How To Stay Polite In Bangkok (Without Going Insane)

I come from a large family of rather loud but affectionate Filipinos. Unfortunately, a lot of the aspects that make me Filipino are not considered socially acceptable in Thailand. Learning about the dos and don’ts has been like trying to dance with two left feet.

Here are some of the things I’ve discovered:

Saying Hi with a Wai Isn’t Always Necessary

During the first few weeks of my stay in Bangkok, I got a little too overzealous and bowed to everyone I came across: the neighbors, the roving guards, even the motorbike guys. I thought I was just being polite. They never told me there were conditions on when you should do it.

Apparently there is no need to wai people you don’t know, or kids. The same goes for people who provide services like your waiter, plumber or the tuk tuk guy.

When in doubt, the best thing you can do is to imitate a local. Unfortunately, the rules can change when locals know you’re a farang.

At a nearby weekday market, my cousin and I once came across a stall selling dried citrus slices and tea leaves. A slightly older lady approached us as I took a glance at the merchandise. My cousin didn’t wai so I didn’t either. The store clerk proceeds to her script of explaining the many health benefits of tea, which my cousin dutifully translates to me in English.

Noticing I wasn’t Thai, the older lady shifts her full attention to me and gives an impromptu presentation on the wai. She ended her lecture by asking me to wai to her. Just me, not my teenage cousin standing right next to me.

We assume she was just being extra helpful.

Try to Stay Calm at all Costs

Thais don’t like confrontation or people who make a fuss, complain or get angry, especially in public.

They embody that much desired mix of mai pen rai and greng jai: everything’s going to be alright. Don’t ask questions and just go with the flow. There’s no need to get upset or to cause a commotion. It’s the Thai way of handling things.

I once accompanied one of my cousins to a of pharmacy right outside Siriraj Hospital in pursuit of some painkillers. After purchasing the tablets, we crossed a street to look for a taxi. There was no actual line, just a stream of people casually standing near the street. Most of the people standing there had the same goal: be the first to get into a cab. It doesn’t even matter who hailed the taxi. When you see it, just run towards it.

After an hour of unsuccessful attempts to hail a taxi, we see one screeching to a halt just a few meters away. Finally, we got one. There was nobody else in between us and the cab.

As we were approaching the vehicle, a guy pops out from one of the shops on our right and gets into the cab. The taxi speeds away.

“I want to throw my shoe at him,” I said, only half-jokingly.

Jai yen yen, pi. Jai yen yen.” It’s a phrase you will hear more and more the longer you stay in Thailand.

Start singing “Let It Go” to pass the time.

Keep Your Voice Down

The Visayans/Cebuanos are one of the loudest ethnic groups in the Philippines. It’s like we’re always at war with someone, even when talking about something as mundane as the weather.

Although my cousins had already met most of their Filipino relatives, they still weren’t used to hearing us talk. There were a few instances where my younger cousin would come in and ask if we were arguing.

Jai yen yen, pi. Jai yen yen,” she once said while peeking from the corner of a door. We were talking about food at the time.

That was the situation with just 2 Filipinos in one room. Now imagine 20 of us inside the same house.

When the older one turned 18 last year, a few members of the Filipino clan came to Bangkok to celebrate. Having stayed in the Philippines for many years, my Thai uncle knew what to expect when a village of Filipinos came to visit. The neighbors were informed weeks in advance and told not to be alarmed if they heard any loud noises coming from Uncle’s house. No need to call the emergency hotline. Nobody’s getting killed. It’s just a few relatives coming over.

The neighbors understood. They had already gotten used to Popoy’s laughs by then. Popoy was a distant relative who stayed with the family in Bangkok for almost two decades. Her boisterous laugh could be heard from three houses down. They were told there would be a lot more like Popoy staying in Uncle’s house for a few weeks.

Good thing they didn’t ask for earplugs.

No Public Displays of Affection

I come from a family that likes to hug, kiss, hold hands, ruffle each other’s hair and indulge in other similar acts of affection.

While in Bangkok, I have to be aware of what I was doing with my uncle and cousins, especially in public. Although my cousins have gotten used to being hugged and kissed by other relatives, they were mostly on the receiving end. Figuring out what is acceptable and when has resulted in some awkward fails.

Exhibit A: My cousin comes home from school. We walk towards each other. My hands are outstretched while hers are by her side. I don’t notice any change in her facial expression. Maybe she’s doesn’t want a hug right now, I figured. Switch to tap on shoulder. Still no change in her facial expression. We go our separate ways.

Exhibit B: It’s Christmas time. My younger cousin gives me a gift. I run to give her a hug. She lies on the floor and begs me not to give her one. Her sister looks just as confused as I am. I back away.

To reduce the chances of any future fails, I learned to ask whenever I want to give them a hug.

This way both sides know what’s happening next. It’s also safer. I don’t wish to end up with a broken nose for trying to be spontaneous. Other forms of affection are still a bit hit and miss but at least we got the hugging part down.

And so the dance continues…


Featured image is by Georgie Pauwels (CC BY 2.0 licence)



About Author

Stacey is an avid traveler and photographer who has made Bangkok her second home. She writes but won't admit that she's a writer. Follow her on Twitter @msguidedtravels.

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