How to “Wai” Properly in Thailand
Cultural practices are important to observe when you’re going to other countries like Thailand.
Not only it shows respect to the locals, but it will also save you from embarrassing and awkward moments.
Just imagine if you give out your hand for a handshake or lean in for a hug but only received a prompt nod?
To avoid this kind of awkward and borderline painful greetings in Thailand, you should be familiar with the “wai” and how to do it properly.
What is wai?
Wai is the traditional greeting practice in Thailand. But it’s more than just a simple “hello” in English or waving your hand at someone. Giving the wai is also a way to show someone respect.
This gesture goes back to the 12th century. People would greet by giving a wai to show each other that they’re not holding a weapon and that they come in peace.
It also originated in Buddhism and has similar origins to the namaste in Hinduism. With this gesture, you show that the other party is treated as an equal human being.
How to wai?
Giving a wai depends on the circumstances but the basic gesture is putting your palms together in front of your chest.
Make sure that each finger on your hand is touching the same finger on the other. Then, bring your hands to your middle chest and slightly bow your head.
That is the basic wai. If you want, you can also say “Sawasdee”, which is “hello” in Thai.
When should you or should not wai?
Just like in your home country where you won’t go around saying “hello” to everyone, it’s not necessarily that you do the wai at every person you come across.
As a foreigner, you’re likely exempted from nuanced courtesies because not every local expects you to know their tradition.
But, that doesn’t mean that you can’t put your best efforts to understand their culture. After all, that’s part of traveling.
Generally, you’ll wai whenever you’re greeting someone, giving thanks, apologizing, or saying goodbye.
If you visit shrines, temples, or any place that symbolizes the Monarchy, expect to see locals doing the gesture.
But, as a tourist, you’re not obligated to do so.
You should not wai when dealing with anyone in the service industry regardless of their age.
This means that if your waiter, taxi driver, or doorman greeted you in wai, there’s no need to return the gesture back.
This may seem rude to those who aren’t Thai, but inappropriate use of this gesture will make others feel bemused.
Some might even take a bit of offense at it. So, instead of giving back the wai, you can simply respond with a “hello” or a smile to acknowledge the gesture.
If you’re feeling lost or confused, just mimic what others do. If they used the gesture wai as a form of greeting to you, then it’s only polite to do the same.
But if they greeted you with a simple “hello” or a wave, then it seems silly as a foreigner to wai.
How you should wai to:
Here are some detailed explanations on whether you should or should not wai and how to do it.
How to wai to an older person?
As stated, wai is a symbol of respect and the position of your hands shows your level of respect.
In Asian countries, especially in Thailand, they never fail to show respect to the person who is older than them, regardless of the age gap.
Age is a social ranking in Thailand and that reflects in giving wai.
When giving the wai to older people, start with the prayer position and bow your head forward so your nose touches your thumbs.
People usually do this gesture quickly, but a slower style is used to give the gesture a greater meaning.
How to wai to someone with higher standing?
When you’re greeting someone with a higher standing or position than you, the same kind of wai is used when greeting someone older than you.
Again, your nose should touch the tip of your thumbs and your index fingers to your forehead.
Make sure that your fingers on both hands are aligned with each other.
How to wai to a younger person?
If a child gives you a wai as a greeting, then there’s no need to return the gesture.
As stated, age is a social ranking in Thailand and wai is a mark of respect to elders and those who are in a higher position than you.
Instead of giving wai, you can acknowledge their gesture in other ways. You can just nod, smile at them, or put your palms together without bowing.
How to wai to royalty and monks?
If you’re in temples, shrines, or just happened to encounter a monk or a royalty, the highest form of wai should be given.
When giving wai to the monks, your hands should slide up until the thumbs touch your eyebrows.
The casual nod when giving wai turns into a low bow as a real sign of reverence. When it comes to royalty, you should bow or curtsey while slowly making the gesture of wai.
The royalty and the monks are not expected to return the gesture to you so don’t feel offended or let down.
They might acknowledge this by a wave or a nod — the same way you don’t return the gesture back when the children give wai to you.
How to wai to another foreigner?
You don’t need to wai when you encounter another foreigner because they are not Thais.
Plus, the locals will definitely ridicule you for that. Some might even see this as a mockery to their respected gestures.
So when you see another foreigner, stick to the usual ways of greeting.
How to wai when holding something?
Don’t give in to panic and drop your things just to wai. Not only you’ll look ridiculous, but the experience will also definitely make it awkward for both parties. Instead, just do the gesture normally.
Even if you have your phone or a camera in your hands, just put it between your palms.
Anything can end up in the middle as long as the gesture still looks like you’re giving wai.
But if the object is on the bigger scale, a slight nod will suffice for giving the wai to your peers.
For people who are significantly socially ranked above you, then it’s best to put your things down and wai properly.
Traditions and customs will definitely overwhelm foreigners, and no one expects them to follow it perfectly.
Just like in Thailand, the locals don’t expect you to gesture the wai. However, they will appreciate you doing so.
Other Thai customs to observe
While giving the wai and observing how to properly do it might not be required for foreigners and travelers in Thailand, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t know other customs and traditions that you should observe.
Give respect to the locals and the country you’re visiting by learning about their culture.
Here are some other Thai customs and traditions that you should observe when visiting Thailand:
- Absolute reverence to the monarchy. Thailand’s royalty is highly respected, especially the King. His images are everywhere so if you’re thinking of having fun with them, please don’t do it. It’s important that you should also stand when the King’s anthem is played.
Lese-majeste laws apply in Thailand and offenses are punishable by imprisonment. Lese-majeste is a French term that means “to do wrong to majesty”. So don’t do anything that may seem offensive to the state.
- Religious practices. Around 95% of Thailand’s population are Buddhists so while their practices might seem confusing to you, always respect it. It wouldn’t hurt to do some background research on it too because chances are, you’ll visit at least two or three Buddhism-related places while you’re in Thailand.
- Acting properly. Some actions are offensive to Thai, especially those who are religious so you should refrain from doing it. One of them is touching one’s head. While you might do this normally to children to show affection, this gesture is offensive to do in Thailand. This is based on Buddhist beliefs where the head is the most valued part of the body so it must be treated with respect.
- Dress code. While most tourist areas in Thailand tolerate all types of attire, the temples and shrines are holy places so you should take note of their dress code. You may be denied entrance to any religious establishment when you’re wearing sleeveless, miniskirts, shorts, and flipflops. This applies to any gender.
But if a temple is part of your tour and you don’t want to wear pants the whole day, chances are, there will be locals outside selling fabric wraps so you can put it around your waist.
Thailand is a beautiful country that prides itself on its customs and traditions.
As a foreign traveler, it’s a basic respect for you to observe them as best as you can. After all, exploring the country’s culture is again part of traveling.