Hi all. Often people ask about the things to do, and then the things not to do in Phuket. A lot of this is already available in guide books and etc, and I don’t want to repeat all of that, but I have found that there are a few things that are often overlooked. So, at the risk of being a bit preachy, here are a few of my hints on what to do, and what not to do. If I offend anyone, Thai or non-Thai, sorry. My personal experiences of close to 20 years in Phuket are all I have to go on and may well not apply to other areas of Thailand. So without further delay let’s jump right in and over the what not to do in Phuket.
Remember this: a huge cultural difference between Thais (and maybe a lot of Asians) and Westerners is not wanting to cause you to lose face. So, very often, the locals will not tell you when you do something wrong, and if you ask, they are more likely to say “Never mind” than to tell you that you are doing the wrong thing. Telling you when you are wrong might make you lose face. So, you could continue to behave inappropriately, thinking it’s okay when it isn’t. Furthermore, don’t cause Thai people to lose face, as this can end very, very badly. Be aware and sensitive to what other people are doing.
Another aspect of losing face runs counter to Western thinking. When a mistake happens in Thailand, people often offer a lame excuse instead of admitting fault to avoid losing face. The polite thing to do is to accept the excuse and move on with your day. Sometimes the excuse may seem worse than the mistake itself, but it’s best to just accept it and not try to change anything. However, from a Western perspective, an obviously false excuse is seen as an insult and can be frustrating. It’s important not to get angry as this can cause everyone to lose face and make the situation worse. Just go with the flow and stay calm.
This had me confused at first, I thought it meant pointing at people with your toes, which is unlikely in any event, but there is a lot more to this than pointing with your toes. It all relates to the hierarchy, mentioned above. What this all means, is that aiming the soles of your feet towards a person is insulting, it is saying other people are beneath you. Easy way to handle this is not to put your feet up anywhere near Thai people, or even your own friends and family, unless you are sure no one is going to walk on the other side of your feet. I have seen people with their feet up on a restaurant table, this is bad behaviour anywhere, but extremely offensive here. Be careful of this when sitting on the floor. Easy enough if you can sit cross legged, but otherwise you can get your legs in a real tangle trying not to offend someone’s grandmother sitting in the corner.
Never step over people, not even very small children. Seriously, it may apply to cats and dogs as well, I have to check up on this one. This gets complicated in a Thai house, where people like to have a nap around the middle of the day. And the floor is the coolest place to lay down. And laying down in the doorway is the best way to catch any breeze. See where this is going? Even if the house is on fire (see candles, above), I doubt a Thai person would step over another person to escape. Find your own way to navigate this one, but if Thai people know you want to pass they will usually move out of your way. Give them time to do this. This also applies to situations with stairs, ladders and more. Be aware of your surroundings and don’t allow your feet to be above another person. Don’t touch people or articles with your feet.
Other things that can cause upset are washing your undies or bathers at your resort, and hanging them up over the shower curtain rail. Easily done, but it is insulting to the cleaners if their head has to pass under your underpants. I bet heaps of you have done that one, me too!
These are the three most dangerous words in Thai. If you’re speaking Thai, the equivalent phrase is “tam jai”. If you ask a Westerner, say “Is it safe to cross the road here?” and they say “Up to you”, a Westerner may well presume that it is safe to do so. However, in Thailand, if a Thai person says “up to you”, it usually means “That is a really stupid idea and I am having nothing to do with it. You are not going to blame me for whatever happens next”. So, be careful of “up to you”, as it may well not mean what you think it does. Thai people generally (my wife is an exception) do not like telling you how to behave or what to do. It might make you lose face. In fact, Thai people may prefer that you get run over than you lose face. So, take caution with this phrase.
Use the damn spoon to put the rice in your mouth. It is not polite to put a fork in your mouth. Took me ages to work this one out. Makes sense, you can get more rice in a spoon than on a fork.
For women, don’t come into physical contact with a male monk. Ever. I presume it goes the same with men and female monks. I am not going to tell people to be respectful, if you don’t know that already you won’t bother to read this.
Spirit houses are commonly found in Thailand and are considered to be sacred places that deserve respect. They are usually located outside resorts, Buddhist homes, and other areas. Sometimes old spirit houses are left under auspicious trees, and you may see a heap of them occasionally on your travels in Thailand. While both Muslim and Buddhist people believe in spirits, Muslim people don’t believe in the need to build spirit houses and leave offerings. It is important not to touch spirit houses or any offerings left for the spirits. Additionally, it’s essential to relate to spirit houses just as if there are people in there looking at you. You should avoid staring or pointing, as it might offend the spirits themselves.
There are all kinds of spirits, including those of dead people, kind spirits, and bad news spirits. Different types of spirits have different types of houses. Some small cement spirit houses have one leg, some have two, and some have four legs, each style denoting a different type of spirit. Some have ladders so the spirits can walk up, while others have no ladders because the spirits concerned can fly. There is much more to it, and it’s worth researching them further. In conclusion, be respectful and aware of the spirits and their houses.
