thai is considered an art form. And like most arts in Thailand, it has a sacred spirit that all practitioners must respect.
If you have watched a Muay Thai match, you might have noticed that the fighters performed dances before they exchanged punches.
This is what they call “Wai Kroo.”
“Wai” means “to pay respect,” and Kroo means “Teacher.” This teacher or master refers to the sacred spirit of Muay Thai.
The dance is like an act of asking for permission. The fighters ask the spirit to let them use the art form and give them blessings. Each Muay Thai school has different dances, so the order and choreography depend on where you learn.
All Muay Thai fighters know that the dance is a serious business. The locals believe you could get seriously injured if you didn’t dance before a fight. Of course, this is impossible to prove. But nobody wants to test their luck just because they don’t dance.
9. Thai Traditional Music Pre-Performance Ritual
Like Muay Thai, the traditional music of Thailand has sacred spirits within them. And, of course, you have to pay respect before you start playing.
When practicing, Thai musicians would perform a Wai before they picked up their instruments. There are no chants or movements required for this ritual. However, if they were to perform in a big event, they might have to chant some pagan sutras too.
Some traditional bands take this seriously and hold big ceremonies before every performance. The ceremony could involve long sutras, holy water, and sacred powder — depending on the bands’ beliefs.
Moreover, the instrument itself is considered sacred. The locals believe that the spirit is literally inside the instruments — not just in the art form. This means you must not touch it with your feet or do anything disrespectful.
With such a strict belief, most Thai traditional musicians would behave themselves whenever they play or practice. Even though they are a jerk off-stage, they will be prim and proper once they start playing.
In the western world, musical instruments are tools for recreation and fun. You will never see anyone prostrate to an electric guitar or a saxophone.
Want to learn more about traditional Thai Music? Check out our Guide to Local Thai Classical Music.
10. Thai Sex
Frankly, Thai people and sex have a strange relationship. Why? Because sex is somewhat taboo.
Many people see sex as mischievous. Only those with lustful hearts can perform such a deed before their marriage. Thus, most Thai tend to keep their virginity until they are in their late 20s (both men and women).
However, that’s not always the case. Since sex is such a forbidden topic, nobody discusses it openly. So when puberty hits, many adolescents try their hands on sex without knowing the consequences.
And as a result, unwanted pregnancy and HIV have become a massive problem in Thailand. This causes people to look at sex in an even more negative light.
So, Thai people still rarely discuss sex. Even though most people know that it is a natural part of life, they still feel awkward talking about it.
It Is What It Is
Again. Every country does things differently, and Thailand is no exception. No matter how bizarre the local traditions are, accept them.
Don’t let one-sided judgment cloud your mind. Even though most of the mentioned customs may sound ridiculous, you should not criticize people for being “normal” in their homeland. And believe it or not? There are even more weird cultures in Thailand than these.
So, you should acknowledge that “it’s just different.”
Like always, if you want to learn more about Thailand, stay with ThaiGuider. You might learn something you never knew about this unique country.