AT A WAT OR MEDITATION CENTRE
Thai wat etiquette, which stems largely from the monk's
code of discipline, forms the national ideal of polite
behavior in many ways.
By following Thai customs, foreigners can show appreciation
to the Thai people and ensure a welcome reception for
future visitors. Gestures of respect also help to develop
kindness and sensitivity to others. The anjali (wai
or pranom) of raising hands to the chest with palms
together is used for (1) Greeting other people; (2) When speaking
with a monk; (3) After offering something to an ordained person;
and (4) Before receiving something from an ordained person. (Laypeople
return the anjali but ordained people are not supposed to return
one from a layperson.) Thais address senior monks as Ajahn, other
monks as Tahn, novices as Nayn. The title can be used by
itself or preceding the Pali name; it's impolite to use the Pali
name without a title.
Thais place great importance on body posture when around
monks, especially if the monks are teaching Dhamma.
Laypeople stoop slightly when walking past a seated
monk. If walking with a monk, they try to walk a little behind.
Laypeople never talk or listen to monks from a higher
position; they sit or at least squat down before addressing
a seated monk. When listening to a sermon or talking with a monk,
women usually sit in a "mermaid" posture; men more often
sit with one leg crossed in front and the other tucked behind; the
kneeling position is polite for both sexes. Cross-legged
positions are less polite and they're normally just
used in meditation. Avoid sitting with arms clasped
around the raised knees (impolite). In a chair, sit erect and attentive.
Laypeople never sit on the asana (raised seat for monks and novices),
same seat or mat as a monk, or on a monk's robes.
Thais have many variations on the kraap (bowing), but
it's always done 3 times in respect for the "Triple
Gem" of Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha. Follow the
example of Thai laypeople around you as to when to bow; usually
one bows before being seated in a hall with a Buddha image
or when meeting with a monk and again before getting up and leaving.
Bowing can be done as a meditation and reflection on
each part of the Triple Gem. Bow slowly and mindfully, bringing
the forehead all the way to the floor, keep buttocks on the heels,
elbows near the knees, and thumbs near the eyebrows.
Giving of the monks' requisites develops respect and
generosity. Thais traditionally bring flowers, candles,
and incense when they visit a wat, though any small gift is appreciated
by the monastic community. Come up with head bowed in
a kneeling or squatting position to within arms' reach
of the monk, then use both hands to place an offering
into the monk's hands. Women must place items on a cloth laid in
front by the monk or have a layman pass them; similarly,
men should respect women with shaved heads who may not want
to receive or hand anything directly. Both men and women place
food directly into the monk's bowl during pindabat. After presenting
an offering, make the anjali. Offerings of money should be placed
in a donation book or given to a designated layperson.
Other Important Customs
(1) Women need to understand the monks' discipline of
not touching or being alone in a closed room with a woman. Women
should try to avoid entering a library or other room
where this could happen.
(2) Men and women sometimes sit in separate areas during
group meetings; you can observe and follow the Thais
of the same gender.
(3) Thais use feet for walking and standing, then tuck
them away at other times; be especially careful never
to point out or stretch out one's feet in the direction of a Buddha
image or monk.
(4) Shoes are generally taken off before
entering a room with a Buddha image or in any residence.
(5) Sleeping pillows should only be used to rest the
head -- considered sacred by the Thais and never for
(6) Food and drink are consumed in a seated or squatting
(7) A bathing cloth must be worn when using outdoor bathing
areas, common in rural areas (Thais are extremely modest).
Thai food may take a bit of getting used to, as some
dishes are highly spiced. Generally you'll find the cuisine
tasty and varied with plenty of both spicy and nonspicy
dishes to choose from. Meals have white rice (sticky
rice in the northeast) with meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, and
sweets. Food offered in remote forest monasteries tends to be simpler
and less varied, though is usually quite good. A few wats and centres
(mentioned in the individual descriptions) offer vegetarian food.
Like the monks and nuns, lay visitors normally eat only between
sunrise and mid-day. This rule of the Buddha's makes
the monastic community easy to support and contributes
to moderation in eating. (If needed for medical reasons, food can
also be taken after mid-day at most places.)
