The vast majority (95%) of Thais are Buddhists although there are many Malay decent Muslims in the south and even hill tribe Karen) in the north and western Burmese border.
The traditional Thai greeting is the “wai” (like putting your hands together to pray, but higher and lowering your head). It is well known that Thais love their King and find any detrimental action or word against either him, or their religion particularly offensive. You should always pay utmost respect to both.
When the national anthem is being played, you should always stand up straight and smart. Also, always respect religious leaders and priests. It may be “OK” to hold onto your seat in a crowded bus with old and pregnant women but if a priest enters, the priority goes to the priest! The Thais do this out of respect, even love, not command and should be followed suit to honor their undoubted honor.
Thai culture is vastly different from Western culture and so before setting foot in Thailand you should find out about the essential “do’s” and “don’ts”.
Do Smile: Thailand is known as the land of smiles. Thais do not necessarily smile about something like we do in the west. They smile for a variety of other reasons too. To say hello or thank you, to make a request, to apologize, to smooth over bad feelings or to show embarrassment.
Do show respect for the King: Thai people show great respect for their king and they expect visitors to do so too. The national anthem is played twice a day (typically at 8am and 6 pm) and also before every film at the cinema. Everyone is expected to stand whilst it is playing. You should never insult or joke about the king or royal family.
Do show respect for their main religion, for the Buddha, and for monks. Shorts or tank tops should not be worn in a temple, and shoes should be removed before entering. It is considered very improper for women to touch a monk.
Do not touch anyone on the head. The head is considered to be very sacred.
Do not point your feet at anyone or anything. This includes closing and opening doors with our feet.
Do not step over anyone instead walk around them.
Another thing not commonly practiced in the West is that Thai people wash the top of the body clothes separately from the bottom half i.e. shirts and sweaters go in one wash and trousers, skirts and undergarments in another. This is because, as Buddhists, they believe the lower part of the body is unclean whilst the top part is sacred. This is part of their religion. A Buddhist Thai would also never take off or put on a skirt over their heads for the same reason.
The same rule applies when hanging out the washing on the line. Clothes from the lower part of the body are not placed next to or higher than clothes worn on the top part of the body.
The same rule applies to drying yourself after washing. If you take a shower you should not use the same towel for the whole body, the correct way is to use one for the upper part (the head) and another for the lower parts.
‘A symbol of beauty is the whiteness’.
A sunbathed skin is not appreciated by Thai people because it is the symbol of the peasant, the poor person often working in the fields or on the streets. If one has dark skin it means that he/she is working outside. Thais believe the paler you are, the higher you are in status. It is strange but true, as Westerners look forward to basking in the sun whereas Thai people try to escape from it. For that reason, it is quite common to see a Thai person with an umbrella when the sun is shining.
Thai culture, however, is changing with time because of the contact with Western civilization. Although most Thais stick to their own culture, some are influenced by what they see on television and from tourists. It is therefore not uncommon to be greeted with a handshake rather than a ‘wai’ in the main cities and towns.