Phuket has a population of about 30% Muslim people, according to statistics. You will see many mosques all over the place, and five times a day, starting at dawn, you will hear the call to prayer over loudspeakers. If being woken at dawn by the call to prayer bothers you, make sure you find a resort not too close to a mosque. It is fine to ask. I have known people to become upset by being woken up at dawn by the call to prayer. Don’t be upset, just suck it up. It is the way it is. Be respectful even if you don’t like it.
You probably know that public displays of affection are frowned upon. On the other hand, from my observation, when touching does occur it is very often significant, but not in a sleazy way. When a situation is tense and likely to result in an argument, it is not unusual to see two men clasp the arm of one or the other as a show of goodwill. Other forms of touching happen, non-sleazy, and they really are a sign of respect/like/affection. I have been sitting with male Thai friends, and they have placed their hands very high on my thigh. Nothing sleazy, it is an act of sincerity. But I don’t suggest you reciprocate, there are probably rules about this that I don’t know.
Among Thais, you are not likely to see a lot of hugging, and moo moo kisses as is often the case with Westerners, but when touching happens, it shows true sincerity. Whatever happens in the girly bars is something else, but let’s not go there.
Money is viewed differently in Thailand than it is in the West. Giving money to someone is often seen as a sincere gesture here, whereas it’s not usually viewed as such in Western culture. For example, giving money as a gift for a death in the family, weddings, birthdays, romantic relationships, or circumcisions (for Muslim boys) is common. Additionally, if a driver is involved in a traffic accident (even if they’re not at fault), it’s not unusual for them to give money to the other party if they’re injured. This act of generosity isn’t an admission of fault, but rather a sign of sincerity. For instance, if a driver hits a motorbike/sidecar on the wrong side of the road, they may give money to help the injured party, even if the driver is not at fault. This gesture shows that the driver is a good person.
It is polite conversation to ask you how much you paid for things. So if your waiter at breakfast asks how much your new bracelet cost, they are being polite. Don’t be offended. Likewise questions about how much money you earn, do you own or rent your house, how much rent do you pay, are all polite conversation, even though a westerner might find it offensive. Answer however you want, but here the question is not rude at all.
This is an interesting one. Unfortunately, westerners are often not considered as clean as Thai people. From what I have seen, showering twice a day is essential. Clean clothes every day are essential. Thai people pay close attention. Have you ever left your resort room and the outside or cleaning staff looked at you, then spoke to each other and laughed? They are probably discussing whether you have just showered or not, and if you are wearing the same shirt you had on the day before. This is one of the things Thai people won’t tell you, you might lose face. Of course, being unclean makes you lose face as well. Up to you. And use the bum gun!
BEWARE! Never, ever, never give someone the finger. This is literally a deadly insult. People have been shot. I mean that. No matter what the provocation, never give someone the finger, flip the bird or whatever you call it. Not even as a joke. Don’t do it!
As I said, this hierarchy applies to other things and people’s physical selves. A holy book will be kept on a high shelf. On a person, the head is more important than the feet. And by association, this means unwritten laws (until now maybe) such as:
If things go wrong, and they will, don’t get angry. Once you find out what is going on, you will most often find that the mistake was yours, even though you had no idea. But mostly, losing your temper is the best way to lose an argument. Anyone seeking to help you resolve a problem, will simply turn on the spot and walk away if you get angry. And worst of all, losing your temper is a massive loss of face for the angry person. In most cases just go with the flow, you’re on holiday, the problem is probably not that important and the chances are the Thai people you are dealing with are trying to help you resolve the problem.
If they aren’t, it may well be because of some rule the “boss” has made. For instance, my wife Cha Cha once got a meal (Ostrich, for goodness sake!) that was seriously and totally inedible. I was getting hot under the collar as the restaurant staff insisted we pay for a meal neither of us could eat. Turns out the boss had a rule if we didn’t pay, the staff had to pay. So I paid, but I didn’t go back to that restaurant. The thing is, you don’t know what constraints the staff are under, it isn’t always the same as at home. Remember, you’re on holiday, take it easy.
Being fat. There I said it. A little bit fat is “pompooie”, which is used in a teasing or endearing way. Really obese is “oo-an”. Anyway, the point being that Thais are quite relaxed about talking about being fat. I have been introduced to people by their nick name, ie “Pompooie”, and been told “she used to be small, but now she is fat!” Everybody laughs except for me, I try to hide. Also, if you go to buy a shirt or whatever and the assistant says “you need fat size”, they are not being rude, just matter of fact. Don’t take offence.
So, enjoy your time in Thailand, have a cold one and start planning your next boat trip with Phuket Sail Tours.
I will add to this as things come to mind.