Thais always wear modest clothing that's clean and neat
to a wat or meditation centre. They avoid tight-fitting
or bright-colored clothing that might be distracting to others.
Shirts and blouses have sleeves. Men wear long pants;
women use skirts that come below the knees. Some wats
and centres ask that men wear white clothing and that women
wear either all white or a white blouse and black skirt. Clothing
can occasionally be borrowed or you can outfit yourself
in a local shop at low cost. Even when not required, the wearing
of white serves as a reminder that one is undertaking
a spiritual life.
Thailand has 3 seasons, the cool from Nov. through Feb.,
hot from March through June, and the rainy from July
through October. (The rainy season in the south lasts through
January.) Pronounced variations can occur from region
to region and year to year. The northeast has the most
distinct seasons; lows can get down to 0-15 degrees C (32-59 degrees
F) in the cool months; hot-season highs can exceed 40 degrees C
(104 degrees F). The north has a similar climate, but
doesn't get as hot. Central Thailand stays warm to hot year-round.
The south has a tropical climate; the region rarely sees extremes
of heat or cold. South and central Thailand have high humidity,
which decreases as one moves inland to the northern and northeastern
regions. Any season can be fine for a visit to Thailand -- just
be prepared with warm clothes for the cool season in the north and
northeast, umbrella or poncho for the rainy season, and light weight
cotton clothing for the hot season. People from cool climates will
have an easier time adjusting to the climate if they arrive in the cool
or rainy seasons.
You're likely to stay healthy in Thailand, thanks to
high standards of hygiene and medical care. Malaria does exist in
some outlying areas; current advice urges people to
use netting and repellent from dusk to dawn, when disease-carrying
mosquitos bite, rather than rely on preventative pills.
The pills can have bad side effects; also, they don't
protect against all malaria strains. If you get an unexplained fever,
especially a recurrent one, obtain a blood test right away; a doctor
can then determine the most effective treatment.
You can reach Thailand easily by air from most major
cities in the world and by land from Malaysia and possibly from
Laos. Sorting through all the fares and restrictions
of airlines can be difficult, so let a good travel agent
do the work for you. The best deals can often be found
in cities with large Asian populations; check ads in the Sunday
travel section of newspapers of these cities. Discounted
fares from agents specializing in Asia can be hundreds
of dollars less than the cheapest fare the airline will
quote directly. Carefully check restrictions -- cheap
(and some not so cheap) tickets won't be refundable and generally
don't allow route changes. Some roundtrip tickets allow
only short visits of 45 days to 6 months; shop around
for a one-year fare or just buy a one-way ticket if you might want
to stay longer. Bangkok travel agencies have great deals
on international flights, though be sure to stick to
Thailand has a well-developed public transport system
of train, bus, and air routes. Getting around is easier, more efficient,
and less expensive than in most western and Asian countries. Taxis
offer good value too, though one often has to bargain.
A little Thai helps a lot with local transport. The
Lonely Planet book Thailand; a travel survival kit by
Joe Cummings has good information on getting to and around
the country, as well as details on the sights and culture.
Check visa requirements before you come. Most people
obtain a Tourist Visa (good for 2 months and extendable
one month more). Longer-term visitors can try for a
Non-Immigrant visa (good for at least 3 months and possibly extendable);
a stay of more than 3 months can get complicated with various sponsorship
letters required; ask advice in Thailand. Often it's easiest to
zip down to the Thai Consulate in Penang, Malaysia, for a new
visa, then return for another 3 months; this consulate issues Non-Immigrant
visas more easily than most if you have a good reason
(such as meditation practice).
Ability to speak Thai will allow you to communicate
directly with all of the teachers in Thailand, most of whom speak
little or no English. You'll also benefit from the many
Dhamma talks in Thai available on cassette recordings.
The language has very simple grammar, so most of the effort in speaking
Thai goes into learning vocabulary and the all important
5 tones. The written alphabet can be learned along with
the vocabulary or studied later. One or 2 months of intensive language
study will enable you to understand basic meditation instructions
and much of the material presented in Dhamma talks. Bangkok
has some good language schools.